The bluest of college basketball’s blue bloods are back at it, looking to add to an already overflowing trophy case. Kentucky is two wins from the game’s first 40-0 season – and more importantly its ninth national championship. The Wildcats’ next hurdle, Wisconsin in the Final Four, may be its most challenging.
UK survived a three-game stretch in which Louisville, Ole Miss (OT) and Texas A&M (double OT) pushed the Cats to the brink. Late season back-to-back road wins at Florida and LSU may become footnotes in a historic season. Ditto the Midwest Regional victory against Notre Dame.
|(1) Wisconsin vs. (1) Kentucky|
|8:49 p.m. ET Saturday | TBS|
|TEAM STREAM -- Wisconsin broadcast on truTV|
|TEAM STREAM -- Kentucky broadcast on TNT|
Or, maybe Wisconsin has the big-bodied talent to end Kentucky’s run …
Kentucky’s strength, aside from substantial depth, is its incredible length; 10 players are 6-foot-6 or taller, including 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. The matchup problems UK presents – and its deftness around the basket – have been a difference-maker against many teams.
Wisconsin may prove to be different. The Badgers also are long and athletic, most notably Naismith Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky (7-0), Sam Dekker (6-9) and Nigel Hayes (6-8).
Wisconsin is going to shoot the 3-point ball. Three players have attempted more than 100 shots beyond the arc and two others – including Kaminsky and Hayes – have 90-plus. If the Badgers can draw out the Kentucky defense, it may open up the Wisconsin offense even more.
Kentucky is comfortable allowing the opposition to charge to the basket – and then swatting away the shot. Towns (87) and Cauley-Stein (65) have combined for 152 blocks and Johnson has 36; the trio has 76 percent of the team’s 264 blocked shots.
Forcing Towns and Cauley-Stein off the blocks and to the perimeter to guard against Kaminsky and Dekker will be part of the Wisconsin game plan. Shutting down the Badgers’ long-range shooting will be paramount for Kentucky. … In a highly anticipated battle of big men, this matchup will not be held only in the paint; it will be a full court game of cat and mouse.
Kentucky boasts several NCAA tournament records – appearances, games, wins, among others – but the next step toward etching its paw print on history is most important. The Wildcats’ depth (the team’s second-leading scorer, Devin Booker, has not started a game this season) and athleticism have carried the team to the Final Four. There is no reason to believe John Calipari will mess with success under an even brighter spotlight.