In many ways, Kentucky-Wisconsin isn’t a rematch.
The coaches are the same, the jerseys are the same and many of the players are the same from the Wildcats’ 74-73 win in last year’s Final Four. But at the same time, these are two different teams meeting in the national semifinal.
The most obvious change is with Kentucky. The Wildcats reached last year’s Final Four without an injured Willie Cauley-Stein and before freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis arrived.
And for Wisconsin, Nigel Hayes — now one of Wisconsin’s top three players — logged only seven minutes in last year’s Final Four game.
Even the returners are different, says Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I just saw (Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky) out in the hallway, and I said, ‘Look, I'm so tired of looking at your tape right now,’” Calipari said. “I said to Bo how much better he's gotten in a two-year period is almost scary. He and (Sam) Dekker both. They both have a swagger about them, they both have a high belief in their teams. They know how they're going to play.”
The development of Kaminsky and Dekker and the presence of Cauley-Stein and Towns sets up one of the most anticipated Final Four matchups in several years.
The nation’s top offensive team and top defensive team in terms of efficiency will face off Saturday, and only one of those teams hopes history repeats itself.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Wisconsin
Time: 8:49 p.m. ET, Saturday
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill
Line: Kentucky by 5
Matchup to Watch: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker vs. Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein
Wisconsin has two big guys who can run the floor, play the perimeter and score down low. Kaminsky and Dekker are a combined 87-of-236 (37 percent) from 3 this season. Cauley-Stein, though, is different from most defenders. He’s a seven-footer who can defend the perimeter. Kaminsky and Dekker were a combined 7-of-11 from the field with 23 points in last year’s meeting, and that was when Cauley-Stein didn’t play.
Player on the Spot: Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns
Towns had a miserable game against West Virginia — scary, considering Kentucky still won by 39 — and John Calipari didn’t let it slide. Towns responded to his one-point performance with a dominating 25-point game against Notre Dame. Towns finished 10-of-13 from th efield and 5-of-6 from the line with four assists, to boot.
Trending: Wisconsin’s offense
Anyone who says Wisconsin can’t score is not paying much attention. No, the Badgers aren’t one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, but they are the most efficient this season (a year after they ranked fourth). Ask Arizona if Wisconsin can score. Arizona is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and the Badgers shredded the Wildcats in the second half of the Elite Eight. Wisconsin shot 15-of-19 from the field and 10-of-12 from 3 in the final 20 minutes against the Wildcats.
Number of Note: 439
Free throw attempts for opponents against Wisconsin. The Badgers are one of the most stingy fouling teams in the country. Opponents get 4.5 field goal attempts for every free throw against the Badgers, the best rate in the country. Kentucky is a good free throw shooting team (72.5 percent), especially from its big men. If the game is close, Kentucky’s trips to the line will be watched closely.
Kentucky will win if...
Aaron Harrison hits big shots. Harrison hit the key shots against Wichita State, Louisville and Wisconsin in last year’s Tournament, and he did it again against Notre Dame. Wisconsin allows its share of open 3s. Teams shoot 37. 1 percent from 3 against the Badgers, ranking 301st nationally. But those shots are earned. Wisconsin allows 3-pointers at the sixth-best rate of any team this season.
Wisconsin will win if...
The Badgers can stretch the Kentucky defense. This game is between the No. 1 team in offensive efficiency and the No. 1 team in defensive efficiency. The difference may be from 3-point line. Kaminsky and Dekker against Cauley-Stein and Towns will be a game-long battle. If Wisconsin can stretch the court and hit 3s, Kentucky may have to ease up on Kaminsky, Dekker and Nigel Hayes. Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser are a combined 11-of-27 from 3 in this Tournament. If that’s going to change, it will happen against the best 3-point defending team in the country (26.7 percent).
Athlon Sports Staff Predictions
David Fox: Kentucky 68-63
Braden Gall: Kentucky 72-70
Mitch Light: Kentucky 72-66
Jake Rose: Wisconsin 68-62