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Final Four Preview and Picks: Wisconsin Badgers vs. Kentucky Wildcats


Kentucky may be the best-positioned No. 8 seed to play for a national title, but 1985 Villanova Big Blue Nation is not.

Rollie Massimino’s 1985 Villanova team is the lowest-seeded program to win the national title, a feat Kentucky can match if the Wildcats can beat Wisconsin and then win Monday night.

But unlike that Villanova team that spent most of the season lurking in the shadows, this year’s Kentucky started at No. 1. With the future pro talent John Calipari added to the roster this season, a trip to the Final Four seemed to be inevitable ... at least until reality set in before December.

The Wildcats lost six games in an underwhelming SEC (and yes, the SEC can have two Final Four teams and be underwhelming at the same time). That makes Kentucky an underdog by seed and record but certainly not by talent and reputation.

The underdog story may be Wisconsin, a No. 2 seed that started the season 16-0. Bo Ryan, 66, is making his first trip to the Final Four as Wisconsin seeks its first national championship since 1941. While Kentucky is awash in McDonald’s All-Americans, Wisconsin has none.

“Frank Sinatra, wasn't that the song? We did it our way?” Ryan said. “Everybody's doing it their way. If you're a coach and here's the landscape, you do it the best way you can. I was always told you can only coach one team.”

Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
Approx. 8:50 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr

Wisconsin Teamcast
Announcers: Rob Bromley, Rex Chapman

Kentucky Teamcast
Announcers: Wayne Larrivee, Mike Kelley

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Wisconsin 75-71
Braden Gall: Kentucky 78-74
Mitch Light: Wisconsin 68-66
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 75-74

How Wisconsin got here:

Junior Frank Kaminsky was an All-Big Ten performer during the course of the season, but he may be playing himself into NBA Draft consideration this year or next. Kaminsky is the rare 7-footer who can take an outside shot, drive to the basket and score in the post. He’s averaging 16.8 points per game in the Tournament.

Related: Florida-UConn Game Preview

How Kentucky got here:

Kentucky is making shots, pure and simple. Guard Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points per game in the Tournament after averaging 14.1 during the regular season. Kentucky is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range during the Tournament after averaging 33.2 percent during the season as a whole.

Related: Opposing coaches scout the Final Four

Key matchup: Kentucky’s frontcourt vs. Kaminsky

Kaminsky already outdueled Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, so it’s clear he can handle top talent. Kentucky, though, will be another test with the 6-9 Julius Randle and 7-foot Dakari Johnson in the frontcourt. Can Kaminsky’s versatile game continue to thrive against some of the top forwards in the country?

Related: 10 Amazing Stats about the Final Four teams

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Player to watch: Dakari Johnson, Kentucky

Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein doesn’t want to be declared out for the Final Four, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll play. Cauley-Stein averages nearly three blocks per game and is Kentucky’s top offensive rebounder. Losing that kind of cog will hurt. Johnson will try to step into Cauley-Stein’s shoes on a team that led the nation in offensive rebound rate.

Related: Most NBA players? School rankings? Party school rankings? Comparing the Final Four

Wisconsin will win the national title if…

The Badgers keep playing Bo Ryan basketball — limiting mistakes, playing strong defense and making big shots in key moments. This is not the typical Badgers team, however. Traevon Jackson controls the tempo at point guard,Kaminsky proves unguardable at times and shooters space the floor to allow Wisconsin to match up with nearly any style of play.

Wisconsin will lose to Kentucky if…

The Badgers are overwhelmed by the bright lights of AT&T Stadium and the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky is making its third trip to the Final Four in four years, while Wisconsin is making its first trip since 2000 and only its third Final Four ever. The Badgers must remain focused, no matter how crazy the circumstances get.

Kentucky will win the national title if…

The Wildcats keep playing like future NBA first-round picks rather than college freshmen. The preseason No. 1 team in the country boasts what some have called the best freshman class since Michigan’s famed “Fab Five.” John Calipari’s team has been maddeningly inconsistent this year, but if Julius Randle continues to own the paint and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, keep playing with poise, UK could raise its ninth title banner.

Kentucky will lose to Wisconsin if…

The Wildcats get into early foul trouble. Without injured center Willie Cauley-Stein — who is doubtful with an ankle injury — the Wildcats are relatively thin down low. Freshman Marcus Lee came out of nowhere for 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the Elite Eight. But Kentucky needs Randle (and his 24 double-doubles) to stay on the floor.

Athlon editors Mitch Light and Nathan Rush contributed to this report.