When Wisconsin and Kentucky meet in the second semi-final game of the NCAA Final Four in Dallas on Saturday it will be a study in contrasts. In fact it seems the only thing these teams have in common is that they are both in the Final Four.
The Kentucky Wildcats began as the pre-season number-one in the polls. Armed with the best freshmen in the country—with the “one-and-done” rule, the Wildcats will always be armed with great freshmen—the Wildcats had the talent to beat anyone in the NCAA and, arguably, a few teams in the NBA. After losing three of their first 11 games, they became just another great team among NCAA behemoths like Florida, Duke and Arizona. Overall they have 10 losses, including three to Florida and three more to other NCAA tournament teams. But their run through this year’s tournament has been nothing short of phenomenal, and could easily be deemed the most impressive of any of the last four tournament survivors.
Coming in as a number-eight seed, Kentucky beat ninth-seed Kansas State 56-49 and then the fun began. The Wildcats had to knock off undefeated top-seed Wichita State, defending champion and cross-state rival Louisville, and last year’s second-place team, Michigan State. Playing in what was described as the toughest of the regions; Kentucky cleared all of the hurdles in the Midwest Regional race and now find themselves facing another test against Wisconsin.
The second-seeded Badgers got a break in the early part of their bracket in the West Regional, playing their first two games just 75 miles from their Madison campus in Milwaukee. A 40-point win in their first game led to a big challenge two days later against Oregon and found themselves trailing by 14 in the first half. A spirited second half, and what could have been the turning point in their post-season journey, led to an 85-77 victory and a ticket to the regional finals in Anaheim where they would face number-six seed Baylor. The Badgers showed they could play away from home too, pulling away from one of the hottest teams in the region and easing in with a 17-point victory. Everything was going according to form in the West Region, with the second seed facing the first seed when Wisconsin met Arizona for a spot in the Final Four. That was as far as the form would go, as the Badgers gutted out a one-point win in overtime.
Now we have a matchup of the all-stars of Kentucky against the working men of Wisconsin. BMW takes on Ford trucks. The Crème Brulee meets the Rocky Road Ice Cream. Kentucky starts five freshmen who won’t be on the team next year. Wisconsin’s starters will probably all be back next year except for Ben Brust, who is a senior. The Badgers have 2 Final Four appearances and one National Championship in their history. The Wildcats have 15 Final Fours and eight titles.
Kentucky has not faced a team with the defensive mindset of Wisconsin yet. They are hard-nosed and stingy, and 7-foot junior forward Frank Kaminsky will not let the Wildcats have their way in the paint. It is very hard to pick against Kentucky and their NBA talent, but Wisconsin has talent too. Wisconsin’s players also have years of experience and all of the intangibles to pull off the upset. Early in the tournament Kentucky coach John Calipari told the media that he made an adjustment to his team that was so simple that they would wonder why he did not do it sooner, but he said he would not say what it was until they were done with the season. He will reveal it Saturday night, as the Badgers move on to play for their first NCAA Basketball National Championship since 1941. Wisconsin beats Kentucky 65-64.
Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky