1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. 1 Wisconsin Badgers
8:49 p.m. ET, TBS
This year's Final Four is a familiar one, featuring Kentucky and Wisconsin battling it out with a 7-seed lurking in the other game. The first half of that is an unfortunate outcome for UK, as the Badgers are bad matchup for the Wildcats. UW has plenty of size, and its highly efficient offense is one of the few that are fully capable of cutting through the tough Kentucky defense.
This game is not strictly a situation a where all of the pressure is on Kentucky, though most of it is with their record creeping ever closer to 40-0. Wisconsin wants revenge for last year. It also will lose Frank Kaminsky, the skilled senior center who powers the team. Minus him next year the team will still be good, but it's unlikely to be elite enough to get to this point. The Badgers' current window of national championship-level of quality closes when their season does.
It's the Final Four. You seldom get teams with nothing to lose at this stage of the tournament. This is why we watch the games.
Kentucky comes into the game No. 1 overall in the KenPom ratings, while Wisconsin is third overall. UK is a balanced squad, clocking in at fifth overall in offensive efficiency and first overall in defensive efficiency. UW is more of an offensive outfit, placing first overall in offensive efficiency and 54th overall in defensive efficiency. It's a great matchup seeing the best in offensive efficiency going up against the best in defensive efficiency.
Kentucky is 250th in the country at possessions per 40 minutes at 63.5. That's in the slow half of the country, but it doesn't compare to Wisconsin. Bo Ryan is one of the godfathers of slow tempo basketball, and his Badgers average just 59 possessions per 40 minutes. That comes in at 345th in the nation, or sixth slowest in the country. The Wildcats only occasionally get into a running game, but don't expect them to be able to goad UW into anything like that.
Kentucky has played one team in Wisconsin's neighborhood, which I define as being within 10 spots above or below in the KenPom ratings. It has also played four teams that aren't as good but aren't far off either.
|North Carolina||H||12||W4||W, 84-70|
|Notre Dame||N||9||MW3||W, 68-66|
The one game against the neighborhood team was the Elite Eight contest against Notre Dame, and it was about as close as a game can be. UK drilled three of the other four opponents, and the Louisville game only ended up in single digits because of the foul-to-extend business at the end. UK has been up to the challenge of facing top teams, but the best team they've faced also gave them one of their worst scares yet.
Wisconsin has played two teams in UK's neighborhood, and it's played six games against opponents who aren't as good but aren't too far off.
|Michigan State||H||15||E7||W, 68-61|
|Michigan State||N||15||E7||W, 80-69 OT|
|North Carolina||N||12||W4||W, 79-72|
The Badgers were 1-1 against those teams close to Kentucky, losing to Duke by 10 but also defeating Arizona by seven last weekend. They ran the table against the not-far-off teams, with only the overtime match against Michigan State being extra close—and it wasn't close once the extra period began. Wisconsin is just a really great team, and nothing about going up against Big Blue will intimidate it.
Players to Watch
Kaminsky is an all-everything center who averages 18.7 points per game and eight rebounds per game. Power forward Sam Dekker, who has scored at least 17 points in every tournament game so far, is next with 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Small forward Nigel Hayes is third on the team at 12.4 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game. Ryan has only two guards in his main six-man rotation right now, something that is a true rarity in college basketball.
You might think I'd highlight Kentucky's big men here, and they will be important. I will instead focus on Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison. They're the only Wildcats who started in last year's Final Four game who will also start this year's. Dakari Johnson has moved to a reserve role, while Julius Randle and James Young are off in the NBA. The main bench contributor then was Alex Poythress, and he's been out for the year with injury for most of the season.
Aaron made the famous dagger of a three to win the game, but he only had five points otherwise and contributed only two assists. Andrew had a rough shooting night, going 4/14 including 0/2 from three. Those guys can be difference makers, and we know the ball will be in their hands late if its close. If they can consistently contribute throughout the whole game, maybe they won't need any heroics at the end.
This year's is Bo Ryan's second Final Four appearance. Only one other occasion, in 2005, did he even make the Elite Eight. He doesn't have much history with getting this far in March. This is Calipari's sixth Final Four appearance, including the fourth consecutive one in years his team has made the tournament—2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. He's lost in the Final Four just twice in his five previous appearances, once at UMass in 1996 and once at Kentucky in 2011.
It's tempting to look at the Wildcats' escape against Notre Dame and predict a loss in this game. If UK didn't somehow manage to shoot over 70% in the second half against the Irish, they'd almost certainly have lost. Wisconsin is, if anything, more efficient on offense than Notre Dame is on average, and so even the vaunted UK defense will have trouble shutting it down.
It's also tempting to imagine that the Wildcats just had the close game that all eventual champions have once or twice in a tournament and will now return to being destroyers of worlds. The Badgers are too good for that; the 10-point loss to Duke was the largest margin of their three losses. There was one given day where they played poorly enough to lose to Big Ten basement dweller Rutgers, but aside from that, they've not really face planted at any point.
I see no reason why this game won't be a repeat of last year's. Both teams will play well. Both teams will hold leads for stretches. And just like last year, Kentucky will edge its way to a win.
Kentucky 72, Wisconsin 70