It's kind of a bummer that the "Cinderella" of the 2014 NCAA Tournament also happens to be arguably the greatest program in college basketball history. Those plucky kids from Lexington that no one believed in (save for the fact that their 7-man rotation consists of 6 five-star recruits, with the one exception being four-star recruit and future NBA player Willie Cauley-Stein) made it all the way to the Final Four as an #8 seed.
Remember the whole 40-0 debacle? When Kentucky fans saw their stacked 2013 recruiting class and thought, "Gee, there's no way this team loses a game for the entire season?" That didn't happen. Even though all's well that ends well, it's important to take a step back in time and examine Kentucky's bumpy ride to the Final Four. Then, let's look at which players stand out for UK and who'll give Wisconsin the most trouble.
Kentucky's path to an undefeated season lasted a whopping 3 games, as they lost against Michigan State in November at the United Center in Chicago. After losing to Baylor and UNC, they ended 2013 on a good note, with a victory over highly ranked Louisville at home. All in all, they played a solid non-conference schedule for an average team, but expectations certainly needed to be lowered in Lexington.
The Wildcats were 12-6 in SEC conference play, but keep in mind that the SEC only sent 3 teams to the NCAA Tournament. One of those teams was Florida, who is also in the Final Four and who beat Kentucky 3 times, including a blowout on the last game of the regular season. Kentucky played them tough in the SEC title game, but lost 61-60. Kentucky lost some gimmies in conference play, with losses against South Carolina, LSU, and Arkansas twice in OT. Conference play is tough, especially for a freshman-heavy team like Kentucky, but there were times when their coterie of freshman looked lost. That caused the angry mob of haters to question the abilities of coach John Calipari as Kentucky backed into the tourney as an #8 seed.
But Kentucky's in the Final Four, and had probably the toughest road to arrive here. They beat undefeated Wichita State in a thriller, bested their underseeded rivals in Louisville, and sneaked past Michigan on a last-second three by Aaron Harrison to win. This tourney has been full of thrilling games, and Kentucky has been involved in a bunch of them.
That brings us to today. Kentucky will face Wisconsin in the National Semifinal. Let's walk through their starting lineup, and see how Wisconsin matches up with them.
PG: Andrew Harrison - Andrew Harrison stands at 6'6", so he's got great size for a point guard. Since he was such a highly-touted recruit, obviously he's very physically gifted. However, he's struggled to perform consistently throughout the season. Although he burst open for 20 points against Wichita State, he had 6 turnovers that game. That's been a problem for him throughout this year, especially in the tournament. He only had 4 turnovers against Michigan, but shot 3-12 from the field. Because he's not a great shooter, the majority of his offense comes from the foul line. Throughout the season, he had a FTRate of 67.1, good for top 100 in the country.
But Traevon Jackson's solid defense principles will keep him at bay. He's taller and quicker than Jackson, but Jackson will know to force him to shoot. In addition, Wisconsin's solid team defense will try to keep him out of the lane. He'll get to the foul line plenty of times, but expect Andrew to be held at bay.
SG: Aaron Harrison - This Harrison brother proved his clutch shooting abilities with his dagger against Michigan. He's a great outside shooter, and can make things happen both at the hoop and on the perimeter. He takes great care of the ball, and has improved in shooting efficiency. It'll be interesting how he matches up with Ben Brust. He's got some height on Brust, so he can contest Brust's threes. That's a part of Brust's game that he's struggled with in the first half of these tournament games, so if he forces Brust out of a rhythm, that'll only help Kentucky.
SF: James Young - Oh look, another 5 star recruit! Throughout the season, Young led the team in percentage of shots taken, but he's been more economical with his shooting in the tourney. That's paid off for him, especially behind the three point line. But Josh Gasser is a tough matchup for anyone. Don't expect Gasser to cross him up like he's done recently, because Young is too quick to let that happen. But Gasser's experience and wiliness will keep Young from breaking out offensively.
PF: Julius Randle - The best pro prospect remaining in the tournament, Randle could give Sam Dekker trouble. Dekker did a good job against Aaron Gordon, another bigger, stronger, and more athletic matchup, but Randle is different than Gordon. Gordon excels with his raw athleticism - he can do things few others can. Randle will just body you down low, drawing contact and getting easy layups. He could be the best player on the floor for stretches, and could force Bo Ryan to play Nigel Hayes more to counteract Randle's thickness. That's not a bad thing by any means, but Kentucky rarely plays with Randle at the 5. Therefore, Wisconsin can't go small, forcing Hayes to replace one of the perimeter shooters. That could hurt them offensively.
C: Dakari Johnson - Johnson is a big fella, standing at 7'0" and 265 lbs. That's the same height as Kaminsky, but 30 pounds heavier. However, Johnson could get taken to school by Frank's red-hot offensive game. I wouldn't want the job of trying to guard Frank Kaminsky at this point in the year, especially as a freshman who only averaged 13.7 minutes during the regular season. If he falters, Wisconsin could be in great shape.
Kentucky is filled with strong athletes, but only recently have played like a cohesive, team-based unit. When they play like that, they're hard to beat. But a team like Wisconsin that's experienced and executes well could give them trouble. Either way, two of the hottest teams in the country are about to play each other. Buckle up.