Final Four Preview: Wisconsin vs. Kentucky - Can Bo Ryan's boys cool off the Cats?

I'd like to apologize to my Michigan bros for using this picture. - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It's the Final Four, everyone here is on a hot streak, but few have gone on their hot streak as impressively as Kentucky has. Can the Badgers make the final game for the first time since 1941?

What:

University of Wisconsin Team University of Kentucky
B1G! B1G! B1G! Conference I can't remember
12-6 Conference Record 12-6
30-7 Overall Record 28-10
2 NCAA Seed 8
6 RPI 17
6 KenPom 8

When: Saturday April 5th at 8:49 PM EST/7:49 PM CST on TBS. Badger-centric feed on TruTV

Where: AT&T Stadium in Dallas...I mean, Arlington...I mean, North Texas

Why: C'mon. Really?

The Skinny: So...here we are. It has been a long season of arguing amongst ourselves in the B1G, of arguing with the Big XII over which conference is better, and now we end with an argument about why the SEC is so stupid (it's admittedly an argument that most people are on the same side). The Final Four is here and it's time to celebrate the last three games we have of college basketball until, ugh, November. One of the remaining games pits the B1G's very own Wisconsin Badgers against the SEC's (I think, I haven't really heard) Kentucky Wildcats.

The last time these two teams met, it was also in the NCAA Tournament, was in the 2003 Sweet 16, which UK won 63-57. Overall, UK leads the series 3-1. There is not a whole lot of history here, but that kind of gets thrown out the window when it's the national semifinals. Although, Andreas Helmigk may still be lurking around the bowels of the Kohl Center (What? It's possible. Have you heard from him recently?).

Since none of these players could go to a PG-13 movie by themselves at the time of the last matchup, let's take a look at this season and how the Wildcats made it to the Final Four. It's pretty obvious how UK made it, they were 38-0 and this is just a formality on their way to 40-0. There are t-shirts and everything. Hmmm, a cursory Alta Vista search informs me that the Cats did not, in fact, go undefeated this year. This year's iteration of the Kentucky basketball team came into the season with preposterous expectations (BEST RECRUITING CLASS IN THE HISTORY OF RECRUITING FOR ANYTHING EVER!), and as fickle 18-year olds are wont to do, they did not reach them in the regular season. UK's quest for perfection ended in their third game against Michigan State (B1G! B1G! B1G!), and the rest of the regular season was an up and down learning experience for the Cats. They lost to Florida three times (no shame in that, but Wisconsin is 1-0 against Florida this year), South Carolina (lots of shame in that), and Arkansas twice somehow.

The funny thing, though, was that during this roller coaster ride of the season, Kentucky was getting better and coalescing into an unstoppable killing machine. They started to run their offense through their best player (Julius Randle) more, and relied less on wild forays into the lane by point guard Andrew Harrison. They ended their season by losing to Florida by one in the SEC title game, after steamrolling Georgia and LSU, and then started their masterful run through the NCAA Tournament. UK held off Kansas State in their first round, edged undefeated Wichita State by two in the next round (and possible game of the tournament), bested hated rival Louisville in the Sweet 16, and beat Michigan at the buzzer in the Elite Eight. They won the last two games with starting center Willie Cauley-Stein playing a total of four minutes (and none against the Wolverines).

Kentucky is ranked 9th in the country in AdjO according to KenPom (matching up with Wisconisn's 4th best AdjO) and is a dominant force on the boards. They averaged the fifth most rebounds per game in the country, and they are especially lethal on the offensive glass, where the length and athleticism and all the other words used to describe players that don't play in the B1G are on full display. Of the players likely to play, Kentucky has four players whose offensive rebounding percentage is 11.9 or better, Wisconsin's highest rated player is at 9.8, but luckily the Badgers defensive rebound percentages are higher than average, and an area where they excel. It will be a good battle on the glass, and whichever team is able to exert their will over the other should be in good shape for a W.

The Wildcats, like the Badgers, don't usually go very deep into their bench, but with Cauley-Stein unlikely to play, the Cats will be forced to use some untested big men. I say untested, but they're all 5* recruits, and anyone who saw Marcus Lee play against Michigan (15 minutes, 10 points, 5-of-7 shooting, 8 rebounds, 7 offensive, 2 blocks) knows that these kids are nothing to scoff at. Let's take a peak at the probable starting lineups:

Wisconsin Team Kentucky
Traevon Jackson G Andrew Harrison
Ben Brust G Aaron Harrison
Josh Gasser G James Young
Sam Dekker F Julius Randle
Frank Kaminsky C Dakari Johnson

Key Players:

Andrew Harrison: If Harrison played for Wisconsin, I think every Badger fan would have had a conniption by now calling for his head on a platter. Harrison averages .5 more turnovers per game than Trae Jackson does, and you've seen the takes given this year about Jackson. Let's all just be happy we dodged that bullet. This is a key point though, because Wisconsin's defense feasts on point guards that are careless with the ball, and Harrison will have to keep a level head in the biggest game of his career. An area that doesn't seem fair is how big Harrison is. He's a 6'6" 215 lb point guard! I mean, really? Harrison will not be intimidated nor overmatched by the Badger guards who post up on occasion. He is also the second best free throw shooter (his twin brother is first) on a below average free throw shooting team, so if this game is close at the end he'll be the one with the ball. Despite being an enormous freak of nature, Harrison (neither one) rebounds the ball with any ferocity or regularity. The Kentucky bigs have an advantage over the Wisconsin bigs in rebounding, but UW has guards that crash the boards with abandon, so the Harrison's may be forced into an area they are uncomfortable with.

Dakari Johnson/Marcus Lee/Alex Poythress: Some combination of these three gentlemen will be tasked with guarding Detective Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky. As we've seen in his pantsing of potential NBA lottery picks against Baylor and Arizona, this will prove to be a difficult task. All three of these guys are good rebounders, but where they need to step their game up is on defense. Kaminsky is a unique player for a seven footer, because he is just as comfortable beyond the arc as he is banging down low. Kaminsky's footwork has improved massively this year, and his myriad pump fakes and double moves could get this troika in foul trouble early. If Kentucky can guard Kaminsky with one guy, they'll probably win. If they can't...well, you get the point.

Prediction: I've spent all week debating who is going to win this game. I've been pretty much useless at work (nothing new, says my boss, probably), sent countless text messages with friends about the various aspects of this game, and read every preview on these here series of tubes. I'm still not 100% sold in either direction, but here are a few things I think will happen. Julius Randle will have a big game. Wisconsin has no one to mark him, with the possible exception of Nigel Hayes (who I see getting in foul trouble trying to stick Randle), but I think Bo Ryan will be ok with that. I also think Kaminsky will have a big game. He's playing on another level right now, and I don't think UK will be able to guard him with just one guy. Badger fans have been waiting all season (career?) for Sam Dekker to explode in a big game (the Marquette game from this year doesn't count) and I think (hope) this is the one. No one is talking about Dekker leading up to this game, and that has to rub the former top recruit the wrong way. As Rage Against the Machine said, "what better place than here, what better time than now?" Final: Wisconsin 67 - Kentucky 66

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