We don't give good teams enough credit for fulfilling expectations these days. Whenever an overwhelming preseason favorite like Wisconsin crashes and burns when the games start to count, we're quick to jump all over it (with our words!) and call the team a disappointing loser.
However, when Wisconsin does everything it's supposed to do (Big Ten regular season title, Big Ten Tournament title, a second straight Final Four appearance), we shrug our shoulders. This is the way it was supposed to be, but it doesn't make what the Badgers have done any less impressive. For yet another season, Bo Ryan has led his team to the top of the college basketball world only to see a more athletic Kentucky team stand between Wisconsin and eternal glory. Here's why 2015 will be different than 2014 for Bucky.
1. Wisconsin still has the best offense in the country
The astounding Big Blue block party that Wisconsin is going up against in the national semifinal sure is impressive, but the Badgers are still tops when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop. They lead the nation in KenPom's offensive efficiency due to their ability to create easy shots, avoid turnovers, and strike from the perimeter when it matters. It's not a sexy strategy, but Ryan has made it work for years, and this season the formula is especially potent when you consider the talent on board.
2. Sam Dekker is finally playing up to his potential
Before Frank Kaminsky exploded onto the national hoops scene a year ago, Dekker was considered the most talented player on Wisconsin. The swingman from Sheboygan excels when cutting to the basket and finishing at the rim, and he's still a solid NBA prospect due to his length and athleticism. What raised some eyebrows last weekend, though, was Dekker's three-point shooting against Arizona. He went a career-best 5-for-6 from beyond the arc to lead Wisconsin to victory and totaled 50 points in both Midwest Regional games. If the hot hand follows Dekker to Indianapolis, he'll be able to stretch out opposing defenses and make the Wisconsin offense even more effective.
3. And Dekker isn't even the best player on his own team
However, one weekend does not a franchise player make. Wisconsin's hopes and dreams will still go as far as Kaminsky can carry them, and everyone wants to see how the big man with match up against Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. Kaminsky's excellent footwork and long reach make him almost impossible to stop for most single defenders in the post, but these two might be up for the task. It will be fun to see if Kaminsky challenges the two giants early on or if Wisconsin goes with a more perimeter-oriented approach.
4. Kentucky isn't invincible
We'd be more concerned about Wisconsin's chances if Kentucky didn't just struggle with another hot-shooting, highly efficient offensive machine. The Wildcats were driven to the brink of defeat by Notre Dame, a team that proved Kentucky can be scored upon with a solid pick-and-roll game and some offensive rebounding. Wisconsin's guards aren't as good at penetrating as Notre Dame's Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson are, but the Badgers may be able to create extra space in the paint by using their shooting big men to draw Kentucky's bigs away from the basket.
5. It only gets easier after Kentucky
There's a reason we're focusing so much on Kentucky: The Wildcats are the toughest challenge that Wisconsin has left in its title quest. It is true, however, that even if the Badgers pull the upset they will have to play either Duke or Michigan State in the national final. Wisconsin has already beaten the Spartans twice this season, so the more concerning result is the 80-70 defeat that Duke handed the Badgers back in early December. In that game, the Blue Devils sizzled with 65-percent field goal shooting while Dekker scored just five points on five shot attempts. Even if they don't say so, the Badgers will probably be rooting for Michigan State on Saturday. No matter who wins that game, though, once Kentucky is defeated, the next opponent won't seem so scary.