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UK, Wisconsin not so different after all

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Julius Randle and Ben Brust share the podium on Thursday at AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle and Ben Brust share the podium on Thursday at AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky and Wisconsin are being cast as a study in contrasting styles.

In one corner there are the Wildcats, the crew of super-talented youngsters, and the other the Badgers, the veterans who rely on cohesiveness and half-court execution.

Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, however, doesn't exactly see things that way.

"Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole," Ryan said on Monday. "We're trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying to keep them from doing it. They're trying to keep us from doing it. I didn't know there were that many styles."

There's certainly some truth to Ryan's words, but it's also a bit of an oversimplification.

UK and Wisconsin, of course, are teams that get the job done on both ends of the floor in different ways. Let's explore kenpom.com's advanced statistics to explore those differences.

When Kentucky is on offense

Julius Randle has always been a basketball fan, so he was familiar with Wisconsin before UK even began scouting the Badgers for the Final Four.

"Just growing up I've always known Wisconsin just to be a hard-nosed, tough team," Randle said. "They play really good defense."

That's true again this year, as Wisconsin ranks 45th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Badgers are sound defensively on the strength of their ability to play without fouling and close out possessions with defensive rebounds.

Wisconsin is third nationally in defensive free-throw rate, yielding just 15.1 free-throw attempts per game. By contrast, UK is ninth nationally in offensive free-throw rate. Don't think, however, that the Cats can't get the job done when they aren't getting to the line. Against Michigan, UK scored 1.26 points per possession -- its highest total of the tournament -- in spite of hitting just six free throws in 11 attempts.

The Badgers are also tireless workers on the defensive glass, ranking 13th in rebounding rate, but they haven't faced Kentucky yet. The Cats lead the nation in offensive-rebounding rate, claiming 42.5 percent of their own misses. And less than two weeks ago, UK faced off against an even better defensive rebounding team in Wichita State and still snagged 10 of its 29 misses.

Wisconsin relies on sound positioning in its man defense, not often gambling to force turnovers. The Badgers' opponents have committed turnovers on just 15.6 percent of possessions (322nd nationally) while UK is middle of the pack (174th nationally) taking care of the ball.

Just because the Badgers don't force many turnovers, don't think passing the ball against them is easy. Wisconsin allows assists on just 40.1 percent of opponents' made field goals, the third-lowest rate in the nation.

Also of note is that just 25.8 percent of field goals attempted against Wisconsin come from 3-point range, the eighth-lowest rate in the nation. Though UK is shooting the ball remarkably well, this isn't necessarily bad news for UK. The Cats are at their best when they attack the basket.

When Kentucky is on defense


As good as Randle has always known Wisconsin to be on defense, he's not oblivious to the fact that the Badgers are among the best offensive teams in the country even though they score just 73.5 points per game.

"Of course, our team's already been informed that this is one of the better offensive teams that they have had, and they really can score the ball, move the ball," Randle said.

Thanks to that ball movement, the Badgers almost never turn the ball over. Wisconsin has committed single-digit turnovers in 26 of 37 games, including two remarkable two-turnover performances, en route to ranking second in turnover rate. Considering UK is 301st in defensive turnover rate, don't expect many Wisconsin mistakes on Saturday evening.

With UK's size advantage and Wisconsin's preference for getting back on defense over crashing the glass, don't expect many Badger offensive rebounds either. Wisconsin is 274th nationally in offensive-rebounding rate.

The Badgers get by on offense without many rebounds because they shoot the ball so well to begin with. Wisconsin is 32nd nationally in effective field-goal percentage (.533) and UK 35th in effective field-goal percentage defense (.458). The team that wins this battle could well be playing for the national championship on Monday.

Bottom line

Tempo has a lot to do with the supposed contrast between Kentucky and Wisconsin, but a look at the numbers reveals two teams more similar than you might think.

Wisconsin ranks 287th nationally in adjusted tempo, playing just 63.4 possessions per game. UK, meanwhile, is 226th in adjusted tempo, playing just 66.2 possessions per game and 61 in the NCAA Tournament.

As friends John Calipari and Ryan match wits for the first time, be prepared for a grind-it-out affair. The pace might not be frenetic and the final score might be in the 60s, but these are two teams playing their best offense of the season.

"You're playing for either one of these teams, I mean, there's no such thing as an underdog," Randle said. "It's just going to be a hard-fought game, and I think that's what both teams are looking forward to."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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