Aaron Harrison and Kentucky will face Wisconsin in the Final Four for the second straight season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Kentucky fans can probably recall every detail of the shot Aaron Harrison hit to send the Wildcats past Wisconsin and into the 2014 national championship game.
They remember how Andrew Harrison drove and dumped to Dakari Johnson, who quickly returned the pass. They'll never forget how Andrew kicked to his twin brother and told him to shoot. The memory of Aaron rising and burying a game winner is burned into their minds.
The same can't be said for the man who hit the shot.
"I just remember falling and celebrating," Aaron Harrison said. "I really don't remember anything else."
Josh Gasser - the player defending Aaron Harrison - has a memory similar to Kentucky fans' when it comes to the shot, though the feelings that come with it are quite a bit different.
"I think our fingers actually interlocked," Gasser said. "When it left his hand, I was feeling good."
Instead, Aaron Harrison's long-distance strike sent Wisconsin home. As the Cats celebrated, the Badgers pondered the end of their season. The shot and loss still fresh in their minds, Wisconsin players say they couldn't help but watch it again.
"I came home two days later and watched it from the perspective of me being sour and angry and sad," Sam Dekker said. "Then a few weeks later I watched it just getting over it. I watched it in bits and pieces. Then the night before the season started I watched it again just to, this is the stage you want to be at again. It kind of got me pumped up to go."
Motivated and returning the bulk of its roster from the Final Four team, the Badgers (35-3) have had one of the best seasons in program history and set up a reprise of last year's national semifinal at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. This time, the Wildcats come in as the first 38-0 team in NCAA history.
"It's a great story," Frank Kaminsky said. "Talk about starting last year when we played them and the way we lost. To come back this year and beat them on the same stage would be a storybook ending almost."
Aaron Harrison concedes he would have been motivated had Kentucky's season ended the way Wisconsin's did in 2014. However, he won't allow that Wisconsin has a monopoly on motivation. UK, after all, did come up short of its ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
"I think everyone's overlooking that," he said. "And I don't really see how it's a revenge game because we're a completely different team with different players."
On that count, the Badgers agree. Talk of the rematch might be dominating headlines (and this story), but it will matter little once the two teams step between the lines.
"Obviously, I understand where that's coming from, but when you get to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, it shouldn't matter - or any game for that matter - it shouldn't matter who you're playing," Dekker said. "If you need some type of fuel to fuel the play in a game you want to win, then there's something a little off."
More than revenge or anything, what UK and Wisconsin will truly be playing for in Lucas Oil Stadium is a spot in the national championship game. Both teams will have to pass their toughest on-paper test to date to earn it.
The matchup pits teams ranked first and third in both major polls, as well as kenpom.com. Kentucky, a team renowned for its otherworldly assemblage of talent, has four projected first-round NBA Draft picks. Wisconsin lags barely behind with three.
"Just a great team," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "They have a great coach also. A great program. I think all together you just have to respect the whole program as a general to make a team like that come together."
UK fields the nation's best defense, Wisconsin the nation's best offense. To put it briefly, this is going to be good.
"Well, they're outstanding," John Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post. They shoot the 3 the same as Notre Dame does. They have that one guy that's a big guy, not a guard, and their guards are good, too, in Frank (Kaminsky) who can go get his own. But Dekker has proved he can do the same."
Slowing down Kaminsky, Dekker and company is a monumental challenge. In fact, handcuffing them as UK has so often done to opponents this season might be impossible. The good news is Wisconsin still has to contend with UK's balanced attack.
Regardless whether the Cats do it with defense as they did against Cincinnati or offense like against Notre Dame, the overall approach is the same as it ever was.
"We have one job," Calipari said. "Individually it's to be the best version of yourself. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared to be your best. We have to play at our best. That's the best we can do. I can't ask them for anything else. I told them, I don't know the outcome. I can't promise you the outcome. But I do know our chances are best if you're the best version of you and we're our best as a team. Things are going to go crazy. We'll adjust. We've done it all year."
Willie Cauley-Stein leads Kentucky into a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein became Kentucky's 25th consensus All-American on March 30. His path to get there was long, different and remarkable.
Now, Cauley-Stein is perhaps the face of college basketball's first-ever 38-0 team.
"It's just crazy to think about the last three years of losing first round in the NIT against Robert Morris," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming back and finding a way to get back to a title game, coming up short, having a chance to come back and do it again."
Cauley-Stein came to Kentucky as a four-star recruit and the 40th-ranked prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. At most any other school, the 7-footer, who played both wide receiver and safety in high school, would have been one of the top recruits in the class.
Instead, Cauley-Stein was the lowest-ranked recruit of Kentucky's four-member 2012 class, including being the second-best prospect at his own position. The star of that class was Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 center in the country and the No. 2 overall prospect.
Cauley-Stein played well as a freshman, earning Freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors, but never had the pressure on him that he did as a sophomore, or especially as a junior.
In his second year in Lexington, Cauley-Stein became a defensive star for the Wildcats, becoming just the third player in program history to block more than 100 shots in a season, and tied Noel for the second most in single-season history with 106.
As the Wildcats picked up steam heading into the NCAA Tournament, Cauley-Stein had everything made up in his mind. Silence some critics, hopefully win a championship and then head off to the NBA. Then, just four minutes after entering the game against Louisville in the Sweet 16, Cauley-Stein went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
"It's just, everything happens for a reason," Cauley-Stein said. "... Getting injured and coming back, I was thinking about going the whole time until I got injured. End up coming back and end up being part of history and end up doing stuff people didn't really think you could do."
That "stuff" includes earning first team All-America honors from the Sporting News, Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
"How far Willie has come in his career is truly ridiculous," Calipari said.
And Coach Cal would know. The newly crowned AP National Coach of the Year first saw Cauley-Stein in AAU game where he was guarded by a 6-foot-4 player, and yet the freakishly athletic forward finished with just two points - though Cauley-Stein argues he scored more.
"He has come so far as a player, but more importantly as a person," Calipari said. "He came in saying, 'You know what, I don't like academics, I'm going to do what you're making me do.' He and I became book club members together. I would make him read books. He and I would discuss books. One of the things he said last year is, I'm enjoying school. That's what we're supposed to be about. ... Now he's going into his junior year, here is a kid that averages under double figures and is one of the top players in the country 'cause he's that selfless about his team. It's a good part about what we do, to see that kind of growth."
Speaking to the media Friday in a private room, Cauley-Stein, who has previously said that his favorite book read from his book club with Calipari is "The Energy Bus" by Jon Gordon, talked about Calipari in a different light than just being a basketball coach.
"He's like a life teacher," Cauley-Stein said of Calipari. "He's a life coach. He doesn't just coach the game of basketball. He wants us to become men. It's not all about basketball. It's not all about wins. Regardless whether we won games or not, Coach Cal is still going to be Coach Cal. He's still going to be really successful. He's still going to do all the things he does. I think one of his biggest teaching moments is actually making us into young men and teaching us life skills to use when we're done playing basketball, or when we take the next step."
And due to the play of Cauley-Stein, considered one of the favorites to win the National Defensive Player of the Year award, that next step looks to be coming sooner rather than later.
In the latest NBA Draft projections, Cauley-Stein appears set to become a top-10 pick. Though he's averaging just 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Cauley-Stein is playing with great confidence on the floor, as well as a chip that rests on his shoulder placed by his critics.
The knock on the SEC Defensive Player of the Year has always been that he can't score or that he's not a true all-around basketball player.
"I don't know how you can be an All-American in this country and not be a good basketball player," Cauley-Stein said.
But the biggest knock by critics may not be what he does or doesn't do on the court, but perhaps all of his interests off of it.
"Me being interested in three or four different things, then they say, 'Well, you don't love the game of basketball,' " Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, that's nonsense to me. Why would I come to Kentucky if I didn't love the game of basketball? This is the hardest place to play, in my opinion. You just have to know what you think and it doesn't really matter what everybody else thinks. You know what you've done and what you've been through to get to where you are."
In this journey from a basketball player who once played football to a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein has always been able to keep things in perspective.
Now just two wins away from making history as the sport's first 40-0 team and the first undefeated national champion in 39 years, Cauley-Stein and Kentucky ready themselves to face a talented Wisconsin team that has revenge on its mind. Either way, history will be made this weekend, Cauley-Stein is just hoping it's the good kind.
"If we ended up winning it all we'll go down in history," Cauley-Stein said. "If we end up losing we'll still go down in history being talked about going undefeated until we lost it. Either way we're going to be talked about. But us, we want to be talked about in a good way, not like a letdown."
John Calipari and UK's starters speak at their press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - In theory, there's an easy solution for Kentucky when it comes to facing Frank Kaminsky.
Just get him in foul trouble.
In reality, there's a problem.
He almost never fouls.
"Well, he plays with his feet more so than a lot of other 7-footers I've seen," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "He doesn't reach in. He doesn't try to block every shot."
The Wildcats (38-0) can throw all the bodies they want at Kaminsky in Saturday's national semifinal. They can try the bruising Dakari Johnson, the springy Willie Cauley-Stein or possible No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but history suggests Kaminsky won't take the bait and fall victim to foul trouble.
"I think Arizona was the first game I think I've ever had four fouls here in my career at Wisconsin," said Kaminsky, who was named AP National Player of the Year on Friday.
That's not quite true, but last weekend's Elite Eight win was the first time Kaminsky has picked up four fouls this season. In his first two seasons, he picked up four fouls 11 times and fouled out only once. All told, he went more than a year between games with four fouls.
Kaminsky is no exception on this Wisconsin team either. He's merely the best example of Ryan's approach.
"In the 30 years or whatever that I've been a head coach, I would guarantee you that my teams have had the fewest number of blocked shots than any other team in the country, if you take Platteville, Milwaukee and Wisconsin," Ryan said. "We try to keep our feet on the ground, we try to chest up with our hands straight up."
The numbers prove it.
Wisconsin is first in the country in defensive free-throw rate, allowing just 0.221 free-throw trips per field-goal try for its opponent, and is 224th in defensive block rate in spite of being the nation's second-tallest team, according to kenpom.com. Teams are hard-pressed to even get into the bonus against the Badgers. Wisconsin has committed 15 or fewer fouls in all but five games this season.
"He knows what refs look for, he knows what tendencies of refs to call are and he shows us every single film session," Kaminsky said. "He'll even show us our fouls that we got away with so we can learn from that too. So it's a process. He has a system. He doesn't foul, doesn't want to give the other team free points. Just doing whatever we can to stay out of foul trouble in this game is going to be big."
The Arizona game was the first time all season the Badgers have committed more than 18 fouls and the first time they have allowed more than 20 free-throw attempts. Arizona is a team with length and athleticism similar to Kentucky, suggesting UK could stress Wisconsin in the same way.
Aaron Harrison said Wisconsin's ability to avoid fouling has been a consistent topic in UK's preparation, saying John Calipari is directing his team to attack the basket as usual. Nonetheless, they aren't counting on Wisconsin becoming foul happy overnight.
Odds are the Badgers will avoid foul trouble and make the Cats earn their points on tough 2s and 3s. If they do, UK - 25th nationally in free-throw rate - will have to adjust to having a big part of its offensive limited.
"If they don't foul, they don't foul," Harrison said. "I'm not really sure what to do to draw fouls. We've just gotta get in close to the basket and if they foul you, you have to make it."
Odds are Kaminsky will stay on the floor for something close to the 33.4 minutes he's averaging this season. If he does, the Cats will have to contain him.
"He's going to hit you from a lot of different spots and you're not going to stop him," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the type of player you just have to limit. You're not going to stop him from scoring. You just can't let him score 30 on you and that's the way we have to approach it."
Cauley-Stein, with a 7-foot, 242-pound frame identical to Kaminsky, projects as the likely primary defender on his fellow All-American, but it isn't likely to be so simple.
UK threw multiple defenders at Kaminsky in one-on-one situations in last year's Final Four, from Dakari Johnson to Marcus Lee to Julius Randle to Alex Poythress. Even though Cauley-Stein - the presumptive national defensive player of the year winner - will be on the floor this time around, expect UK to use the same strategy used to limit Kaminsky to eight points on seven shots.
"I think with the guys that we have, we're going to do a lot of switching anyway," Cauley-Stein said. "Not one person is going to be on that set player during the whole game. You know, everybody in practice has been guarding guards and bigs. We're just kind of ready for everything."
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, UK's Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke's Quinn Cook and Michigan State's Travis Trice. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein was sandwiched between one of his Saturday opponents and a guard who plays for the team Kentucky fans revile perhaps more than any other.
Cauley-Stein could only say good things about Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Duke's Quinn Cook, as well as Michigan State senior Travis Trice.
"Just a great respect for each one of these players up here, and their teams," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, each one of us is a big part of their team, the way they run things. It's really just a good respect."
With Kaminsky, the respect seemed to be accompanied by a budding rapport. The two 7-footers walked on to the podium for a Thursday Final Four press conference in the middle of an easy conversation. Within a few minutes, Kaminsky revealed what they had bonded over.
"Personality-wise, we were talking about Super Smash Bros. on the way up here, so I feel like we would get along," Kaminsky said.
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein got to keep talking about their video game of choice once they sat down when a reporter asked them about their character of choice. It was another point of bonding.
"I've been trying Captain Falcon," Kaminsky said. "He's really slow, so I think I'm going to go back to Kirby."
"I play with Kirby just because he can change," Cauley-Stein said. "He can change into anybody he's playing against. And he flies around, so when you get knocked off the little stage, you can just fly back and you don't have to worry about jumping."
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein, however, will be putting the controllers down and stepping onto a significantly bigger stage themselves come Saturday at 8:49 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. Just like with Super Smash Bros., the right to play the next game will be on the line, but this time the next game is the national championship.
Coack K, Izzo praise Cats
Mike Krzyzewski hasn't watched much of Kentucky this year.
Considering the Wildcats aren't on Duke's schedule and won't be unless both teams advance to the national championship game Monday, that makes sense.
That doesn't mean he's not aware that John Calipari's team is the story of college basketball this season.
"John has done an amazing job with his group, and it's been good for college basketball in that you've been talking about a team instead of talking about freshmen or individuals," Coach K said.
UK has its share of talented freshmen and individual stars, but its cohesiveness and depth have carried the Cats to a 38-0 mark entering the Final Four. The regular season began with the Cats ranked No. 1 based largely on their roster featuring nine McDonald's All-Americans. It ended the same way because they turned their potential into something special.
"You got to be talented," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "And I think Mike alluded to it with Kentucky this year, guys are willing to take on different roles, not play as many minutes, not score as many points. I think the more talent you have, the better it is, as long as it's talent that's coachable and talent that has a team concept in mind."
There's no questioning that UK constantly has that team concept in mind. The result has been a narrative positive for the game.
"For a few years we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals," Krzyzewski said. "This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be: It's about teams. Kentucky's been a great team."
Talent aplenty at Final Four
Bo Ryan knows better than anyone how good this Final Four field is.
Within the last calendar year, his Wisconsin Badgers have played Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four, Duke on Dec. 3 and Michigan State twice in the last six weeks.
"What I can say about the talent is there's shooters, there's ball handlers, there's bigs," Ryan said. "I mean, you can go from every aspect of the game of basketball and look at these four teams, there are guys that are just blue-collar guys that are there to rebound and play defense, there are guys that are there to score, there are guys that are there to kill you in the post, there's guys defensively that can lock you down.
"I would say in this Final Four, having played all the teams within the past year, there's a little bit of everything. It's at a very high level."
Beyond the talent, each of the four teams has faced a tough road to get here. Combined, they have defeated three No. 2 seeds, two No. 3 seeds, two No. 4 seeds and two No. 5 seeds. None has faced a double-digit seed after the round of 64.
"That's what you admire about people that have success in this tournament, you know how hard it is," Izzo said. "It's not just about being good enough, you've got to be lucky. We have gotten here (in the past) because teams lost. One year it was Kansas who was ranked. I think this year, we've all earned our way without major surprises or many major surprises. That's pretty good."
Champions Classic reunion
November, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas played the first
two marquee games of the college basketball season in the Champions
In April, three of the four have returned to Indianapolis for the last three games.
State and Duke will play in one national semifinal - a rematch of an
81-71 Duke win on Nov. 18 - while Wisconsin subs in as Kentucky's
opponent in the other.
Coach K called it "prophetic" that the three teams are in the Final Four together.
"That's been a good deal for our programs, I think, to play that doubleheader at the start of each year," Krzyzewski said.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - This is the Final Four. Every team in the country dreams of making it to this point. Heck, the slogan of the event is "The Road Ends Here." Certainly, this is no time for fun and games.
Oh, on the contrary.
"New experience, we want to take it in, have fun," Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. "At the end of the day, we're here to win games. Not change, just continue doing the great habits we've done all year, just have fun."
That three-letter word was used or talked about frequently Thursday when one student-athlete from each Final Four team came to the stage in the interview room to meet with the media. Other words, or variations of them, that were talked about frequently included, camaraderie, excitement, togetherness and adversity.
While adversity may seem like an antonym to the aforementioned words on the surface, it actually has served as a precursor to allow the other words to prosper and grow.
"I think adversity is what has gotten our team to this point," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said. "Midway through the year, we were on the bubble. People questioned whether we were going to get into the tournament. Because of that, we've banded together."
And now the Spartans (27-11), as well as the Badgers (35-3), Blue Devils (33-4) and Wildcats (38-0), are hardly separable from their teammates.
During Kentucky's photo and video shoots with Turner Sports on Thursday afternoon, the team took numerous pictures with a Twitter Mirror showing just how stressed out they were from the whole experience.
Even the four head coaches looked to be having a good time Thursday. Wisconsin head man Bo Ryan and Kentucky coach John Calipari, who have been friends for years, joked back and forth from the very beginning of their press conference when Coach Cal got on the stage and said, "C'mon, Bo" who was following him, to a question about Ryan's team's personality.
"Believe it or not, I know how I'm perceived by some people," Ryan said. "I'm actually a pretty funny guy."
"No, you're not," Calipari interrupted with a smile, "you're mean."
Perhaps that loose attitude, both by coaches and players, is the best way to combat all of the pressure that surround being on the biggest stage of the game.
Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky said he and his teammates played the suddenly resurgent Nintendo 64 game Super Smash Bros. in the team's hospitality room at its hotel Wednesday night. They also got their hair cut and simply hung out. When it's time to get focused, though, they know what to do.
"It's great being around so many characters on our team," Kaminsky said. "It just makes this experience that much more memorable being around so many fun guys.
"When we got on the court today for practice, all seriousness. We know how to flip it when we need to."
Kaminsky and the Badgers aren't the only ones playing games though.
"We're constantly together," Trice said. "Like Frank said, the hospitality room, we were there till 12:00, 1:00 (a.m.) last night. You really got to fight us to get away from each other. I think that's a good thing and helps us in close games."
And each team has had close games. Kentucky rallied late against Notre Dame to hit two free throws with six seconds remaining to win 68-66. Wisconsin has won each of its last three games by seven points each. Duke fought through a shooting slump against Utah to win by six. Michigan State, the tournament's lone non-No. 1 seed remaining, defeated Louisville in overtime in the Elite Eight.
On Saturday, while the video games may take a back seat, the players seemed quite certain the fun would not.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store here," Cook said.
"We're going to take it all in," Trice said.
"It's going to be fun," Kaminsky said. "I can't wait."
"I'm super excited to play," Cauley-Stein said. "It's a dream. When you're young and you're playing in your driveway, you're playing one-on-one against yourself, this is the moment that you're playing against."
Bo Ryan and John Calipari held a joint press conference on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Through all the tests Kentucky has faced this season, one team has always loomed more than any other.
As the Wildcats have piled up victory after victory, Wisconsin has been talked about as the team best suited to take them down.
Two days before UK and Wisconsin finally face off, John Calipari can see why.
"I mean, they do what they're supposed to do," Calipari said. "They give you a tough look. They rebound the ball. They're outstanding. This will be a really hard game for our team. We know that. Bo (Ryan) has done what he's done with every team: He's just made them a cohesive offensive and defensive unit."
The Badgers pass Coach Cal's eye test and the numbers back him up. UK-Wisconsin is a matchup of the teams rated No. 1 and No. 3 according to kenpom.com and the Badgers took down No. 2 Arizona on Sunday.
Let's dig into the numbers behind those rankings, numbers that have a lot to say about which team will win the right to play for the national championship.
When Kentucky is on offense
Kentucky's offense has been overshadowed by its historically good defense, but the Cats can really score the ball. Wisconsin's head coach has noticed, and it's a lot about UK's depth.
"Even if there's a guy that shoots a bad percentage or has a rough day, look how many other guys can pick them up," Ryan said. "There are some teams who have two, three, maybe four scorers. If they all have a bad day the same day, they're definitely losing. Kentucky can have guys have bad days but still have enough guys to make up for that."
Six Cats are used on between 20 and 24 percent of UK's possessions, and they all have individual offensive ratings of better than 109. Perhaps most incredibly, Kentucky's consensus first-team All-American, Willie Cauley-Stein, isn't among them. He's used on just 18.6 percent of possessions for which he's on the floor.
Against Wisconsin - the nation's 54th-ranked defense, according to kenpom.com - UK will face a unique test, notably because the teams will match strengths in a couple notable areas.
UK has the fifth-most efficient offense in America thanks in large part to its ability to attack the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line. The Cats rank sixth nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage (0.399) and 25th in free-throw rate (44.5). Wisconsin, meanwhile, is fourth in defensive-rebounding percentage (0.741) and first in defensive free-throw rate (22.1). Which team wins these two battles is anyone's guess.
UK and Wisconsin are also evenly matched in effective field-goal percentage, the Cats ranking 75th on offense and the Badgers 99th on defense. Interestingly, the Badgers struggle guarding the 3-point line. Wisconsin is 301st in 3-point percentage defense (0.374), but allows 3-point attempts so infrequently (only 26.3 percent of opponents' shots come from 3) that it doesn't often hurt the Badgers.
Where UK figures to get a boost is in the turnover department. The Badgers never sell out to force miscues and their opponents commit turnovers on just 16.1 percent of possessions (327th nationally). The Cats, by contrast, take care of the ball effectively and rank 36th in turnover percentage (0.164). In last year's national semifinal, UK had just four turnovers. When Kentucky is on defense
Speaking of matching strengths, how about the best offense in the country against the best defense in the country?
Wisconsin is the only team with an offense rated better by kenpom.com than Notre Dame, which just scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season.
"Well, they're outstanding," Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post."
Cauley-Stein is similarly impressed.
"Us watching film, they run angles a lot," he said. "One of our biggest things in the Notre Dame game was giving up backdoors, easy baskets. They utilized that. They kind of pride themselves on, you know, exploiting people's weakness and taking over from it. So that's our biggest thing is not giving up easy baskets, not letting them play angles against us."
The Badgers' top threat is Frank Kaminsky, the versatile 7-footer who scores inside and out. Thanks in large part to him, Wisconsin is 16th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (0.55) and facing the best effective field-goal percentage defense in Kentucky, which holds opponents to 0.392.
Wisconsin's greatest strength is its ability to take care of the basketball. The Badgers, steadied by point guard Bronson Koenig, commit turnovers on just 12.3 percent of their possessions, the best mark in the country. They haven't committed double-digit turnovers since Dec. 13, meaning even UK's disruptive defense isn't likely to cause too many errors.
In short, expect Wisconsin to shoot the ball relatively well and commit few turnovers. UK could make up for that at the free-throw line, because the Cats are 55th in defensive free-throw rate and the Badgers are 181st in offensive free-throw rate.
Where the game could be decided, however, is on the glass when Wisconsin does miss. The Badgers are middle of the pack in offensive-rebounding percentage (129th), while UK is below average in defensive-rebounding percentage (204th). If the Cats can perform better than they typically have in this area, they will gain an edge.
One thing that's close to a certainty is that Saturday's game will not be an up-tempo affair. UK ranks 250th in adjusted tempo, Wisconsin 345th.
The Cats have thrived this season in up-and-down games, but they've handled grind-it-out affairs just fine too. At the end of the day, they're just going to play their game.
"We're not going to control what Wisconsin does," Calipari said. "They're going to play the way they play. I just hope my team plays well. I think if you talk to all four coaches, when you say, 'We're stopping Wisconsin.' We're not stopping Wisconsin. I just hope my team plays well and then we'll see how it plays out."
The Wildcats pose on Thursday at the Final Four in Indianapolis. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Rock and roll hall of famer Bob Dylan famously wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'." College basketball can relate.
On Thursday, four current or future college basketball hall of fame coaches talked about the changing times of their sport, specifically the one and done - succeed and proceed, if you prefer - era that has overcome it.
"It's changed," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "It's changed for all of us. It's changed from Internet to draft lists to the gazillions in the NBA. It's all that stuff that's made this different, our jobs different."
Since Calipari was hired six years ago Wednesday, Kentucky has churned out 19 NBA Draft picks, including 15 first-rounders, and 13 freshmen. Those numbers dwarf every other school in America, but don't signify that UK is the lone team that recruits those players, nor encourages them to leave for the NBA if they have that opportunity.
While Wisconsin, which sports a starting lineup of two sophomores, a junior and two seniors, is not known for sending players to the NBA after only one year in college, head coach Bo Ryan said he would not hold a player back from that decision if that's what they wanted to do.
"Nigel Hayes, after he said he was coming to Wisconsin, you can ask him this, said, 'Coach, now if I'm the Player of the Year my freshman year and I decide to go pro, is that OK with you?' " Ryan said. "... Are you serious, Nigel? I just said, 'Hey, sure, I have no problem with that.' "
"It's just a different era," Coach Cal said. "We're dealing with things in a different way. You just have to, we all are. Whether me or Bo, if Bo has a guy after a year, Bo is going to tell him to go for it if he's a lottery pick. We're all in the same thing. You don't know when you recruit a kid if he's going to leave after a year. You don't know. You just coach them, then they make a decision what they want to do. We just try to make sure we make this about the kids."
One of the numerous gripes that is often thrown out in the criticism of the one and done era is that because the student-athletes are only at the university for one year they do not have enough time to build a legacy or make an impact in the community.
Those following this year's group of Wildcats knows, however, that this idea appears to be a farce.
There's Karl-Anthony Towns, who became friends with Matt Bunk, a 19-year-old who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child and is now restricted to a wheelchair. Towns signed and gave Bunk his shoes after the Wildcats' regular-season finale versus Florida and told Bunk to let him know the next time he was around.
"Whether they chase their dream or not doesn't make them good or bad, we have great kids," Coach Cal said. "The second thing is our kids are connected. Anyone that knows any of our players that are in the NBA, not in the NBA, they are connected whether they stayed one year, two years, three. We are family, and they know that. They stay in touch. They text. We talk to them. I'll go to games. They'll come in for watching games. It's just different. I think everybody's now looking at this saying, 'It's not my rule.' As a matter of fact, it's not the NCAA's rule. This is a rule between the NBA and the Players' Association."
The reason so many players have decided to leave college early for the NBA, in Calipari's eyes, is the growing value of contracts. What was once a $125,000 contract, has now become a $25 million contract if you're a top-10 pick, he says.
What was lost on both Calipari and Ryan, is the double standard associated with young people leaving school early to pursue an NBA career, but not when another student, athlete or not, leaves school early to further pursue their sport or a different profession.
"I will tell you, we have universities here around this country, some of the top, that encourage genius, kids to move on and do their things if they stayed one or two years," Coach Cal said. "As a matter of fact, they'll invest in them financially and tell them, 'If it doesn't go, you can come back and your position will always be there.' I don't understand why it's a problem if it's the same with basketball players. These kids have a genius. Our jobs are to help them grow on and off the court, to help them become better men, to be prepared for society, yet they're chasing a dream and they have a genius."
"What I agree totally with is the entertainers, the people who are talented in other areas that end up going and doing something, going out of school thinking later to come back, that maybe they'll get their degree, maybe they won't," Ryan said. "You never hear about those people. It only comes up, and John has to face those type of questions a heck of a lot more than I do. In college, if people are stepping away, I don't call it dropping out, they're stepping away to pursue their passion."
DraftExpress.com has five players currently listed in the top 10 of its latest 2015 NBA Draft projection who will be playing in Saturday's Final Four games, three of whom are freshmen. Of DraftExpress' top 20, eight will be playing in the Final Four, five are freshmen, and just one is a senior. It's quite possible all will enter the NBA Draft to begin their professional lives by season's end.
In last year's Final Four and national championship, Kentucky started five freshmen. In 2014-15 the Wildcats have often started two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior. The Cats have thrived off the play of their four rookies, three of whom are listed in DraftExpress.com's top 20, as well as their returners, a mix Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is starting three freshmen this season who are all projected to be first-round picks, said helps "tremendously."
Despite being the fifth-youngest team in all of college basketball, each of the Wildcats' student-athletes has shown a great sense of maturity both in their selfless attitudes, team-first approach and ability to block out distractions and pressure and focus on the task at hand. The end result has impressed coaches from afar and near, while also ushering in a changing of times in this new era.
"Times have changed a little bit," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I still think they can make an impact. I don't think we always appreciate it as much because we want them there longer, means fans, media, everybody else."
"John has done an amazing job with his group, and it's been good for college basketball in that you've been talking about a team instead of talking about freshmen or individuals," Krzyzewski said. "For a few years we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals. This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be: it's about teams. Kentucky's been a great team."
UK will face Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com contributed to this piece
They're 38-0 and have set a number of both program and national records this season. And yet, when you talk to the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats and hear about what goes on in their heads something stands out perhaps more than their immense talent.
Outside of their athletic "genius" as UK head coach John Calipari says, these guys are no different than any other college basketball players around the country.
"We're student-athletes just like everyone else," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "We're required to go to class, we're required to make the grades, so we're just like every other program in that sense."
One thing that is different is the amount of attention these players get, which can make life difficult at times.
"Everything you do is under a microscope and everything is blown up," Aaron Harrison said. "You're just overly criticized and it's tough being a young man here. But it's not a bad place to be, obviously.
"Oh, of course. We have a great amount of fun. I'm not saying that. It's just, you have to be careful. It's a lot of criticism."
Their tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook pages are seen by thousands each and every day. Grown men from opposing teams will heckle and yell at them incessantly during games. Their pictures and highlights have been shown on national TV nearly every day since the calendar turned to February and their bid for an unbeaten season became more realistic.
Thirty-minute TV shows have been dedicated to break down how to beat them, and countless stories have been written online, in magazines and in newspapers tackling the same topic. Despite its thrilling win in the Elite Eight on TBS going down as the most viewed college basketball game of all time on cable TV, they've also been told they're ruining college basketball.
"I mean it didn't bother us because we knew it wasn't the truth," Harrison said about hearing UK was ruining college basketball. "And we know a lot of people say things about us and make up their own theories about us, but most of it's not true."
Perhaps the biggest theory the Cats have had to face this year is if they can become the first team in 39 years to complete an undefeated season with a national championship. Just two wins shy now, freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said the prospect of doing such a thing is hard for somebody to think of at the beginning of the year, much less practice.
"Obviously, coming in, I knew my brothers, we had a great amount of talent, but you never knew were going to jell so well and this season was going to go the way it went," Towns said. "You just were blessed with this opportunity, and you just want to take it as full amount as you can take it as, cherish every moment, and try to end the season with no regrets, and that's what we're going to try to do this weekend."
UK-Wisconsin matchup the same, but different
It's a familiar sight, Kentucky and Wisconsin going head to head with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Just a year ago, the Cats topped the Badgers on the third of three memorable Aaron Harrison 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament, completing a comeback from five points down with barely six minutes remaining to win, 74-73.
Wisconsin, then, will surely have vengeance on its mind Saturday, right? Aaron Harrison isn't sure that will be a major factor.
"When you get this close and to the Final Four, everyone's motivated," Aaron Harrison said. "... I mean, I'm not really sure how other teams are feeling, but I know we're just as motivated as we've ever been and even more so. We're just going out trying to win games, make statements and play as hard as we can."
Furthermore, the two teams that will take the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium are not the same ones that played in AT&T Stadium last April.
To be sure, both have plenty of returners, but UK has added four talented freshmen to its rotation and lost Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA. For Wisconsin, Ben Brust has graduated and Traevon Jackson is only just playing his way back into the rotation after suffering a right foot injury in January.
And oh yeah, Willie Cauley-Stein is back.
The consensus All-American missed last year's national semifinal with a stress fracture in his ankle, leaving UK to deal with Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky without its top defender. The Cats, throwing everyone from Julius Randle to Marcus Lee to Dakari Johnson at the versatile 7-footer, limited Kaminsky to just eight points on seven shots, including no 3-point tries, but Cauley-Stein still figures to provide a boost.
"You know it's going to be great," Johnson said. "He matches up well with the guys they have on the floor. He gives us just another weapon that we didn't have last year." Wisconsin offense another stiff test for UK
John Calipari was less than 48 hours into preparing for a national semifinal matchup with Wisconsin when he joined the Final Four Coaches' Teleconference on Monday.
He'd already seen everything he needed to out of the Badgers.
"Well, they're outstanding," Coach Cal said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post."
Considering the Fighting Irish scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season in the Elite Eight, that's high praise.
Wisconsin ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, comfortably ahead of second-place Notre Dame. The Badgers have scored more than a point per possession in 10 consecutive games. They play at a deliberate pace similar to Notre Dame, but Aaron Harrison says the similarities don't go much further.
"It's not the same style, I don't think," he said.
Working in UK's favor on Saturday will be some additional preparation time. Against Notre Dame, the Wildcats had to get ready for a complex, efficient offense in essentially a day. This time around, they have a week.
"I think it showed it's really hard when you have to prepare for a team in a day's span and get ready for a whole different offense with such great shooters," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I think that's what's so great, we have a whole week this week to prepare for Wisconsin and get used to their offense, and get to implement our defense into their offensive game plan and try to make it the most difficult for them as we possibly can."
Towns on the cover of latest Sports Illustrated
For the third time this season, a Kentucky Wildcat is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Towns is the latest to grace the cover of the famed sports magazine. In a regional cover, Towns is shown overhead scoring two of his career-high 25 points against Notre Dame. To the left of him is a headline reading "From the brink. To the brink. Kentucky closes in on ... 40-0"
The 6-foot-11 freshman was also on the March 16 cover previewing the NCAA Tournament along with frontcourt mates Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Junior forward Alex Poythress was on Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue Nov. 10.
DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings: 107, Philadelphia 76ers: 106 | March 24, 2015 In a one-point contest that came down to the closing seconds, Cousins' defense stole the spotlight at Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday night. The 6-foot-11 fifth-year veteran posted 33 points (on 17-for-19 free throws), 17 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in the Kings' 25th win of the season. When Philly's Hollis Thompson burst through the lane with hopes of getting to the basket with less than two seconds remaining, Cousins stepped in the lane and stripped the ball, sealing the Sacramento victory. Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (38-35) Despite only one win in three tries for Phoenix last week, Bledsoe averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds over the stretch. The Suns defeated the Dallas Mavericks 98-92 on March 22, but fell to the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers on March 25 and 27, respectively. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (26-46) Besides Cousins' monster performance in the win over Nerlens Noel's Sixers last Tuesday, the big man highlighted his week with victories over former teammates John Wall and the Washington Wizards and Bledsoe and the Suns. Cousins averaged an incredible 29.0 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 2.0 blocks over Sacramento's four-game stretch. The Kings' only loss came at the hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on March 27. Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (38-34) The Pelicans' 102-88 win over Sacramento put an end to a four-game New Orleans losing streak. In the three games that took place last week, Davis averaged 24.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 2.0 steals.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (41-32) In two wins over the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers to start the week, Kanter averaged 26.0 points and 14.0 rebounds for the Thunder, who is fighting for its playoff life. However, OKC dropped its next two contests to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on March 25, and Kanter's former team, the Utah Jazz, on March 28. Kanter averaged 17.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the losses.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (18-55) With three double-doubles in four Philly games last week, Noel has positioned himself as a frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year in the minds of many of the award's voters. The youthful 76ers defeated the Denver Nuggets 99-85 on March 25, but fell to the Lakers, Kings and Los Angeles Clippers in Philadelphia's other three contests. Noel's stat sheet was highlighted by a career-high 30-point, 14-rebound performance in Friday's 119-98 loss to the Clippers.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (41-32) Wall began his week with two lackluster personal performances in consecutive Wizards blowout losses on the road. However, Wall bounced back with 34- and 32-point scoring outings in Washington's next two games. The Wizards fell to the Indiana Pacers 103-101 on March 25, and defeated the Charlotte Hornets 110-107 on March 27.
John Calipari has coached Kentucky to a fourth Final Four in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Do you understand if you're going to lead, you're going to serve?"
When a player feels he is ready to leave John Calipari's Kentucky program, he is subject to the same series of questions Calipari asks all his student-athletes before releasing them to the professional ranks.
"Do you understand how to be a great leader?" Calipari asks.
On the court, Calipari's leadership speaks for itself. The 56-year-old Pennsylvania native has led the Wildcats to the Final Four in four of the past five seasons-- a feat matched in college basketball only by the late John Wooden and 2015 Final Four counterpart Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of the Duke Blue Devils.
"(When) you talk about Mike Krzyzewski, come on," Calipari said. "Wooden, Krzyzewski, and that's about it. My respect for Mike Krzyzewski goes beyond just watching him and what he's done in thousands of games, all that."
In addition to a potential second national title and the sport's only subsequent 40-win undefeated season, Calipari's career achievements have put him in a position for another honor to possibly be bestowed upon him this weekend: induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"People aren't up for (the Hall of Fame) unless people believe that he belongs," said Krzyzewski. "I think whether it happens this year, it will happen."
Calipari and Krzyzewski, who himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, are joined in Indianapolis by two of the Big Ten's most legendary active coaches, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and Michigan State's Tom Izzo.
"When you talk about the coaches here, when you talk about Bo Ryan, you're talking about one of those guys that walked through the ranks and has done it anywhere he's been," Calipari said. "He was a great assistant before he was a great head coach. He's just a good guy."
Together, Calipari, Krzyzewski and Izzo comprise three of Division I's top five active coaches in terms of Final Four appearances.
"Tommy Izzo and I go so far back," said Calipari. "We're in touch throughout this tournament. He knows what I feel about him. You talk about one of the top two or three coaches, he's it. He's done it every year with every kind of different team. He's done it when he's lost guys, when he's had great players, when he's had great teams."
Izzo echoed Calipari's sentiment, adding a personal endorsement for Calipari's Hall of Fame bid this weekend.
"Well, if you look at it, when you can win at Massachusetts, then go and win at Memphis, then the job he's done at Kentucky is unbelievable," Izzo said. "He doesn't get enough credit for his coaching. Having great players, I mean, there's days that it's easier. I think what people don't realize is there's days when it's more difficult juggling egos, juggling the NBA stuff, juggling the expectations at a school like Kentucky. I do think he's very deserving of being in (the Hall of Fame)."
With a combined 27 Final Four appearances between the four head coaches vying for Monday's coveted national championship trophy, this year's Final Four may just be a true "Mount Rushmore" of college hoops.
"It's a privilege and an honor to be in the class with the people that are (at the Final Four)," said Izzo. "I think you got a lot of coaches that have worked hard to get there and put in their time, put in their years, been graduate assistants on up... That makes it great because I know I have great respect for the other three coaches that are in here."
No. 7 Michigan State will tip-off against No. 1 Duke on Saturday, April 4 at 6:09 p.m. Following the conclusion of that game approximately two and a half hours later, No. 1 Kentucky will face No. 1 Wisconsin in a rematch of last season's Final Four.