Experienced Badgers brace for new kind of Wildcat attack

Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison (2) is mobbed by teammates after defeating Wisconsin, 74-73, in the semifinals of the Final Four in 2014. While there are similarities in Kentucky's rotation, this year's team has a much different feel than the one that ended Wisconsin's season a year ago.
 

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MADISON, Wis. — The rationale behind some Wisconsin basketball players refusing to watch last year’s Kentucky game film is that the memory is too painful, too heartbreaking. They were there. They know what happened. Why relive the hurt all over again?

As the Final Four rematch between the two teams approaches, the general sentiment on Wisconsin’s side seems to be: maybe they were on to something. Because while both teams are much better this season, neither are the same. And that holds particularly true for Kentucky (38-0), which has five of its top eight leading scorers that did not play against Wisconsin (35-3) a year ago.

"The personnel is different, but of course I looked at it," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "But they’re a different team. I think it’s easier for them to look at us than it is for us to look at them. I looked at 10 films, couple of games where I only looked at a half, but, no, they’re different. They’re undefeated for a reason."

A year ago, in Kentucky’s 74-73 comeback victory against Wisconsin at the Final Four, the Wildcats’ two leading scorers were James Young and Julius Randle. Randle was drafted seventh by the Los Angeles Lakers, and Young went 17th to the Boston Celtics. Alex Poythress played 29 minutes off the bench in that game, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in December.

And while there are similarities in the rotation, namely Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins, this year’s team has a much different feel. A year ago, Kentucky entered the NCAA tournament with 10 losses and finished six games behind Florida in the Southeastern Conference. Now, the Wildcats are on the verge of perfection thanks largely to one of the finest collections of talent in college basketball history.

That talent begins up front with 6-foot-11 freshman Karl Anthony-Towns, quite possibly the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, who is averaging 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. He and 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein earned first-team all-conference honors. Cauley-Stein averages 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds and did not play against Wisconsin a year ago after sustaining an ankle injury in a Sweet 16 game against Louisville.

Other new pieces to the puzzle include 6-6 freshman guard Devin Booker (10.1 points), 5-9 freshman guard Tyler Ulis (5.6 points, 3.7 assists) and 6-10 freshman forward Trey Lyles (8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds), who took over as a starter in coach John Calipari’s lineup after Poythress’ injury.

"They’re different in the sense that they have new bodies and new faces and a little more size, obviously, but Willie didn’t play last year in the game," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "Our big matchup problem last year was Julius Randle, and he’s with the L.A. Lakers now, but they’ve got a lot of good players, a bunch of pros. You can go nine, 10 deep on that team and still not skip a beat, so coach Cal does a good job of pulling them in and out and just filling their teams, whether it’s offensive or defensive ends.

"You’ve got to be able to react to the situation and play our style of basketball and not get moving too fast, because they’re going to try to throw a lot at you. But if we be ourselves and play our style of basketball and not move the game in our minds too fast, it should be all right."

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Calipari was blessed with so much skill this season that he initially opted for an unheard of platoon system, which featured two sets of equally talented five-man rotations. But Poythress’ injury altered his plan, and now he uses a regular nine-man playing rotation. Regular, that is, other than the fact that the top nine members of the rotation other than Cauley-Stein were McDonald’s All-Americans — and all Cauley-Stein did this season was earn a consensus Associated Press first-team all-American spot.

While Kentucky’s personnel is drastically different, much of Wisconsin’s rotation remains the same. UW no longer has 3-point marksman Ben Brust, but eight other players off that team played against Kentucky, and seven scored. The loss has served as a motivating force for several of those players, particularly forward Nigel Hayes and center Frank Kaminsky.

Hayes played only seven minutes and scored two points. Kaminsky, meanwhile, scored eight points and took only seven shots one game after toasting Arizona for 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight to earn the West Region’s most outstanding player award.

"Last year I just felt that I didn’t contribute to help the team in the way that I should have," Hayes said. "All I had to do was to be average for us to win, and I was below average statistically."

Kaminsky noted the loss nagged at him in the first few weeks of the offseason, when he replayed the what-ifs in his head. But then workouts began, and the expectations players put forth was to return to the Final Four — which meant potentially another crack at a talented Kentucky team.

This year, Kentucky’s players are different. But the stakes are just as high.

"That loss definitely motivated us, not only as a team but individually," Hayes said. "I know I worked hard to make sure I was better, so if I’m in a situation again — and here we are in the exact same situation as last year — that I will be able to perform better and contribute. Hopefully, we can win the game and fulfill our goal."

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