INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard for a 7-foot basketball player to disappear anywhere. But for two seasons, Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky was nearly invisible on the college hoops scene.
As Badgers coach Bo Ryan has told it, during Kaminsky’s junior season, some folks approached Ryan and asked which school Kaminsky transferred from. He didn’t transfer, Ryan would tell them. He was on the bench behind a two-year starter named Jared Berggren.
And then, Kaminsky made it impossible for any college basketball enthusiast to forget his name with a scintillating NCAA tournament run, becoming the story of the big dance. He scored 19 points with a career-high six blocks against Baylor in the Sweet 16. He demolished Arizona with 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight. And he earned the West Region’s most outstanding player award, the crowning achievement on a lengthy three-year journey from role player to breakout star.
Of course, the story of last season didn’t end there. If it had, maybe Kaminsky would’ve become complacent with his place in the sport or more seriously considered the NBA Draft. Seven days later, however, Kaminsky could not adequately handle Kentucky’s length and athleticism in the Wildcats’ 74-73 victory against the Badgers at the Final Four. He finished with eight points and five rebounds while taking only seven shots in 32 minutes — far from the standout performance many anticipated.
"I learned that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was," Kaminsky said Thursday during a pre-Final Four news conference. "Just going against a team like theirs, they have so many elite players on the court at all times. I just struggled and didn’t play as well as I wanted to."
The topic of redemption has become a major story line for Wisconsin’s basketball team this week as it readies for a Final Four rematch against undefeated Kentucky at 7:49 p.m. CT Saturday in Lucas Oil Stadium. Forward Nigel Hayes played just seven minutes a year ago in that game and scored two points. Guard Josh Gasser couldn’t close out high enough on Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3. Point guard Traevon Jackson misfired on a last-second elbow jumper to win the game.
But perhaps no one felt he had more to prove than Kaminsky, whose output that night demonstrated the consistency with which he’d need to play to become a truly elite player.
"I think it showed him that he had a ways to go yet physically, and he’s taken those steps to get stronger, to be in better shape," Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said. "Because he was really coming off that Arizona game where it was boom, he was on the stage and that was the next time after that game. So now he’s had to live with that spotlight for a year and has handled people’s best games that they can throw at him. He’s made himself a much better player, a more complete player and more adept to handling what people are going to throw at him."
Kaminsky said he spent weeks contemplating the result of that Kentucky game, particularly when offseason workouts began. When he arrived back on campus for the start of his senior season, he possessed more confidence and strength. And then he became every bit the elite player he strived to be last year. He was named a unanimous first-team all-American after being the only major conference player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. For his efforts, he is expected to be named the Associated Press Player of the Year here Friday.
"I wanted to work as hard as I could to get to this stage, be a good player," Kaminsky said. "It definitely wasn’t easy, but I was willing to put in the time, effort and work to do so. It’s gone better, better than I planned. At the end of the day, there’s still a lot of work left. I think I can still improve on my game and improve on the season."
Now, Kaminsky is back in the same position as a year ago. And, like then, a Kentucky matchup will represent his toughest test of the season. Kentucky coach John Calipari can throw any number of big men at him: 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-footer Dakari Johnson, 6-11 forward Karl-Anthony Towns, 6-10 forward Trey Lyles and 6-9 forward Marcus Lee.
Last season, Calipari said, both Johnson and Lee were tasked with hounding Kaminsky while Cauley-Stein sat out with an ankle injury. When Kaminsky received the ball, the team’s guards also would dip down and cause trouble with brief double-teams. But the consensus is that Kaminsky isn’t likely to be pushed around anymore. Kaminsky’s assists-to-turnovers ratio has increased from 1.25 last season to 1.70 this season.
"He looks stronger," Calipari said. "He’s working angles better. He’s a really confident perimeter shooter. He’s passing because he gets doubleâteamed so much. He’s passing better."
During Thursday’s news conference, Calipari reiterated how good Kaminsky was as a player by noting his swagger and self-confidence on the court.
"I just saw him out in the hallway," Calipari said. "I said, ‘Look, I’m so tired of looking at your tape right now.’ I said to Bo, we were laughing, how much better he’s gotten in a two-year period is almost scary."
Two years ago, few could have predicted Kaminsky’s meteoric rise. He played 10.3 minutes per game as Berggren’s backup and averaged 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds. He was held scoreless in five of his final 15 games and finished with two points on four other occasions during that stretch.
"He’s worked at every drill," Ryan said. "He’s worked at everything we’ve given him. He’s looked at the films. He’s very astute when it comes to picking up nuances of moves, using his body, positioning. So, (with) his family background, there’s athletes. His parents are very athletic, very smart. We were getting a player who we knew was hungry and wanted to prove that he could get to be pretty good. We tend to enjoy having those kinds of guys around. But for somebody to go to the level he has, from start to finish, no, I’ve never had a player like that."
Whether Kaminsky plays well enough to squelch Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection is among the biggest keys to Saturday’s game. This time, however, he believes he’s much more prepared for what he’ll see. And he won’t be a 7-footer who disappears from the spotlight.
"They have such a big frontline, and they have so much depth that you never know what’s going to happen," Kaminsky said. "I’ll just do whatever I have to do, whether it’s double teams, oneâonâones, whoever is guarding me, I will be ready for whatever."