Very big reasons why Kentucky should be very afraid of Wisconsin
As we creep closer to March, there’s one question for the 2014-15 college hoops season that rises above all the others: Who can beat Kentucky?
It’s a bit of a parlor game among college hoops nerds like myself. What will it take to slay the undefeated giant that appears hurtling toward history? What’s the perfect makeup for a David — and everyone else is a David when matched up with Kentucky — to beat Goliath?
I don’t mean doing what LSU almost did on Tuesday night, when the Bayou Bengals took the Wildcats to the brink in Baton Rouge until Kentucky pulled out the 71-69 win in the final minute. That game — like Kentucky’s close win at Florida over the weekend, or Kentucky’s double-overtime win at Texas A&M in January — were road-trip anomalies. Those aren’t the games I’m talking about here. Those are the road games when Kentucky is their opponents’ Super Bowl. You can’t expect a bunch of 18-to-21-year-old Wildcats to come out with the same energy and motivation every night to play SEC teams that don’t really belong on the same court as Kentucky. Those close calls are outliers. Flukes, even.
No, what I’m talking about is this: Who can beat Kentucky on a neutral court, a fair fight, in a game that matters?
In other words: What type of team could beat Kentucky in the Final Four and halt its march to 40-0?
Well, I might have found the prototype.
How about a team that can shoot the lights out from the perimeter? A team with the height down low to compete with Kentucky’s never-ending parade of 7-footers? An experienced team that’s had Kentucky on the ropes before, knows its weaknesses, and is hungry for vengeance? A team with a matchup nightmare who might be college basketball’s best player, plus two more likely NBA players and a bunch of complementary pieces who fit perfectly into this team’s system?
In other words: Wisconsin.
Think about it: A veteran bunch that’s been on the big stage before and is motivated by last year’s heartbreaking one-point Final Four loss to Kentucky. A team that’s so patient on offense, always turning down good looks for better looks, that it won’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s once-in-a-generation defense. A game-changing player in 7-footer Frank Kaminsky who can pull Kentucky’s bigs to the perimeter. (A matchup between Kaminsky and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, by the way, would be so, so fun to watch.) A team that, assuming injured point guard Traevon Jackson is fully integrated into the rotation come tourney time, has two high-level point guards in Jackson and sophomore Bronson Koenig who have completely different styles. The nation’s most efficient offense, a pick-your-poison group that scores an absurd 1.25 points per possession with one of the nation’s slowest tempos that controls the pace of every game. A San Antonio Spurs-like share-the-ball mentality. A senior-laden team that’s been playing together since Kentucky’s current freshmen class were high school sophomores.
I went to Lincoln to watch the Wisconsin Badgers on Tuesday night. The sellout arena was on fire. It’s been a lost season for Nebraska — a team that was supposed to be an up-and-comer looks certain to miss the NCAA tournament. But for one night, Huskers fans could think anything was possible, because the circus was coming to town. And Nebraska played like it, too. Great defense, as is Tim Miles’ trademark, coupled with a furious late-game run that made things interesting. But was it ever really in doubt that fifth-ranked Wisconsin was going to win? Nope. The Badgers ended up winning 65-55.
It felt, come to think of it, a lot like your average Kentucky road game.
Afterward — What the hell, I thought — I posed my theory to Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. Humor me, Bo, I said. Do you think you’re the team best constructed to beat Kentucky?
“Are you doing standup?” he said, staring at me like I was crazy. “No, you’re sitting down.”
He paused a moment — then he decided to go the route of humorous humility and talk about the two Kentucky squads in John Calipari’s platoon system.
“My story last week was, when somebody said something about the polls, it should be: Kentucky. One. Parentheses: Blue. Then two: Kentucky. Parentheses: White. And everybody else is scratching and clawing.”
Do your players itch for that rematch?
“It’s February!” Bo said, exasperated. “You know I don’t do that. Not at 67. We got the Illini coming up Saturday.”
I didn’t really expect Bo to really entertain my question about whether his team felt like the team that could upend the nation’s best team. It would be silly for him to do that. No need to look too far ahead.
But that doesn’t mean this theory is wrong. Wisconsin is the type of offensive dynamo that could patiently work that Kentucky defense. The Badgers are the nation’s best at limiting turnovers and have one of the top effective field-goal percentages in the nation.
And remember: We could just as easily be talking about two teams staring at undefeated here. Wisconsin has two losses. One was at home to Duke, where Duke set a Kohl Center record for shooting percentage, hitting nearly two-thirds of its shots. The other loss was the ultimate anomaly, a road loss to Rutgers where Kaminsky was sitting out with an injury.
Part of my dreaming about this hypothetical Kentucky-Wisconsin matchup is that, man, what a treat that would be. What a fun storyline for a Final Four rematch. What a great game.
Before they boarded the team bus to the airport late Tuesday, I asked this team’s two stars, Kaminsky and power forward Sam Dekker, how much last year’s oh-so-close Final Four stuck with them.
“We were one possession away,” said Dekker, fresh off Tuesday’s career-high tying 21 points. “To get that close to something and come up short really, really sticks with you. We use that as a stepping stone ... Just to get back to that point, we know we have a group that can do it.”
“It was one of the more motivating things that’s ever happened to me in my basketball career,” Kaminsky said. “To just get so close to what we’ve always worked for and come up short in the way we did — it’s one of those things, as much as you don’t want it to, it sticks in the back of your mind. There’s nothing you can really do to get it out of there.”
So did Kaminsky, perhaps the best college basketball player in the country, agree with me that his team matched up as well with Kentucky as any other team out there?
“Absolutely,” he said. “We think we can match up with anyone in the country. Kentucky obviously feels the same way. (And) we’d love to have that opportunity.”
And this is what I thought: If there is a God that rules over college basketball, He will make that happen, and put it on the biggest of stages.
Email Reid Forgrave at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.