Opposites attract: Wisconsin, Kentucky built teams in different fashions
MADISON, Wis. — Kentucky basketball has so many stars on its team that astrologers ought to consider naming a constellation after the best players.
OK, not really. But as star-studded college basketball teams go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one with more depth of ridiculous talent than these Wildcats.
Consider that this year’s Kentucky team has seven five-star players out of high school on the roster, according to Scout.com: Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Wildcats center Willie Cauley-Stein, then, must feel like an outcast in comparison because he was a four-star recruit.
Now contrast that with the lineup of Kentucky’s next opponent, Wisconsin. According to Scout.com, the Badgers have just one five-star high school recruit (forward Sam Dekker) and two four-star recruits (guard Bronson Koenig and center Evan Anderson, a redshirt junior who rarely plays). The rest are a mix of less heralded three-star players.
So when Wisconsin (30-7) plays Kentucky (28-10) at 7:49 p.m. CT Saturday in the second Final Four game in Arlington, Texas, two entirely different worlds will collide.
There is Kentucky coach John Calipari, who signs one-and-done five-star recruits, sends them to the NBA and reloads with even more five-star McDonald’s All-American talent. And then there is Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who signs players with the intention of keeping them for four years and consistently developing their talent. His best players usually wind up as European professionals.
Since Calipari arrived at Kentucky before the 2009-10 season, 17 of his players have been taken in the NBA Draft. Ryan, meanwhile, has had one player taken during that same span: Former Badgers forward Jon Leuer was drafted 40th by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2011.
In every way, Wisconsin is the polar opposite of Kentucky’s one-and-done philosophy. The only similarity? Both teams play good basketball and have reached the Final Four this week.
Yet the fact Kentucky players earn most of the national shine holds little significance for Badgers players.
"It’s definitely not that important," said Badgers guard Josh Gasser, the heart and soul of Wisconsin’s team and a three-star high school recruit four years ago from Port Washington, Wis. "I know, growing up in Wisconsin, all the talk is they don’t get high recruits, but they always win. You just kind of know that coming in. We kind of joke about it. It’s just kind of funny how we’re not highly recruited, but yet we still win some games. It’s the kind of tradition we have, and it’s great to have.
"We obviously have great talent. For Coach Ryan to do it year in and year out, it obviously means you’re doing something right. That’s all I can say about that."
Calipari pointed out that he didn’t always coach at stops that made high-level recruits salivate. He noted he had few McDonald’s All-Americans while he coached at UMass. The bigger names started to filter in when Calipari coached at Memphis (see Derrick Rose), but the landscape shifted after he arrived at Kentucky.
When five Kentucky players were taken in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft — John Wall (1), DeMarcus Cousins (5), Patrick Patterson (14), Eric Bledsoe (18) and Daniel Orton (29) — Calipari said, "it changed the whole direction."
"This is the hardest place to come and play basketball," Calipari said. "If you think this is going to be easy, don’t come here. If you want to be the only guy that can play, don’t come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else. If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys. If you want to go there, go. That’s not how it is here.
"Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you’re going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. What we’re doing has never been done. You can’t do this. So you’re getting that hit. If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here.
"That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?"
As for the actual game Saturday, Calipari said Kentucky wasn’t likely to have the services of Cauley-Stein, who missed the Elite Eight game with an ankle injury. But that merely means Calipari can use Lee, a five-star recruit who finished with 10 points and eight rebounds against Michigan in the Elite Eight and tallied four first-half put-back dunks.
So, how the heck does Wisconsin prepare for the most athletic and highly touted bunch of players it will see all season?
"It’s hard to simulate that, but our scout team tries to," Ryan said. "We just ask them to be like, ‘Go, Go Gadget.’ If your arms go this far, then get them to go this far. So that’s how we ask them to play to simulate the length."
Ryan then acknowledged: "We can’t simulate Kentucky."
Most NBA Draft experts are projecting Kentucky players will once again scatter the first-round draft board this summer. Three players — Randle, Cauley-Stein and Young — are considered sure-fire first-rounders in a few months. And there surely will be more in the years to come.
Of course, five-star NBA talent does not always guarantee success in the NCAA tournament against tough-nosed, upperclassmen-laden teams.
Wisconsin players are counting on it.
"Both teams need to be recognized for being good," Gasser said. "You’re in the Final Four, you obviously did something right. Kentucky deserves credit for being a good team, and I think so do we.
"We’ve beaten a ton of good teams this year, and I think that speaks for itself. We don’t really care what the outside perception is of us. Internally, we’re confident. We believe that we’re a good team and we can beat anyone on any given night if we play our game. So we’re definitely confident in that, and that’s really all that matters."
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