CRAWFORD | Eight keys to watch (and one pick) for UK-Wisconsin i - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Eight keys to watch (and one pick) for UK-Wisconsin in the Final Four

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UK athletics photo from UKathletics.com. UK athletics photo from UKathletics.com.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) — The University of Kentucky basketball team, fresh off a two-point, gut-check win over Notre Dame, faces another surgical offensive operation Saturday night when it meets Wisconsin in the national semifinals in Lucas Oil Stadium.

For a second straight game, the matchup is being billed as the nation's best defense as perhaps its best offense. Wisconsin's postseason offensive numbers have been other-worldly. Kentucky's offensive numbers in the second half against Notre Dame were the same.


CRAWFORD | Calipari ahead of the curve, at the top of his game

Defensively, neither team budges. Wisconsin gives up just over 57 points per game; Kentucky just over 55.

If you read my points before Kentucky played Notre Dame, perhaps you'll remember that I wrote that Karl-Anthony Towns could potentially have a field day and that defending Notre Dame's baseline cuts would be a challenge for Kentucky. Both turned out to be the case. The law of averages, then, says that all the following should be wrong. But we'll proceed anyway.

So what are the keys? What will each team look to establish in order to gain an advantage over the other, and what are the things to watch early to get an indicator of whether this will be a comfortable UK win, or another nail biter like the one the teams produced on this stage last season?

Read on:

1. KENTUCKY DRIBBLE PENETRATION. It's hard to imagine UK coach John Calipari not testing the Badgers early and often on the dribble. Can they defend Aaron and Andrew Harrison on drives to the basket, not to mention Tyler Ulis? For all of the talk of the big men on both teams — and they are outstanding — the ability of Kentucky's guards to get the upper hand will be a major hinge on which this game turns.

Even if the Wildcat guards don't score on drives to the basket, they're adept at picking up fouls — particularly the Harrisons.

2. DEFENDING THE PICK-AND-ROLL. If you can't defend the pick-and-roll against Wisconsin, you're in trouble. Perhaps that's why UK's players say almost the whole of their defensive practices leading up to this game have concerned themselves with defending it correctly.

The problem Wisconsin poses is that you have to respect the pick and “pop,” with a big man setting the screen and then popping out for a three-pointer instead of rolling to the basket. If you lay off the screener, you're giving up a three. If you get to far up, you risk the roll to the basket for a layup.

Wisconsin is extremely skilled at reading what is happening in these situations. UK, as it has all season, figures to switch everything on these screens, so communication and focus are absolutely necessary, or the Badgers will have a field day.

3. FOUL TROUBLE. Frank Kaminsky, the widespread choice for college basketball player of the year, is an experienced and cagey player who is adept at drawing fouls in the post. But Kentucky is so deep and talented inside that he's going to find himself under attack every time down against the Wildcats. If Willie Cauley-Stein or Karl-Anthony Towns gets in foul trouble first, it's a problem for the Wildcats, though hardly the end of the world, given that Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are well-experienced at this level.

If Kaminsky goes down with a pair of early fouls, it's a problem for Wisconsin.

4. RUN, HOLD, RUN. If Wisconsin has any hope of beating Kentucky, it needs to get off to a good start. A lot of teams have gone to the half behind or narrowly ahead of Kentucky. I'm convinced that to beat the Wildcats, someone needs to get a decent early lead, absorb a UK run to put it away, then build on it slightly. Tied at half means nothing against Kentucky. Ahead by eight with the Wildcats in the locker room sitting for 20 minutes pondering their future is better.

5. THE THREE-POINT SHOT vs. MID-RANGE JUMPERS. Everybody says you have to make a ton of threes to beat Kentucky. I don't believe that's true. Now if Wisconsin makes 10 of 12 threes like it did in the second half against Arizona, of course, it's got a great shot of winning. But in reality, nobody is going to do that against Kentucky. They make defending the three too high a priority. They want to run teams off the three-point line and down into their shot blockers. Between that defensive strategy and Kentucky's length, Wisconsin doesn't figure to get good looks from three. What they might get are decent looks from the midrange. The challenge for Wisconsin is that its players aren't as quick as Notre Dame's. They're not the threats off the dribble that Notre Dame's guards posed. Wisconsin has to make mid-range shots, not necessarily threes, to beat UK.

6. WHAT DOES WISCONSIN DO WITH TOWNS? I expect Wisconsin to do the same thing against Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns that Notre Dame did. Defend him straight up, try to contest shots, but don't foul him. Be content to give up some two-pointers here or there, but not leave the Wildcats' shooters. What works a bit better for Wisconsin with this strategy is that it has taller defenders. Wisconsin doesn't block a lot of shots. It contents itself to play straight-up defense and hit the defensive boards hard. There's no reason to believe it won't do this with Towns.

7. X-FACTORS: DEKKER AND LYLES. Which of these two has the better game? That might well determine who wins it. Wisconsin's Sam Dekker was on fire against Notre Dame. John Calipari credited Trey Lyles with his team's win over Notre Dame. Dekker is a more experienced player and a better perimeter shooter. Lyles has the ability to penetrate to the basket and score in traffic.

8. KENTUCKY'S PRESS. Not much has been talked about UK's full-court press, but I would expect to see the Wildcats turn up the heat on their pressure to both force Wisconsin to play faster than it wants to and to wear down its guards. The one mistake John Calipari made in last season's NCAA Championship game against Connecticut was not using the press more as a weapon. That mistake should not be repeated. Calipari has the depth to press all-out all over the court on every possession. He hasn't done it a lot this season. It could be the surprise move that changes this game and puts Wisconsin on the defensive. We'll see if he tries it.

9. MY PICK: Both teams have great players. Kentucky has more of them. They have answered the bell for every test all season, and answered the bell in a tough game against Wisconsin last season. The Wildcats have more talent now. People talk about the pressure this team is under. But there's pressure when you have a chance to be the team that ends Kentucky's run. Frankly, I think we've seen some teams flinch when faced with that pressure. Kentucky hasn't flinched. I don't think it'll be a high-scoring game. I expect a similar game to what we saw last week against Notre Dame. I also expect a Kentucky victory, let's call it 68-64.

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