One team starts no freshmen, the other starts five. One team is known more for its football program and is in only its third Final Four; the other is here for the 16th time and boasts one of the most storied basketball programs in the country.
One fan base is simply happy to reach the Final Four, the other expects to be here.
Wisconsin and Kentucky couldn’t be more opposite, from players to program history to fan bases. That’s what makes Saturday’s second semifinal game between the two at AT&T Stadium all the more intriguing. The game begins 40 minutes after the conclusion of Florida-Connecticut, which begins at 5:09 p.m.
The biggest difference between the two teams comes from the eye test. As Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky said jokingly last week, the Badgers are known as being “white guys” who aren’t considered to be too athletic.
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Kentucky, on the other hand, is known for its athletic ability and roster filled with NBA prospects.
But neither team is too concerned about the stereotypes associated with them.
“There’s been a lot of games like this, where we’re the young team against a veteran team,” Kentucky guard James Young said. “It’s just like when we play Florida, so we’re going to treat it like an SEC championship game.”
Said Kaminksy: “It doesn’t really matter what other people say about us because we don’t really care.”
The outside differences between the two programs, though, overshadow the similarities between them. At least from a basketball standpoint.
They each went through struggles that, in hindsight, helped them reach the Final Four. Wisconsin lost five of six Big Ten games from mid-January to early February, but stuck together and worked through it.
Kentucky had lost three of four going into the SEC tournament before coach John Calipari implemented an unknown “tweak” that sparked their run.
Both play well in half-court sets on offense and defense; both have physical posts inside; and both have guards who can knock down shots on the perimeter.
So, as in most NCAA Tournament games, this game will probably be determined by who matches up better. Will Wisconsin’s veteran backcourt help it overcome the length of Kentucky’s guards? Which team has the deeper bench?
But the biggest question early will be how Kentucky is containing Kaminsky, who has arguably single-handedly carried the Badgers to this point.
Kaminsky is a versatile 7-footer who can shoot from the outside, as well as use his tremendous footwork in the paint to get easy buckets. Kentucky’s big men know the difficulty of guarding him, especially with 7-foot sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined.
“Kaminsky is a good inside-out player and we know it’s not going to take one individual to stop him … it’s going to take a whole team,” said freshman center Dakari Johnson, who has been working on his perimeter defense in practice.
Added Calipari: “Kaminsky is playing with a swagger right now, like, ‘None of you can guard me.’ So that’s a challenge in itself.”
Kaminsky has become one of the stars of the tournament and shows how far he’s come since his freshman season. He averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds a game two years ago as a freshman, increased that to 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds last season, and is now in the midst of breakout junior year by averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.
Part of Kaminsky’s success is related to his being more aware of how defenses are trying to slow him down. If they go with a smaller guy to eliminate his outside game, Kaminsky knows he has to go inside and vice versa if guarded by a big man.
“I try to create whatever advantage I can for myself and try to exploit that advantage until something changes,” Kaminsky said. “It took me a while to figure out at this level, and it’s been trial and error.”
Conversely, Wisconsin will have its hands full defending Kentucky’s inside game. The Wildcats are one of the most physical teams down low and are known for getting offensive rebounds.
Freshman forward Julius Randle said being aggressive on the offensive glass allows the Wildcats to overcome missed shots.
Kentucky had 17 offensive rebounds in its win over Michigan in the Elite Eight, 15 in its win over Louisville in the Sweet 16, and 10 in its win over Wichita State in the round of 32.
“We’ve got to be physical with them,” Kaminsky said. “We’ve got to push back when they’re pushing us. Anything we can do to counter their physicality will ultimately help us win this basketball game.”
In the end, one of these programs will be a win away from a national championship. That would be significant to each school for different reasons. Just look at the national title ledger — Kentucky would be eyeing its ninth; Wisconsin its second.