The Metrodome in Minneapolis will play host to the four remaining teams from the Midwest bracket, the No. 1 seed Kentucky Wildcats, No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Panthers, No. 3 seed Marquette Golden Eagles and the surprise of the bunch, the No. 5 seed Wisconsin Badgers.
Coach Bo Ryan's Badgers are coming off a thrilling victory over the No. 13 seed Tulsa Golden Hurricanes in the second round. Junior guard Freddie Owens drilled a 3-pointer with one second remaining to propel his team to a 61-60 win and a trip to its second Sweet Sixteen in the past four years. Leading the way for the Badgers was sophomore forward Mike Wilkinson and his 18 points and eight rebounds.
As tough as it was for the Badgers to overcome their 13-point deficit to Tulsa with less than three minutes remaining, their upcoming task seems even tougher as they must play the No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite, the Kentucky Wildcats.
"Right now, they are on a roll, playing as well, if not better, than anyone in the country as a team," said sophomore forward Mike Wilkinson. "They are so dangerous because of how they play together, feed off each other and most of all don't make mistakes. They pick up all the little details, everything that is needed to win the game."
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith's Wildcats come into the game riding a 25-game winning streak, and with two impressive wins over IUPUI and Utah, return to the Sweet Sixteen for the eighth time in the last nine years. Stacked with depth, the physical and defensively-sound Wildcats are led by senior guard Keith Bogans and his 16 points per game.
However, thus far during the tournament, the two players who have really made an impact have been junior guard Gerald Fitch and junior forward Marquis Estill. Estill has averaged a double-double in Kentucky's two victories and will be a force to reckon with in the paint for the Badgers.
"It's hard to say that Kentucky resembles any team we have played this year," said junior guard Freddie Owens. "They are so talented from top to bottom and defensively they are just so strong. With their coach and all their players, we are just looking forward to playing these guys."
This game marks the third No. 1 seed the UW program has faced in the tournament in the past four years. As underdogs in both previous contests, the Badgers defeated the Arizona Wildcats in 2000 en route to the Final Four and got trampled by the Maryland Terrapins on their way to their 2002 National Championship.
Although the Badgers will not be looking at the past, they will use their experience from last year and the 2000 season as a learning tool to prepare mentally for their game with the Wildcats.
"Being an underdog will get us pumped up," Wilkinson said. "With a team like Kentucky, you have to have the adrenaline and be ready to go head-to-head. You always want to play the best and here is our chance. Last season, we hung in there with Maryland but let it slip from us at the end. We'll use that loss to better prepare ourselves for this game."
THREE KEYS FOR WISCONSIN
1. Tempo - Making the game a half-court contest will be the biggest key for the Badgers. As long as they prevent the Wildcats from running and executing offensively, they'll be in good shape.
2. Rebounding - Offensive and defensive rebounding will be huge for UW. Creating second-chance opportunities and limiting Kentucky's should not be a goal, but a necessity. Offensive rebounding is what has got the Badgers here this far. This is not the time to slack.
3. Lights Out - Plain and simple, UW will need to shoot the lights out against UK. Everything needs to go in the Badgers' favor to pull out this win, and it will start with the shots falling down early.
THREE KEYS FOR KENTUCKY
1. Sticking to its game - UK is undoubtedly the best team in the country and its game has been so strong, no one has been able to beat them in the past 25. Creating open shots, playing stingy defense and running the fast break is what they do best.
2. Attitude - The Wildcats cannot get too cocky when it comes to playing the Badgers because if they do, Bo Ryan's squad will make them pay. As long as they don't overlook UW and keep a killer attitude, they obviously have what it takes to win.
3. Experience - The UK program is not only used to the big game, but also expects to be there. From Rupp to Pitino to now Tubby Smith, this program is used to the high pressure situations and carries with it the confidence that this is just another game.
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