If you ask members of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, they would tell you they still haven’t played an entire 40 minute game. It’s a scary thought considering for the second consecutive year, and the first time in program history, the Badgers are heading back to the Final Four.
That’s not to say the Badgers haven’t played a perfect half of basketball. There have been plenty of those, the most recent coming with Wisconsin shooting 78.9 percent from the field in the second half against Arizona to punch its ticket to Indianapolis.
If Wisconsin is going to beat the number one overall seed Kentucky in the national semifinals Saturday, they will not be able to afford a slow start against an undefeated Wildcats team that is better in many ways than the group that eliminated Wisconsin in last year’s one-point national semifinals loss in Arlington, Texas.
Kentucky’s length has made them one of the best defensive units ever. The Wildcats rank first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency be KenPom.com, limiting opponents to 85.6 points every 100 possessions. For comparison purposes, Virginia is second at 86.2, Arizona is third at 88.4 and Wisconsin is 55th at 96.4.
Ranking first in the NCAA in team field goal percentage defense (35.2 percent), Kentucky held 14 teams to under 30 percent shooting on the season, including then-No.5 Kansas to only 19.7 percent (11 of 56). In the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are holding teams to 32.7 percent.
Notre Dame was the only team in the tournament to shoot above 40 percent from the field, as the Irish shot 46.4 percent (26-for-56) in Saturday’s Elite Eight. Kentucky is also holding teams to 26.7 percent from 3-point range and only 4.4 made 3-pointers a game.
With Kentucky’s length (the Wildcats start three forwards 6-10 or higher), the Wildcats average 6.9 blocks a game. Not surprisingly, the length also resulted in teams struggling to score, as Kentucky opponents average 53.9 points a game (tied for second in the country).
Only nine of Kentucky’s 38 games this season have been decided by single digits, with the Wildcats winning by an average of 5.5 points. Even more impressive is the Wildcats two-point win over Notre Dame was its first tournament game decided by fewer than 13 points.
Wisconsin has been consistently mentioned as one of the teams that could beat Kentucky because of its ability to match up with the Wildcats’ low post size and the fact that the Badgers are the country’s most efficient adjusted offense, scoring 127.5 points every 100 possessions. Although Wisconsin doesn’t have the length to matchup perfectly at all five possessions, UW does have three very skilled players in the frontcourt that could give Kentucky trouble.
Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky all have shown the ability to drive the basketball and been able to knock down perimeter shots. Notre Dame showed Kentucky can be beat if a team shoots a good field goal percentage, something Wisconsin has done consistently with its 48.2 percentage from the field (17th in the nation). Over the last 10 games, UW is shooting 49.2 percent and hasn’t shot below 43 percent from the field during that stretch.
While known for its defense, Kentucky also has an efficient offense, averaging 119.5 points every 100 possessions (fifth in the country), shooting 46.8 percent from the field and has five players average between 11 and nine points per game. No player for Kentucky averages more than 25 minutes a game, which is primarily due to the great depth they have on their roster (nine McDonald’s All-Americans). With that much talent on the team, Kentucky can easily go deep into its bench if there is foul trouble.
The frontcourt for Kentucky is one of the reasons for the Wildcats high shooting percentage, as the starters for Kentucky shoot a minimum of 48 percent from the field. Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns have the two best averages at 57.8 percent and 56.3 percent from the field, respectively.
If a team can limit Kentucky’s frontcourt and the touches in the paint, thereby forcing them for perimeter shots (where they shoot 34.7 percent) and second-chance opportunities, a team has a chance to beat them.