MADISON - On the verge of history, Kentucky needs two wins to become the eighth Division 1 basketball team, and the first since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, to win a national championship with an unblemished record.
Granted the amount of attention placed on Ryan’s 1994-95 and 97-98 UW-Platteville men’s team was a small fraction of what the Wildcats are getting, not to mention the Pioneers didn’t have to play Kansas, North Carolina and Notre Dame.
But no matter the level of basketball, Ryan acknowledged the increased pressure situations that occur as the win totals climb and how that also helps fortify teams.
“It actually made our practices better,” Ryan said Monday. “Our practices were very competitive, knowing that all eyes are on you … Going through that, I just thought it made us better while we were undefeated because of how you learned to deal with the outside pressures. Then it builds inside. Okay, in practices you got enough good players going against each other, so you're actually developing the skills of your players while the season's going on because you have that depth.”
The depth the Wildcats (38-0) have is what makes them remarkable. Not only does Kentucky have seven active players averaging over 20 minutes per game, it’s a group that has helped made the Wildcats the best defensive efficiency team in the country (85.6 points per 100 possessions) and the fifth-best offensive efficiency team (119.4 points per 100 possessions).
“I think Kentucky is in a pretty good position from that standpoint of being able, even though they don't have the same players as last year, what they've developed in the last four and a half months is some pretty competitive drills,” said Ryan, “some pretty competitive practices and work, to where not only were they good in November, but they're even better now.”
Wisconsin (35-3) is much better, too, which is one of the storylines heading into Saturday’s national semifinals rematch between the two schools at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Six of the nine Kentucky players who played and eight of the nine Wisconsin players who played in last year’s 74-73 Kentucky win in the 2014 national semifinals return, all with another year of experience.
While the Badgers have to deal with Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and standout freshmen Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wildcats are preparing for Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, who was named a unanimous selection to the Associated Press All-American first team Monday.
Kentucky coach John Calipari listed off Kaminsky’s strength, defensive angles, perimeter shooting and passing as all marked improvements from the player who was held to only eight points and five rebounds a year ago.
“I love when I see players from year to year get better, whether it's my players or another player,” he said. “That gets me. That means they're committed. They understand the grind. Frank is about his team now. He'll go get 29 or he'll get 8, he'll have 7 assists. I imagine Bo has had a ball watching him go from three minutes a game to last season to where he is now. I bet you Bo would say, if you asked him, he'll smile, because that's how we coaches are.”
After scoring 20 of his 27 points in the second half of Wisconsin’s 85-78 victory over Arizona Saturday night, earning him the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player honor in the process, junior forward Sam Dekker has been thrust into the national spotlight.
Dekker went 6-for-6 in the second half, which included hitting five 3-pointeres and the dagger 3-pointer with 17.6 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire.
According to Ryan, having a short memory and a belief in making big shots are the two most important qualities in a clutch player and things the Badgers find out and develop through drills in practice.
“We don't have a patent on it, but you put 10 seconds on the clock, 5 seconds on the clock, 15 seconds, and we go through situations,” said Ryan. “You find out through those situations at least who the players are trusting to be in that position, and you let them do it simply by playing out the last X number of seconds that I mentioned. Then you strongly encourage, Okay, this is what happened eight times, three times this happened, and you play percentages.”
Low Film Study
Minimal film study is typical during NCAA tournament games, where winning teams only get one full off day before being scheduled to play again. After beating West Virginia, 78-39, in the Sweet 16, Calipari and his assistants developed the scouting report, but reportedly only showed the players 10 minutes of actual video clips during a team dinner.
With a week to prepare for Wisconsin, Calipari will be using a similar approach.
“Our focus this week will be on our team,” said Calipari. “I'm not going to be able to control, nor will our team, how Wisconsin plays. You're not going to force them out of what they want to do. The things that we'll work on will pertain to Wisconsin, but our players won't know it. They won't know why we're doing this drill. The breakdowns will all be based on what we coaches have seen.
“Now, they may have watched Wisconsin play. They may have watched an NCAA tournament game. I tell them don't watch the games. They don't listen to me ever, so I imagine they've seen them. Our team played them a year ago, so they have an idea how good they were and are now. But we won't watch Wisconsin tape as a team.”
Free Throws: An economics/marketing/business major at Wilkes, Ryan had plans to be a chief executive officer or run a business after college, but changed his profession to be a coach/teacher after being drafted in the Army … Ryan said he talked with both Calipari and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo over the phone Monday morning, congratulating them both on winning their regional. No word if he also talked to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will coach against the Spartans in Saturday’s first semifinals … Kentucky is currently a five-point favorite over Wisconsin.