The players for Wisconsin made it clear that one of the team goals this season was to get back to the Final Four. That goal became a reality when Wisconsin topped Arizona by seven points in the Elite Eight to send them back to the Final Four for a second consecutive year. As fate would have it, waiting for them is the same team that knocked them out of the national semifinals.
The overall number one seed in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky (38-0, 18-0 SEC) is just as good, if not better, than they were a season ago. With a talented frontcourt and a deep roster full of NBA-quality talent, Kentucky boasts some of the best players in the country and will be the Badgers’ toughest test this season.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for top-seed Wisconsin when they play Kentucky in Indianapolis on Saturday night.
Lay up: Can Wisconsin force Kentucky into fouls?
One aspect of Wisconsin’s offense that has been overlooked through four tournament games is that the Badgers have been able to consistently force the opposition into foul trouble. Wisconsin has been able to find ways of getting in the bonus in each half that they play, as teams are averaging eight first half team fouls and seeing that number increase to 11 team fouls in the second. With Wisconsin finding ways of forcing teams into foul trouble, it has helped Wisconsin win the rebounding battle or allowed Wisconsin’s frontcourt get some easier looks in the paint.
Averaging 16.9 fouls a game this season and 16.5 fouls in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky have allowed its NCAA tournament opponents into the bonus each half (seven first half fouls and 9.5 second half fouls). Despite the size of Kentucky and how they can consistently bring a wave of players who are 6-10 or taller, Wisconsin’s ability to force the Wildcats into foul trouble should help take some size off the floor.
Karl-Anthony Towns (2.9 fouls per game) and Willie Cauley-Stein (2.0) lead Kentucky in fouls, and Towns has registered a minimum of four personal fouls in four of the last five games. Cauley-Stein could either play in the post or on the perimeter against Wisconsin. Wherever he ends up, Wisconsin will need to try and beat him off the dribble or off of a post move to see if they can force him into a foul.
The aggressive style of play of late has led Wisconsin to shoot 49.7 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament and better than 50 percent in two of its four tournament games. Those numbers will have to continue if Wisconsin wants a chance at beating Kentucky. But if Wisconsin can draw the fouls, it could result in Kentucky playing off a little and allowing the Badgers more space to get a shot over one of the defenders.
Opponents average 17.1 free throw attempts against Kentucky, while the Badgers have attempted a minimum of 23 free throw attempts over the last three games.
Mid-range jumper: The play of Sam Dekker
Dekker has been outstanding for Wisconsin through the NCAA tournament, as he is averaging 21.7 points on 60.3 percent shooting from the field and 5.5 rebounds a game. Named the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, Dekker’s 87 points in the NCAA tournament trails only Frank Kaminsky (91) for most points scored in the tournament field.
Playing well in NCAA tournament isn’t new for Dekker. In 10 career tournament games, Dekker is averaging 15.3 points, shooting 51.9 percent from the field and hitting 38.5 percent of his 3-point shots. Dekker has led Wisconsin in scoring in four tournament games in his career and Wisconsin is 2-2 all time when he does. In the last two tournament games Dekker has led Wisconsin in scoring, the Badgers have won.
One of the games he led Wisconsin in scoring was against Kentucky in last year’s Final Four loss, scoring 15 points (tied with Ben Brust) on 3-for-4 shooting from the field. The genesis of Dekker’s success last year was his ability to drive to the rim and draw fouls, as he went 8-for-8 from the free throw line. Cauley-Stein will likely be the defender against Dekker and it will be important that Dekker tries to attack him off the dribble with Cauley-Stein averaging two fouls per game. Dekker will also have to try and create space between him and Cauley-Stein since the Kentucky forward is averaging 1.7 blocks a game.
Dekker was really the only player outside of Brust who was able to find offensive success against the Wildcats’ defense a year ago. Considering the Wildcats only give up 23.6 points in the paint and 53.9 points overall, it’ll be important for Dekker and Wisconsin to be aggressive in the paint to try and open up some high percentage shots. Dekker’s ability to hunt for a shot may be able to help him find an offensive rhythm if he’s in attack mode early.
Although it is rare for a Wisconsin player to go on individual scoring runs because of how balanced they are and how well they spaces the floor, Dekker may have to help provide a scoring spark. Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes are much improved from a year ago but both struggled against the Wildcats’ front line in last season’s matchup, combining for only 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting.
Dekker’s ability to improvise and free flowing play should be able to get him some chances of scoring and create some open looks for his teammates. Of course, like any games, it comes down to Wisconsin be able to consistently knock down its jump shots.
3-pointer: Can Wisconsin prevent second chances?
It is not often that this Wisconsin teams faces a height disadvantage, but the Badgers’ frontcourt will have their hands full with three frontcourt players listed at 6-10 or higher. Wisconsin will have to be ready to defend the paint and will have to do a much better job against Kentucky than they did a year ago. In UW’s one-point loss, everyone remembers Aaron Harrison’s deep 3-pointer, but where Kentucky won the game was by making a living around the basket, scoring 46 of its 74 points in the paint.
If Wisconsin is going to win, they can’t allow Kentucky to dominate the paint, an area where they average 33.1 points this season. Through four NCAA tournament games, Kentucky is averaging 37 points around the basket and scored at least 40 points twice.
Wisconsin has done well this year in limiting paint touches (just 25.5 points per game) but have seen that number increase to 30 points in the tournament. Arizona registered 38 points in the paint against Wisconsin but succumbed because UW shot 78.9 percent in the second half. Wisconsin at times will give up some easy shots to Kentucky, but the Badgers at least have to try to make Kentucky work for its post touches in hopes that they start to wear down through the course of the game.
One way Wisconsin can prevent points in the paint is by making sure Kentucky can’t get rebounds off of its missed shots, as they average 12.7 offensive rebounds a game. Facing a team that can collect large amounts of offensive rebounds isn’t new for Wisconsin in the tournament. Their previous two opponents - North Carolina and Arizona - both averaged double digit offensive rebounds, but the Badgers held both below their averages.
It will likely be a more difficult task considering the size Kentucky will have on the floor but UW can win its share of rebounds if it can consistently box out. Wisconsin did give up 11 offensive rebounds a season ago to Kentucky, which led to 23 second chance points. Wisconsin’s interior size this season has allowed opponent to only average 7.4 points off second chance, a number that will be put to the test Saturday.
Wisconsin taking away the post touches could lead into Kentucky taking shots from 3-point range, where they are not as effective at only shooting 34.7 percent shooting on the season. As long as Wisconsin’s interior defense can do its job of preventing Kentucky from getting the same easy looks like they did a season ago, they will be able to give themselves a chance to win the basketball game down the stretch.