INDIANAPOLIS - As he ascended the ladder in Anaheim, Calif., a year ago, with an orange-handled scissors in his right hand and a piece of nylon in his left, Frank Kaminsky felt on top of the world. He never felt so low a week later.
After exploding on to the national scene with his 28-point, 11-rebound performance against Arizona to send the Badgers to the Final Four, Kaminsky crashed back down to earth in Wisconsin’s 74-73 loss to Kentucky in last year’s national semifinals.
In 32 minutes, he had eight points, five rebounds, no assists and no answers at his locker. It was the wake-up call that he needed.
“I learned that maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was at that point in time,” Kaminsky said. “Just going against a team like theirs, they have so many elite players on the court at all times, I just struggled and didn't play as well as I wanted to. I think that was a big driving factor, motivating factor to try to get back here, try to play better than we did last year, hopefully come out on top.”
Even with a bulls-eye on his back, Kaminsky hasn’t been stopped. Named a unanimous first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the AP Player of the Year and the USBWA Players of the Year in the past week, the senior from Lisle, Ill., who turns 22 today, leads Wisconsin in scoring (18.2 points), rebounds (8.0), assists (2.7), blocks (1.5) and field-goal shooting (54.9 percent).
More importantly, he’s turned it up down the stretch. He leads all scorers in the 2015 NCAA Tournament with 91 points in four games (22.8 points per game average), is averaging 14.8 shots per game and has the Badgers (35-3) in the Final Four for the second consecutive season. They will square off with Kentucky (38-0) in the national semifinals for the second straight year tonight at approximately 7:49 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Not bad for a player who averaged just 7.7 minutes and 1.8 points per game as a freshman and 10.3 minutes and 4.2 points as a sophomore.
“You see a senior who’s really driven and with focus in his eyes,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “We knew that line item number one that this group wanted to accomplish was a conference championship. He had talked about it all throughout the spring and the summer. That’s what this group wanted to do. What you’re seeing is an extremely talented player that’s extremely driven at the right time of the year. When you have those two things working together, you obviously have a player of the year nationally, I don’t think there’s any doubt.
“What he’s done and how I’ve watched him improve, I don’t know how you stop him, and I think opposing defenses are trying to figure that out, too. He’s scoring in every way possible: he’s embracing contact, driving the ball, he’s making plays like a point guard. In shot clock situations you can throw the ball to him and have a 7-footer making a play with a willingness to pass, the acumen to be able to find people, shoot the three…I haven’t been around anybody that has that wealth of a skillset, and knows how to use it. It’s one thing to be talented and have some skills, but he knows when to use it and how to use it. That’s a special, special gift.”
Kaminsky already had nimble footwork. It’s a trait from his parents – his dad a division III basketball player and his mom a volleyball player. The height came over his high school years, but the comfort playing on the perimeter, the patience to play at his speed and the ability to know when to counter came from the maturity and the hours he put in during the offseason.
“He's worked at every drill,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “He's worked at everything we've given him. He's looked at the films. He's very astute when it comes to picking up nuances of moves, using his body, positioning. His family background, there's athletes. His parents are very athletic, very smart. So we were getting a player who we knew was hungry and wanted to prove that he could get to be pretty good. We tend to enjoy having those kind of guys around. But for somebody to go to the level he has, from start to finish, no, I've never had a player like that.”
The work Kaminsky has put in makes him hopeful he’ll be able to better handle Kentucky’s pressures and post defense switches. With Willie Cauley-Stein inactive for the matchup with Wisconsin a season ago with a foot injury, Kentucky coach John Calipari ran a bunch of different players at the 7-footer, including 6-9 forward Marcus Lee and 7-0 center Dakari Johnson. Employing a defense that does a lot of switching, Kaminsky finished with only seven shot attempts and, even more telling, no assists.
“I don't think there's one thing that we did,” said Calipari. “He missed some shots that he normally makes. Just looking at it, because I glanced at it again to make sure, What did we do? You know, played like we always play.”
Unlike a year ago, Kaminsky feels more suited to handle a variety of defenses thrown his way. In the West Region semifinals, he scored 19 points and eight rebounds against North Carolina's active frontcourt, going 5 of 11 field-goal attempts and 8 of 8 free-throw attempts.
In the West Regional finals against Arizona, Kaminsky encountered forward Brandon Ashley and his length, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and his quickness and strength and center Kaleb Tarczewski with his physicality. After admitting to playing out of control early, Kaminsky settled in and finished with 29 points (9 of 10 shooting, 10 of 12 free-throw attempts) and six rebounds to send UW back to the Final Four.
“He does everything for us,” said senior Josh Gasser. “He has the ability to shoot threes, post up, drive, pass, he’s really like a point-center. He does literally everything for us offensively. When you look at other guys at his position, another guy that might be compared to him, it’s more of just a post-up, go on the block and score, whereas Frank is a matchup nightmare.
“And then defensively, the way we play defense Frank has had to cover point guards, quick guys, he’s had to cover big guys down low, and he does a great job defensively. Whereas another guy, they kind of have to switch their defense up – play zone, play man – to kind of hide his deficiencies. I think it’s not even close in my mind (that he’s national player of the year).”
Kaminsky laid the groundwork for this past season’s success by averaging 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game his junior year. He never really wavered about his decision to return for a senior season, knowing he had work to do to reach higher levels for himself and his team.
He’s accomplished the former. He’s hopes he can achieve the latter over the next three days.
“I wanted to work as hard as I could to get to this stage, be a good player,” said Kaminsky. “It definitely wasn't easy, but I was willing to put in the time, effort and work to do so. It's gone better, better than I planned. At the end of the day there's still a lot of work left. I think I can still improve on my game and improve on the season.”