College Basketball Nation: Frank Kaminsky


Arguably the No. 1 center in college basketball -- Duke’s Jahlil Okafor -- squares off Wednesday night against the player who could be labeled No. 1A -- Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.

Okafor’s traditional, dominant play in the post meets Kaminsky’s versatility and ability to step out on the perimeter. Okafor represents the latest, greatest potential one-and-done talent against the old-school, four-year formula of improvement by Kaminsky.

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJahlil Okafor has proven powerful in the paint for Duke, averaging a team-best 17.7 points per game.
There’s intrigue and contrasts aplenty in the matchup of the Blue Devils freshman and potential 2015 top overall NBA draft pick versus the Badgers’ quirky senior leader.

Except Okafor’s not buying into the matchup hype. If anything, he’s downplayed it.

"Frank Kaminsky, he’s had a great career and he’s a proven big man with myself who’s a freshman who’s only played seven games in college basketball," Okafor said. "So that’s going to be a challenge in itself."

Okafor’s ability not only to score but to open up shots for the rest of the Blue Devils will challenge the Badgers’ defense. Okafor leads Duke with 17.7 points per game, is second on the team with 7.9 rebounds and is shooting 63.6 percent from the floor.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he was most impressed by Okafor’s size and maneuverability.

"I haven’t seen him dance, but I bet he can dance, he’s got good feet," Ryan said. "That baseline move he has, he’s pretty good that way. You can put names on guys -- McDonald’s All American, Player of the Year, freshman Player of the Year, but he backs it up, just like the guy before him."

Kaminsky can dance, too, sort of. At least he goofs around in a viral video to Taylor Swift’s "Shake It Off."

"I didn’t see it," Okafor said. "How was he?"

Good enough to know he’ll stick to basketball, where Kaminsky leads the Badgers with 16.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and is shooting 40.7 percent from the 3-point line. Asked about the challenge of guarding Kaminsky on the perimeter, Okafor shrugged.

"I feel fine," he said.

Okafor deflected questions about the matchup with Kaminsky with the ease that he blocks shots. It wasn’t in Marshawn Lynch’s don’t-care-to-be-bothered kind of way, either. Okafor didn’t repeat one-word answers until reporters got tired of asking.

He simply doesn’t believe in making it a personal battle. Frankly, he’s never had to make a name for himself by outperforming another top player.

"I never had to worry about putting a target on somebody else’s back. Usually the target was on my back," Okafor said. "So, I never had that problem."

[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsFrank Kaminsky has developed the ability to score in the post and on the perimeter in his four-year career.
Okafor said he watched the Badgers’ 68-65 win over Georgetown last week in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But it wasn’t to scout what Kaminsky was doing. The Chicago native was supporting the Hoyas’ Paul White, his former teammate at Whitney Young High School.

It’s not an act for the media. His Duke teammates say they haven’t noticed Okafor having an extra bounce because of the opponent.

Freshman guard Tyus Jones has known Okafor since grade school and was also his teammate on the U.S. Under-17 national team.

"Many people are talking about it but Jah’s really good at looking at it as a whole and not really making it him against Kaminsky," Jones said. "He’ll be ready to play and we’ll be ready to play."

Okafor said playing against Kaminsky is no different than preparing to face Kevin Ferguson, the starting center at Army whom Okafor faced in the Blue Devils’ 93-73 win on Sunday.

Okafor said he was a little nervous before that game the same way he’s nervous before every game. That game was in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Wednesday’s game at Wisconsin marks Duke’s first true road game.

"We’ll see, I’ve never played in any game like I’m about to play in Wednesday night," Okafor said. "I’m looking forward to it. I really don’t know what to expect."

Maybe not from the Kohl Center crowd, but he’s quickly gotten up to speed on what to expect from Kaminsky.

"He’s just a different type of post man, he averages the most 3-point field goals on his team, he’s also made the most," Okafor said. "He’s just a phenomenal player. Like I said, he’s proven and has had an amazing career. It’s definitely going to be a hard test for me. I’m looking forward to it."

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Five observations after Wisconsin's 69-56 victory over Oklahoma in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game Friday afternoon:

1. Don't get Frank Kaminsky in a foul mood.

Kaminsky said he was "pissed" about his second foul in the first half against the Sooners that sent him to the bench. He played only six minutes and took only two shots. Kaminsky had struggled in the previous game against Georgetown, going 1-of-8 from the field, and was not effective against the Hoyas’ Joshua Smith. Kaminsky had essentially sat nearly an hour of real time before he started the second half against Oklahoma. He could have been stale by the time he played.

"I was frustrated, to be honest," Kaminsky said. "But I realized it was a close game and I needed to be the best player that I could be for our team and win the game. I tried to come out in the second half and bring some energy. I had a lot of rest time, so I had fresh legs and I just tried to make some plays happen."

Kaminsky was sensational in the second half and finished with 17 points, making three 3-pointers and maximizing the time he spent on the floor. While he failed to look even like an All-American against the Hoyas, he played the part of a possible player of the year in every sense in the final 20 minutes Friday against Oklahoma.

Kaminsky is also relishing the role as a power player for the Badgers. The confidence oozes with each answer. When asked about what kind of statement the Badgers gave to Duke in preparation for Wednesday's ACC-Big Ten Challenge showdown in Madison, Wisconsin, Kaminsky said, "We're coming." Duke is actually the team traveling, but Kaminsky could have easily said they've arrived.

video 2. Traevon Jackson is still a viable option.

Jackson has a legitimate challenger for his minutes in sophomore Bronson Koenig. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan played them together some this week, but he also won't hesitate to bring in Koenig for Jackson. However, Jackson shrugged off a subpar, foul-plagued game against Georgetown and was a difference-maker again. He scored 13 points, made six shots, including a 3-pointer, and had a solid assist-to-turnover ratio of 8-3 in the victory over the Sooners.

The Badgers have tremendous senior leadership with Jackson and Josh Gasser as lead guards. Koenig plays like a senior, too. Having multiple options at various positions will make the Badgers only tougher to beat.

3. The Badgers are deep and working together.

Duje Dukan could have made a strong case for MVP of the Battle 4 Atlantis with his play off the bench. His spot-up shooting was extremely difficult for the Sooners to defend. Dukan scored 13 points in 33 minutes. He's essentially a sixth starter. His two 3s against Georgetown came in timely fashion and helped the Badgers avoid a possible loss. Dukan plays with such poise and can spot up and bury shots from anywhere around the perimeter.

Dukan just wants to do anything that can help the team win. He can score, he can rebound and he can pass. He also has deceptively active hands and came up with two steals.

Dukan isn't the only one whose value continues to rise. Nigel Hayes is proving to be an integral piece of this puzzle. Hayes had a clutch finish to beat Georgetown. He grabbed seven boards and did a little bit of everything in the win over the Sooners. His attitude is perfect for this team. He adds levity, maybe as much as Kaminsky does.

This is a team that gets how to play, travel and practice together. Kaminsky said earlier in the week the fact that the whole team went to the beach upon its arrival Monday and spent the time all together wouldn't have happened a year ago. And last season's team went to the Final Four.

"I think we have great leadership on this team," Kaminsky said.

"I've been pretty fortunate over my career to have players who understand, and I think our guys stay in the moment, which then rolls into the game," Ryan said.

4. How the Badgers manage Sam Dekker's minutes will be interesting to watch.

Dekker has had a nagging ankle injury. He doesn't do everything in practice, and there are times he appears to be laboring a tad. But he still dove on the floor for loose balls and doesn't mind sacrificing his body. He wants to be on the floor as much as possible. The Badgers don't have many breaks upcoming, with Duke Wednesday and consecutive road games at Marquette and Milwaukee. They do have only one game over a 12-day stretch in mid-December. If there is ever a time for Dekker to get healthy, it could be then. He hasn't shown his productivity is off that much, as he scored 11 points against the Sooners and 17 against Georgetown.

5. Oklahoma needs to solve a few offensive issues.

The Sooners showed they had a few more options in the victory over Butler on Thursday. But they had problems finding the hot hand, or at least anyone they could count on for stretches, in the loss to the Badgers. A lot of that credit goes to Wisconsin's defense. But Buddy Hield's 2-of-11 game, combined with Isaiah Cousins going 3-of-11 and the team shooting 5-of-20 on 3s meant a lack of offensive flow for Oklahoma.

The Sooners will be in the Big 12 mix with Kansas, Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and suddenly-surging West Virginia in the most wide-open race of any conference. But there is certainly room for tweaks. Getting Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas more acclimated into the offense inside, to offset the grit and garbage work of Ryan Spangler, will help.

"We need to re-evaluate things offensively, primarily," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "We like where we're headed defensively and will continue improving on the defensive end of the floor."

Ryan said after the game Oklahoma will win a lot of games. He's right. The victories over UCLA and Butler should indicate this program is on the rise.

#Top10Thursday: Matchup nightmares

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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You don’t sleep well when you know you have to deal with these guys the following night.

It’s difficult to stop any elite Division I player. These athletes, however, are nightmare matchups for any individual or team in the country.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using the hashtag #Top10Thursday.

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Jahlil OkaforAP Photo/Michael ConroyDuke center Jahlil Okafor will likely be the No. 1 pick. But does Philly need another big?
What can you do with him? Okafor (17.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 blocks per game) has been one of the most dominant players in the country, regardless of seniority. He’s tough to front and he can score with layups, dunks, baby hooks and the occasional jumper. Okafor is a problem for every team outside Durham, North Carolina.

2. Georges Niang, Iowa State

Oklahoma State/Iowa StateNelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
He’s never the fastest player on the floor. The Iowa State star doesn’t play above the rim. But the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward can score from outside (33 percent from the 3-point line last season), bring the ball up the floor, lead the break, collect from midrange and score in the post.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Montrezl Harrell Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
When he wasn’t shattering high school backboards this offseason, Harrell was reportedly working on his range. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound monster forward is 3-for-7 from beyond the arc in Louisville’s first two games this season. Harrell hitting 3s is like the Incredible Hulk learning how to fly. It’s just not right.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Karl-Anthony TownsAndy Lyons/Getty Images
He’s both mentally and physically mature for a freshman. The 6-foot-11 center has range and he’s tough in the paint, too, which is why he’s such a hot pro prospect. But Towns is also a handful because you have to find a way to score against him. And that’s not easy to do against the guy who is the top shot-blocker (2.3 blocks per game, 22nd in block percentage, per kenpom.com) on a Kentucky squad that’s swatting everything.

5. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Frank KaminskyRobert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
Frank the Tank is 7 feet tall. That always helps in basketball. But unlike the bulk of the 7-footers who’ve excelled, he’s capable of hitting 3-pointers and jump shots. So whom do you put on this Wooden Award candidate? Kaminsky (37.8 percent from the 3-point line in 2013-14) sets hard screens that create chaos for defenders. If you help a teammate on the pick, you’ll lose him. And that’s not good. Ask last season’s NCAA tournament field.

6. Myles Turner, Texas

Myles TurnerChris Covatta/Getty Images
The 6-foot-11 forward was the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 class, per RecruitingNation. His size and skill could help Texas compete for the Big 12 crown and possibly a national title. He’s comfortable outside the lane. But he can also run the floor and exploit defenders in transition. Hard to stop a guy with that length and agility.

7. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

Arizona/OregonScott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports
The sophomore could be a star for Sean Miller’s squad this season. He has already produced some impressive highlights. He has a quick first step, he’s long, he’ll soar over anyone in his way and he’s a good rebounder. You’ll need an energy drink and a cup of coffee to track Hollis-Jefferson all night.

8. Ron Baker, Wichita State

Ron Baker Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The Wichita State wing is a true combo guard. Baker (18.5 PPG through two games this season) is dangerous from the perimeter. He can take you off the dribble and slash. He can score with a hand in his face. And he’s a solid and shifty ball handler, too. Off a screen, you can’t do much with him, either.

9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay

Keifer SykesMary Langenfeld/USA TODAY Sports
The 6-foot, 180-pound point guard is one of the quickest guards in the country. But don’t let his size fool you. He’ll catapult in a second and dunk on the biggest man on the floor. That’s what makes Sykes such a challenge. His stat line last season was just ridiculous: 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 81 percent from the free throw line.

10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

Kyle WiltjerAP Photo/Young Kwak
He didn’t really fit in with Kentucky’s fleet of talented big men. But Gonzaga is the perfect spot for Wiltjer. The Zags have one of America’s best offenses. You can’t just zone them because they’ll shoot the lights out. And you can go man-to-man if you want, but you’ll have to deal with the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer and his appetite for the arc.
Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky has long since emerged as college basketball's No. 1 ambassador for pure college-ness. He has a blog and a moped and an affable, funny, forward-facing attitude on life -- the kind you yourself had back when you were enjoying the two-days-of-classes-per-week lifestyle, before you started worrying about your 401(k) contribution. Check the sweatshirt. It's all there.

But I mean, come on. Can he really be that great? Can he cook? Can he dance? Does he bring joy to a sad person's day? This video, made by UW's male a cappella group, Fundamentally Sound, attempts to answer these pertinent questions.



OK, so Kaminsky can't dance. Good to know. But he does have thoughts on sauces and breakfast foods. "When I found out what scramblers were, it was like a whole new world." Never change, Frank. Never change.

Best passing teams in 2014-15

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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There is no one correct way to put points on the board. Basketball, and specifically college basketball offense, comes in many flavors, which is a big part of why it's so interesting in the first place.

If you have a big, physical, bruising team, one that dominates the offensive glass and gets easy putbacks around the rim, you don't necessarily need 2005-era Steve Nash running the show. Likewise, for a team full of athletic, penetration-prone wings, spacing is arguably more important than passing. If your players can get to the rim by themselves, why complicate things?

If you're neither of those things -- if your players, and thus your system, aren't the isolate-and-go types -- then you'd better make the most of Dr. Naismith's original ball-advancement mandate. You'd better be able to pass.

Below are three teams likely to be among the best passing outfits in the country in 2014-15 -- and a couple that could rank among the worst. The question is: Can they score anyway?

Teams to watch

Wisconsin: On one level, the Badgers aren't the most obvious passing exhibition in the country. In 2013-14, for example, they recorded an assist on 50.5 percent of their made field goals. That number ranked 197th in the country. Plenty of much worse overall offenses recorded higher A/FGM stats.

In reality, that has less to do with Wisconsin than it does the way official scorekeepers keep scores. In reality, the entire core of Wisconsin's top-five efficiency offense -- and the swing-motion system Bo Ryan has perfected in more than a decade in Madison -- is defined by passing. If Wisconsin's offense was a book, passing would be its spine.

For example: Last season, 27 percent of the Badgers' possessions ended in what Synergy's scouting data defines as spot-ups. That's an overwhelming number within Wisconsin's offense -- the other leaders in the clubhouse are "isolations" (15 percent), post-ups (11.3 percent), pick-and-rolls (8.3 percent) and transition baskets (8.1 percent). Simply put, you don't create that many spot-ups, and convert them at better than a point per possession, without first creating them with pinpoint movement and timely passing. The swing offense is designed such that, even when an assist isn't recorded (as can often be the case on post-ups and isolations), two or three passes probably led to the opportunity in the first place.

Last season, even as Wisconsin increased its tempo, it still turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of its possessions -- second fewest in the country. This has always been the case under Ryan at Wisconsin; the Badgers simply do not turn the ball over. The 2014-15 version of the Badgers, the one returning almost everyone (including versatile big men Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker) from a Final Four run, will have all these characteristics and then some. It might be Ryan's best team yet.

Villanova: To refresh oneself on the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats' offensive statistics is to kick yourself for missing out. For most of the season, defense was the most eye-catching part of Villanova's makeup. Save two demolitions by Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Wildcats were among the best defensive teams in the country. Less heralded was Jay Wright's offense. For whatever reason, it just didn't jump out -- even as it was playing an almost idealistically unselfish, and downright fun, brand of basketball.

Last season, the Wildcats had assists on 60.4 percent of their made field goals. They also shot a ton of 3s -- 44.8 percent of their overall field goals, in fact. This was perfect for Wright's personnel, which was short on true big men. Just one rotation player, center Daniel Ochefu, was listed as taller than 6-foot-7. Everyone else in the ostensible frontcourt -- especially James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart -- was carved from the "tweener swingman" mold. These guys guarded and rebounded, sure, but they were also comfortable with the ball in their hands on the perimeter. And so point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's leading assist man, found them. The ball was always moving, the shots were always flying.

If you missed it the first time around, don't feel bad: I watched Villanova a lot last season, and I totally missed it, too. The good news is Bell is the only piece departing from a roster that should be just as good on the wing as it was a season ago -- a roster that has long since left the selfish, ugly offense of the 13-19 2011-12 season behind it.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most intriguing, and maybe the most unlikely, team of the bunch.

For starters, they're losing their best player from a season ago. Lamar Patterson wasn't just one of the nation's best and most versatile scoring threats. He was also a genuinely gifted passer. Patterson found an assist on 30 percent of his possessions, which is great in and of itself. When you consider that he also took nearly 30 percent of his team's shots, it looks genuinely crazy. Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the ball to himself.

Still, though, Jamie Dixon's team has the look. James Robinson, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Wright and even Durand Johnson all posted plus-15 percent assist rates (with Robinson at nearly 25 percent and Newkirk at 19), and Pittsburgh might have to be even more pass-reliant after losing offensive rebounding force Talib Zanna along the front line. Last season, Pitt ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM at 62.9 percent. With Patterson gone, a repeat performance is almost a requirement.

Teams that could struggle

Syracuse: In the past five seasons, the Orange's assists-to-field goals ratio has intermittently declined. In 2009-10, Syracuse baskets were the result of an assist nearly 65 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the country. A year later, that number was 60.5 percent. From there, it went to 56.1 (in 2011-12) to 55.8 (in 2012-13) to 49.1 (in 2013-14). Now the Orange are losing Tyler Ennis, the freshman point guard who accounted for a huge portion of their assists last season. It stands to reason that in 2014-15, Syracuse won't be a particularly productive passing team.

Again, the question is this: Does it matter?

The answer is some version of "probably not." After all, despite a disappointing finish to the season, Syracuse was still a very good team in 2013-14. The Dion Waiters 2011-12 team wasn't a scion of precise passing, but it won 34 games. Two seasons ago, Michael Carter-Williams was arguably the best passer in the country, but the Orange didn't really uncork their potential until they ratcheted up the pressure in their 2-3 zone and crushed otherwise stellar offensive teams.

The makeup of the 2014-15 squad, which will be without workhorse C.J. Fair as well as Ennis, is uncertain. But Jim Boeheim's teams are always at their best when turning defensive excellence into easy points on the offensive end, getting a handful of 3s from a lights-out shooter (in this case, Trevor Cooney) and pounding the ball to the rim offensively. There's no reason to expect that Syracuse can't do that in 2014-15. This could be a truly bad passing team that is nonetheless quite good at winning basketball games.

San Diego State: The same goes for San Diego State, albeit in far more extreme fashion.

Last October, the Aztecs looked like the classic off-year reload group; they were seen as a fringe NCAA tournament team at best. Instead, they played stingy, top-10 defense while senior point Xavier Thames had a massive, sustained campaign as the lone offensive centerpiece. The combination was good enough to beat Kansas at Kansas, win 31 games and a Mountain West title and take Arizona to the wire in the NCAA tournament.

Still, what made Thames' season so impressive wasn't just his much-needed scoring. He was also the Aztecs' primary distributor. He also never turned it over; with a usage rate of nearly 29 percent, Thames assisted on 25 percent of his possessions and coughed it up on just 10 percent. (Reminder: He was really good.) And even then, the Aztecs got just 39 percent of their field goals via assists. They ranked 350th in Division I.

If there's one thing we learned last season, it's to never undersell a San Diego State team. It might be ugly. But if Steve Fisher's group maintains its defense, it won't have to pass the ball all that well. There's more than one way to put wins on the board.

3-point shot: Kentucky vs. UConn

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
11:50
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Andy Katz discusses Kentucky vs. UConn in the NCAA men's basketball national championship game, Frank Kaminsky's decision to return to Wisconsin next season and the possibility of more NCAA tournaments in Texas.

Badgers’ title hopes bounce off the rim

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Wisconsin got the shot it wanted with time winding down against Kentucky on Saturday night.

Traevon Jackson created some space off the dribble, stepped back and got a good look inside the 3-point arc with the game on the line.

“Once it was out of my hands, I thought it had a chance to go in,” Jackson said.

But the buzzer sounded as the ball bounded off the glass, off the rim and out.

“He got in his favorite position,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “I felt pretty good that he was able to get to that spot where he’s hit shots before. It just didn’t go.”

The fact that it came down to that final shot is a testament to Wisconsin’s resilience.

[+] EnlargeTraevon Jackson
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsTraevon Jackson wasn't able to one-up Aaron Harrison, as his last-second game-winning attempt did not fall.
There was a time, early in the second half when it looked like the Badgers’ Final Four experience might end with a Kentucky-blue wave washing them out in a rout. The Wildcats, fresh off a timeout called in the first minute of the half, jacked up the tempo and went on a 15-0 run that might have crushed most teams.

Wisconsin, as it has shown throughout this entire tournament, is not like most teams. It's not like Kentucky, either. Kentucky is faster. The Wildcats are longer. They have more depth. And they’ve got more players ready to put on suits and shake the NBA commissioner’s hands at the draft soon, too.

But the Wildcats needed all of it to pull off a 74-73 victory over a pesky and tough Wisconsin team making its first Final Four appearance since 2000. But the big run wasn’t the reason Kentucky is going to play UConn on Monday night for the national championship. Kentucky is in that game because it made the critical shot at the end --– an NBA-range 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison, a player whom big games always seem to find -- and the Badgers didn’t.

“They did everything they were supposed to do to win the game and we hit a ridiculous shot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And the shot they took -- if it banks in, they win. It was a heck of a game.”

No question about that. But the final sequence didn’t go the Badgers’ way, leaving Ryan to console his team.

“I really loved coaching this team,” Ryan said. “I knew there was something in there, and getting it out of them was sometimes a challenge, but they answered it. They answered everything, and that’s how we got here.”

What they didn’t have an answer for on Saturday was how to get forward Frank Kaminsky more involved. The 7-foot junior was dominant in the Badgers’ road to Arlington. He had 19 points against Oregon and Baylor and then poured in 28 points and 11 rebounds in the overtime win over Arizona. His play earned him the NCAA West region’s most outstanding player award.

Calipari’s plan was to run a lot of different players at Kaminsky in hopes of slowing him down. It worked. Kaminsky had just eight points in 32 minutes and attempted only seven shots.

Kentucky had Dakari Johnson on him most of the time but also had Alex Poythress and Julius Randle battling with him to give him some different looks.

Kentucky used its size down low, penetrating inside and trying to dump the ball in to Randle and others whenever possible. Wisconsin, as Ryan pointed out, tried to get bodies in front of those cutting to the hoop. But if a foul wasn’t called in their favor, it meant the Badgers weren’t in position to box out and get rebounds.

“That’s why they had all those second-chance points,” Ryan said.

It was 23, to be exact. Kentucky was so intent on playing the game inside that it didn’t attempt but five 3-pointers the entire game, making just two of them. In fact, they were 1-for-2 in the second half, with Harrison’s winning shot -- Calipari called him the “assassin, making the shot that is the dagger shot” -- the only one the Wildcats made from behind the arc.

Calipari was visibly relieved to still be playing on Monday after another close game, and Wisconsin must deal with the reality that a season that included a streak of five of six losses in February and then a run of 13 wins in the final 16 games, ends in the Final Four.

“I’m extremely proud of these guys,” said Ryan, who was making his first Final Four appearance with the Badgers. “When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession always seems so magnified. We just came up one short. We’ve been on the other end of those. We know that it’s like. It’s hard. It means we’re done playing for the year.”


ARLINGTON, Texas -- A brilliant Final Four game ended with the Kentucky Wildcats -- those frustrating, late-coming, remarkable, young Wildcats -- moving on. Five things from a classic:

1. Aaron Harrison did it again. By "it" we mean a last-second 3 … 25 feet from the rim … from the left wing … with a defender in his face. Kentucky trailed 73-71 with 15 seconds to play, and when Andrew Harrison's baseline drive stalled, the Wildcats swung the ball to the sideline to Aaron Harrison. Harrison sized up the defense, glanced at the clock -- there were eight seconds left, then seven -- and let it fly. It went in. Of course it went in.

Harrison ran back down the floor waving his arms, nodding his head, as if to say exactly that: Yep. Again.

Wisconsin had a great look to win -- Traevon Jackson stepped back for a wide-open jumper -- a shot he has made with the buzzer running out a handful of times already in his career -- and it looked good off the glass. It rimmed in and out. Jackson stood in disbelief. Bo Ryan reached to console him and then walked to shake John Calipari's hand.

2. Kentucky shut down Frank Kaminsky -- for most of the game. Kentucky's strategy against Kaminsky -- who had carried the Badgers offensively throughout the tournament, and especially in UW's Elite Eight win over Arizona -- worked. The Wildcats double- and triple-teamed Kaminsky, forcing him to kick the ball and refusing to give him any easy layups. With 90 seconds to play, Kaminsky had six points. His offensive rebound and putback with 1:15 was, to that point, the most important play of the game. It brought Wisconsin back into a tie, but it wasn't enough at the end.

3. Kentucky's offensive rebounding was too much -- for most of the game. For all of the big plays down the stretch, Wisconsin spent most of the game being overwhelmed by the Wildcats' relentless offensive rebounding. It's the same story every game with Kentucky: Calipari's team pummels its way to the rim and bullies its way to the offensive boards, getting easy putbacks. Through the first half and the first five minutes of the second, Julius Randle & Co. were grabbing 48 percent of their missed shots. It wasn't until Wisconsin made its second-half surge that the Badgers finally slowed the Big Blue brawlers down.

4. And Wisconsin did weather that inevitable Wildcats run. Near the end of the first half, after Randle finished a feathery spin-move hook around Kaminsky, he turned and told his team, "We're taking this." The first 10 minutes of the second half bore that confidence out: Kentucky came right at Wisconsin, driving at the Badgers' chests, gobbling up offensive rebounds and locking in on the defensive end. Within six minutes, Kentucky's 15-0 run turned a seven-point UW lead into a 51-43 deficit. The Badgers were in that familiar danger zone, in which a couple more misses or turnovers can turn into a sudden blowout.

But then, on Wisconsin came: With 14:34 to play, Duje Dukan got an easy layup on a gorgeous backdoor pass from Nigel Hayes. Dukan hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three. Ben Brust responded to Andrew Harrison's layup with a 3 of his own. Two possessions later, Brust's free throws tied the game at 53-53. Or 0-0. The national semifinal would hang in the balance until the final buzzer.

5. That was a classic. If you watched, you don't need us to tell you, but let's make sure to reiterate it anyway: That was a massive 40 minutes of Final Four basketball. Both teams shot the ball well, both teams executed, both teams scored well above a point per possession (about 1.20 each), both teams had huge, and hugely loud, fan followings. Both teams traded big basket after big basket, one crucial play after the next.

And it ended as it felt destined to: With Harrison making that same unlikely 3 from that same spot, sending these same suddenly unstoppable Wildcats through to the next NCAA tournament challenge. Again.


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Josh Gasser was trying to look angry. It wasn't going well.

It was Thursday afternoon in the cavernous bowels of AT&T Stadium, and Wisconsin's players were shuffling through the usual Final Four production line. Gasser, atop a stool and a white muslin backdrop, was doing his best to comply with a cameraman's requests. He needed dramatic still shots of each player for Saturday's Final Four broadcast, and he had some props for the job: a rim, a net, a carved-up basketball.

The photographer handed the last of these to Gasser and told him to look like he was ripping the two sides of the basketball apart. He asked for an angry, intense face. Gasser's backcourt mate, Ben Brust, had found the same pose a few minutes earlier to impressive, snarling effect: It really did look like Brust was ripping the ball in half.

Instead of looking at the camera, Gasser angled his face down until he was peering into the ball. He halfheartedly opened his mouth, like a child being forced to take a vitamin. It was all wrong.

Brust and forward Sam Dekker burst out laughing.

"What are you doing?" Brust said. "You're supposed to look like you're tearing it, not eating it."

"Also, stop flexing," Dekker said.

"They told me to flex!" Gasser said.

[+] EnlargeBo Ryan
Harry How/Getty ImagesBo Ryan has built his program with players who fit what he wants to do.
"Awkward," Brust said. He nodded in resignation.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are your Wisconsin Badgers.

This is the precision offensive machine that sliced up Baylor two days after the Bears beat Creighton by 30. This is the 30-7 team that rode star forward Frank Kaminsky's 28 points and 11 rebounds to a toppling of No. 1 Arizona, the nation's best defensive team, in a thrilling Elite Eight overtime win. These are the players who will stand across from Kentucky's supremely talented crop of future NBA lottery picks Saturday night in front of 80,000-plus fans in a stadium that covers 73 acres of North Texas land. These are the Badgers on the biggest stage of their young careers.

They are also the comedy kings of the Final Four -- witty, self-deprecating, down to Earth and irresistibly goofy. Except for the whole being awesome at basketball thing, the 2013-14 Badgers seem, all in all, like pretty normal dudes. You could chill with them.

This is not exactly an accident. For 14 seasons, Bo Ryan has steadily, stubbornly built his program with players who fit what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. His style of play -- the swing offense, the pack-line defense -- is immutable, so Ryan can target very specific kinds of players who fit the precise annual requirements, on and off the court. Guards need to post up. Forwards have to play away from the basket. There are few elite recruits here; Ryan has started just four true freshmen in his entire Wisconsin tenure. Dekker -- a Sheboygan, Wis., native ranked 17th overall in the 2012 class -- was one of them.

Egos aren't managed; they simply aren't tolerated. Smarts are prized. Everyone needs to get along.

When your coach spends approximately 80 percent of his media availabilities making jokes of his own, "getting along" usually means having a sense of humor.

"This is my vision of the game," Ryan said. "This is my way of being a teacher-slash-coach."

On Friday, for approximately the 897th time this week, Ryan was asked about his philosophy on one-and-dones. The contrast between Wisconsin's players and Kentucky's has drawn the predictable, occasionally faux-outraged, contrasts. Ryan was asked on Friday whether there was a "right way or a wrong way to run a basketball program." John Calipari came up with a new catch phrase for "one-and-done" ("succeed and proceed") because he is so tired of answering the questions. Some in the assembled media here seem eager to make this game a battle in some imaginary war for college basketball's soul.

Kaminsky was even less subtle about the whole thing.

"Sometimes, we kind of fail that eye test," Kaminsky said. "But it doesn't matter when the game starts. It matters how we play. … People can say we look like this and we look like that -- we look like a bunch of white guys -- but it doesn't matter at the end of the day."

Thing is, none of that dichotomous stuff -- veterans versus freshmen, talent versus experience, patience versus immediate gratification -- is what's actually interesting about Wisconsin.

What's interesting about Wisconsin is that it's really funny.

Kaminsky's well-documented comedy skills were on display again Friday. When asked whether, like many big men, he was slow to develop -- "did you have trouble walking and chewing gum?" was an actual question Kaminsky was asked -- he replied that his "biggest battle was with doorways."

"I used to hit my head on everything," he said. "Learning to duck was my first big battle, but I knew once I conquered that, I would be good going forward."

At open practice, as Dekker and others took turns with an impromptu post-practice dunk contest, Kaminsky motioned Brust -- listed at 6-foot-1 and allergic to elevation -- to run at him. Kaminsky lifted Brust into the air for an assisted dunk. Traevon Jackson erupted, pretending he had just seen the best dunk of his life; the two hip-bumped in celebration.

After practice, senior reserve Zach Bohannon screamed "Go Badgers!" at the media members hunched over laptops.

On Thursday, freshman forward Nigel Hayes would prepare for his own photo shoot by doing 15 pushups, telling a reporter he had to get his arms "ready for prime time."

The rest of the team had gravitated toward a large studio Turner and CBS built for dramatic pregame introductions. The starters would dribble the ball and say their own names; at the end, they would walk forward dramatically and bellow "We are Wisconsin." Bohannon and Duje Dukan wanted to watch the awkwardness ensue.

"Are you two starters?" a woman with a clipboard asked them.

"Oh, no," Dekan said. "We suck."

The woman with the clipboard hesitated, and the two enjoyed the forced, awkward pause. Then, they laughed.



ARLINGTON, Texas -- After five days of prelude, it's hard to find something new to say about these games -- every angle has been explored, discussed, dismissed and recycled, often in the matter of an afternoon. No analytical stone goes unturned, and yet, the underlying matchups we'll see on Saturday remain as fascinating and exciting as ever.

UConn vs. Florida


What to watch: Can UConn's defense keep it in the game? Fact is, no matter good Shabazz Napier is -- and he's really, really good -- the Huskies are probably going to struggle on offense. Florida's defense is the best in the country, and it's also well suited to guarding a perimeter-oriented, guard-dominant group like Kevin Ollie's. But UConn's defense is a top-10 per-possession unit in its own right, and if the Huskies frustrate Florida inside and keep Michael Frazier II from knocking down 3s from the wings, and they can keep the game close enough to give themselves a shot in the final few minutes … well, is there any player you'd rather have in that situation than Shabazz?

Who to watch: Napier is the star of the show here, obviously, and UConn's chances are inextricably tied to how well its point guard plays. But that won't necessarily be enough: Ryan Boatright will have to create some rotation havoc with dribble penetration; DeAndre Daniels will have to get to the rim here and there; Niels Giffey will have to make shots.

Key matchup: Again, there is an obvious answer here: Napier, the best guard in the country, will frequently be guarded by Scottie Wilbekin, arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. And vice versa: Napier will have to check the always-calm SEC player of the year when Florida runs its spread pick-and-roll stuff. But I'm also interested to see how UConn matches up with Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith and especially Patric Young down low. If Florida gets easy post buckets early and often, look out.

Who wins (with final score): Florida 72-66


Kentucky vs. Wisconsin


What to watch: Is "everything" an acceptable answer? There's so much to see here: John Calipari leading the nation's most talented team to an unlikely (if not exactly surprising) late-season renaissance. Bo Ryan reaching his first Final Four with a team that plays an up-tempo, picture-perfect rendition of his elegant swing offense. The startling youth of Kentucky. The reliable veterans of Wisconsin. The high likelihood of a game decided by one or two possessions in the final moments. A massive state-of-the-art stadium filled with die-hard fans in red and blue.

There is no such thing as a bad Final Four game, and Florida-UConn is going to be great. But this has all the makings of a classic.

Who to watch: Frank Kaminsky's uber-efficient offensive play is what lifted the Badgers' already lights-out offense to even greater heights in March; it's what allowed them to score 1.19 points per trip in four games (the latter of which included Arizona's smother defense and a Baylor team that destroyed Creighton two nights before Wisconsin put it through a clinic). And so much of the discussion here this week has revolved around how Kentucky will stop Kaminsky. Zone doesn't seem like a viable option, UK is missing Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson can't play far from the rim. Can Julius Randle take on the task? Marcus Lee? Does Kentucky go small and use Alex Poythress -- who has had a very solid tournament -- at the 4?

Key matchup: The above are all valid questions, but Wisconsin's offense is crafty enough to score against athleticism in all kinds of configurations. (See: last weekend.) Wisconsin's defense -- or, more precisely, its defensive rebounding -- may decide the game. Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the country. It grabs nearly 43 percent of its misses. It uses drives to the rim to peel defenders away from their assignments, at which point Randle and company devour easy second-chance points. Wisconsin is a pretty solid defensive rebounding team, but it hasn’t seen anything like UK. Can it hold the line?

Who wins (with final score): Wisconsin 68-67




ANAHEIM, Calif. – Wisconsin shed its Sweet 16 ceiling by shredding Baylor’s zone defense in its 69-52 win Thursday in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers advanced to their first Elite Eight appearance since 2005, where they will meet Arizona. The Badgers look to make their first Final Four appearance since 2000.

If they play like they did Thursday, they’ll certainly have a good chance. Here are five observations from their victory:

• Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky absolutely dominated his matchup with the Baylor frontcourt. He made 8 of his first 10 shots in the paint alone en route to a game-high 19 points. He also made the going tough for the Bears in the paint with two blocked shots denying Royce O'Neale and Isaiah Austin at the rim.

• The Badgers did what Nebraska and Creighton before them could not: They picked the Bears' zone apart with crisp passing. Wisconsin had assists on 11 of its first 13 baskets to enjoy a 29-16 halftime lead. Traevon Jackson led the way with five assists, but he was not alone. Four other players had at least two assists for the Badgers.

• That rebounding advantage Baylor was supposed to enjoy? Yeah, it never developed. Wisconsin was a fairly average rebounding team this season, outrebounding its foes by only 1.5 per game. But the Badgers controlled the boards against Baylor 39-33. The key for Wisconsin was having its guards rebound. Josh Gasser had a team-high eight and Jackson added seven. The Bears had averaged 14.0 second-chance points per game, but were held scoreless in the category in the first half and finished with just seven.

• Baylor’s offense unraveled early in the game. It wasn’t so much that the Bears couldn’t get open shots, but that they were taking uncharacteristic ones. Forward Cory Jefferson, who had taken all of 18 3-pointers during Big 12 play, had two attempts from deep in the first half. As the Badgers' lead kept growing, it seemed the Bears' reaction was to force shots. The 16 points they scored in the first half was a season low. It was previously 21 against Kansas State on Feb. 15.

• Baylor’s frontcourt missed its share of chip shots, but the inability of the backcourt to loosen up Wisconsin’s defense hurt as much. Point guard Kenny Chery, who averaged 11.5 points per game, missed his first five attempts from the floor. Brady Heslip, the team’s second-leading scorer at 11.9 per game, hit a 3-pointer in the first half for his only points in the game.
A look around the West Region ...

WISCONSIN vs. BAYLOR

What to watch: Baylor shut down Creighton’s Doug McDermott, holding him 12 points below his season average. Wisconsin has the shooters in Ben Brust and Josh Gasser to make Baylor’s zone ineffective.

Who to watch: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin are two big men who don’t mind floating on the perimeter to score. Bears forward Cory Jefferson, who has 30 points and 20 rebounds in the tournament, sets the tone for Baylor's frontcourt.

Why watch: Baylor’s 30-point win over Creighton was the largest margin of victory in the round of 32. The Badgers’ rally from down 12 against Oregon proved they are never out of a game.

ARIZONA vs. SAN DIEGO STATE

What to watch: Both teams prefer a faster pace, so it could be one of the more entertaining games of the Sweet 16. San Diego State has won 120 consecutive games when leading with five minutes to play.

Who to watch: SDSU forward Dwayne Polee II, the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year, did not play in the first meeting this season between these teams. Polee averaged 8.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game this season.

Why watch: Arizona is playing as well as any team left but is somehow flying under the radar. The Aztecs cut a 14-point deficit to three before ultimately losing 69-60 when these teams met Nov. 14.

MILWAUKEE -- The machine is consistent, reliable and unflappable. Bo Ryan's Wisconsin team operates on autopilot, humming along, a monotone of winning.

But basketball games, particularly those in the NCAA tournament, require teams to respond to emotional beats. When the season is at stake, it's going to get emotional. When you're down 12 points at halftime in a building 80 miles away from your campus, it's going to get very emotional.

The Wisconsin basketball machine is decidedly unemotional. But there the Badgers were in the closing minutes Saturday night, flapping their arms to incite Kohl Center East, the arena formerly known as the Bradley Center, which roared in approval. There were chest-bumps and fist-pumps and hugs and primal screams. After defeating Oregon 85-77 to advance in the West regional, Wisconsin players waited for Ryan to finish his television interview and then encircled him in a hybrid mosh pit/dance party near center court.

[+] EnlargeBen Brust
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsBen Brust, who came up big for the Badgers with a late 3, moved the ball against Oregon's Damyean Dotson.
There will be more significant games in this tournament than Wisconsin-Oregon. There might be better ones, although Saturday's will be hard to eclipse in dramatic swings. There won't be a more emotional atmosphere.

"It was literally like a home game," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "At this time of the year, that's not what you're expecting as a player. That doesn't happen. For us to be playing in Milwaukee and have all our fans there, supporting us and acting like the Kohl Center, I'm speechless about that."

Emotion characterized the game throughout, but it worked against the Badgers in the first half. So did Oregon, which delivered an offensive performance -- 49 points, 55.6 percent shooting, 14 of 15 from the foul line, 19 fast-break points -- to break the machine. Joseph Young had 17 and Jason Calliste had 14, not missing from either the field (3-for-3) or the foul line (7-for-7).

The officiating also rankled Wisconsin players, coaches and fans. The final 117 seconds were miserable, as a 5-point deficit swelled to 12, thanks in part to a technical foul on Ryan.

"I probably wasn't behaving," Ryan said. "So we had to pay."

At halftime, Ryan asked players how they wanted to feel on the bus ride back to Madison. Hard work, especially with transition defense, could result in a happy bus. Anything less, and the hourlong ride would feel like days.

Ryan had one final question before excusing the players for second-half warm-ups: Who is the best defensive player in the room?

"I'm the best defensive player in the room," he told the team. "I got a technical. They made their 14th straight free throw or 13th and then they missed the second one. I'm the only guy that got them to miss. I think some of the guys looked at me like, 'Did he just say that?'

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
AP Photo/Morry GashSam Dekker showed some emotion in Wisconsin's win.
"I said that to loosen them up. Maybe it did."

No maybe about it.

The machine isn't programmed to allow 49 points in a half. It's also not programmed to erase a 12-point deficit in 6 minutes, 34 seconds.

Wisconsin reclaimed the lead before the second media timeout and hit 12 of its first 16 shots, including four 3-pointers. Like Young and Calliste in the first half, Badgers standouts Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust and Gasser couldn't miss.

"We used the energy of the crowd, the energy that each other gave, and we harnessed it into the right energy," Brust said.

The shots eventually stopped falling but Wisconsin's signature defense returned. Oregon scored just 28 points in the second half, none on fast breaks.

But thanks to Young, Oregon still led 75-74 when Wisconsin, the Big Ten's second-worst offensive rebounding team, grabbed three offensive boards on one possession. The second allowed Ryan to call timeout and sub in Brust, who had been out with four fouls.

"Those were more spirited efforts to the glass than you'd seen," assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "We have times where we're talking about making a first and second move to the glass. We had four or five guys make three different moves to the offensive glass.

"They channeled the emotion, and they put it into action in a positive way.”

After Sam Dekker corralled a Kaminsky miss, Traevon Jackson found Brust on the right elbow for a 3-pointer.

"Ben's gonna hit that," Dekker said. "He hits the big shots. He loves the big moment."

Brust's 228th career 3-pointer gave him the team record. It also gave Wisconsin the lead for good.

"It was a special moment," Brust said. "I'm just happy we got the win. I want to keep going. I don't want this to end."

The Badgers earned the chance to keep going to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years. They'll face Creighton or Baylor for the chance to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005.

Is Thursday's game more important? No doubt. Will the atmosphere match Saturday's? Not a chance.

"You have to be in their shoes to know that feeling, and know I was feeling it," Ryan said. "I was pretty pumped up, too. That's a lot of emotion for our guys to show."

The machine bared its soul Saturday night. It left the court humming a different tune: On Wisconsin.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan isn’t one to dish out compliments. Certainly not to his own players.

Yes, he pulled Michigan guard Nik Stauskas aside after the Badgers beat Michigan 75-62 in Ann Arbor on Sunday to tell him he played well, despite the fact Stauskas couldn’t find an answer for Wisconsin’s defensive pressure.

And he might have complimented Caris LeVert (25 points, six rebounds) and the potential of Glenn Robinson III. But when it comes to his own players, he’s more tight-lipped.

Frank Kaminsky? The guy who kept Wisconsin in the game, found answers to a strong second-half run from the Wolverines, quieted 13,000 fans in Crisler Center and then hit a step-back 3 from the top of the key as a cherry on top for the Badgers and salt in the wound for the Wolverines?

Well, he was “opportunistic,” according to Ryan.

“[Kaminsky] used his ball fakes very well, countered when he was in tight quarters, body-to-body,” Ryan said. “He finished. He made his free throws. When you can do that with your big, that obviously is going to make a difference.”

[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky used his skill and size to rack up 25 points and 11 rebounds in Sunday's big win at Michigan.
Kaminsky was the difference in the Badgers’ 13-point win. He scored 25 points on 16 field goal attempts, shot 11-of-16 from the floor, and picked up 11 rebounds, one block and one steal in just 29 minutes of play against Michigan. Defensively, he held the Wolverines in check. With strong perimeter defense not giving up anything easy from the outside, Kaminsky stayed solid inside, holding the Michigan post combo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan to just eight points and 11 rebounds combined.

“Things were happening. I felt confident making plays,” Kaminsky said. “There were some driving lanes open for me the whole night, and I felt like I could take them off the dribble and I was able to do that with some success tonight.”

Against Morgan (6-foot-8) and Horford (6-10), Kaminsky worked with ease in the paint, finding open lanes and making his way to the basket.

“I think he realized that he was 7-foot tall and he’s much closer to the hoop than the other guys,” Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said.

Kaminsky felt himself being more confident, being more vocal on Sunday. He said he wanted the ball on every single possession and that he felt his teammates trying to feed the hot hand.

Never was that more important than when the Wolverines cut Wisconsin’s 15-point halftime lead to just three points with six minutes remaining in the game. The Michigan crowd had found itself invested again in the game and Kaminsky -- demanding the ball, imposing all 7 feet of his height -- hit a jumper, rebounded a Michigan miss, hit another jump shot and then another one and an and-1.

Any momentum the Wolverines had was swept away in a quick seven points from Kaminsky, giving the Badgers a cushion.

“When you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it,” Kaminsky said. “You’ve gotta go with what you’re feeling.”

And he knows how rare that feeling can sometimes be. He might not soon forget his eight-point performances in losses to Northwestern and Ohio State at home. But the Badgers, who’ve amassed 21 wins and beaten the two Big Ten front-runners in the past week, know that on any given night it might be one player or another (or another) who’s feeling it.

It’s the reason the Big Ten has been so unpredictable at times this season.

It’s why Northwestern beat Wisconsin (Drew Crawford's 30 points and eight rebounds). It’s why Illinois beat Indiana (Rayvonte Rice's 29 points and eight rebounds). It’s why Penn State beat Ohio State (D.J. Newbill's 25 points and eight rebounds).

For most teams, there is no one name on the “must-stop” list. There are three, maybe four, maybe five who could end up on that list.

Wisconsin had to deal with it defensively on Sunday. The Badgers might have contained Stauskas, but they remembered his 23-point performance in Madison. And they held Robinson to 10 points, but they knew he could have an Arizona-like game and go off for 20 and four.

So instead LeVert was the go-to guy and he picked up 25 and six, almost bringing the W home single-handedly for the Wolverines.

“You want to take someone off someone else and double him? Who do you want to leave open? I'll let you pick,” Ryan said. “You want to leave Robinson open? You want to leave Stauskas open? That's why they're a good team. They have multiple weapons. That’s why I think our guys are still a pretty good team because we have multiple places where we can score.”

Michigan State opponents have dealt with the same issue. Adreian Payne terrorizes teams but then goes down and Keith Appling steps up. Appling goes down and Gary Harris steps up. Imagine when the Spartans are full strength. Who does an opponent try to take away without giving up too much elsewhere?

The same is true for Iowa (Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe), Minnesota (Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Austin Hollins) and Ohio State (LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Aaron Craft).

It’s not just that each of those teams has multiple guys who play their roles well.

It’s that each team has multiple players who can play far beyond any expectations that might have been set for them. It’s the fact John Beilein can say he changed nothing about the way the Wolverines guarded Kaminsky from their game in Madison on Jan. 18 to their game in Ann Arbor on Sunday. And that Kaminsky can show up less than a month later and make it look like Michigan was playing four-on-five most of the game.

It’s that all of those teams don’t just have one Kaminsky. They have several. And on any given night, that player on the Wisconsin team could be Sam Dekker or Ben Brust or maybe even Nigel Hayes.

“If any one of us steps up and plays like that, we can be as good as we want to be,” Kaminsky said.

But against the Wolverines, it was the 7-footer who stepped up and finally looked 7 feet tall.

Game Plan: The January thaw

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
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Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about the games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.

For the first 10 weeks of the 2013-14 college basketball season, Wisconsin and Iowa State shared much in common.

They were two of the sport’s most enjoyable “surprise” stories, scare quotes intended, because the word surprise works only if you note that both were expected to be good, and wound up even better. Both programs subvert traditional offensive dogma, both rely on players (Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, DeAndre Kane, Georges Niang) with uncommon skill sets; both take advantage of interchangeable parts. Both programs are more sheer fun to watch than ever before: The Cylcones have pushed their typical high pace under Fred Hoiberg to new versatile lengths, while the Badgers are playing at breakneck speed (for them, anyway -- 65 possessions per game). For the first 10 weeks of the season, both remained among the nation’s ever-shrinking group of unbeaten teams. Last week, both lost that status.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
AP Photo/Eric GayIowa State's DeAndre Kane feels surrounded against Texas.
Did they ever. Ten days ago, Iowa State was in the thick of a three-team Big 12 title race. The Cyclones lost at Oklahoma on Jan. 11, then at home to Kansas two days later, and then, finally, at Texas on Saturday. Wisconsin, for its part, played uncharacteristically awful transition defense at Indiana on Jan. 14, falling to a shaky group whose next game was a 54-47 home loss to Northwestern. (Yep.) Just as surprising was Wisconsin’s failure to recover over the weekend, when it managed 70 points in 68 possessions in a home loss to Michigan. It’s now been nearly two weeks since either team won a game.

This is what makes January so fascinating: It is an exercise in transition. Teams are more frequently and more rigorously tested. Fatigue and attrition come into play. Certain teams begin to take fearsome shape; others reveal their shortcomings. Outliers regress to the mean. We go from shaky impressions formed from disparate nonconference schedules to solid ideas based on less noisy data (and more of it), and all in one month. And by the time it’s all over, we’re already slotting people onto seed lines. It happens fast.

So, what about Iowa State and Wisconsin? How much should perceptions change? Neither team was without its flaws even when it was undefeated, but those flaws were hidden behind close wins and scheduling luck. (Iowa State got the “Is Mitch McGary OK or not?” edition of Michigan at home; Wisconsin played Florida in the Kohl Center when the Gators had, like, six dudes on the team.) A few losses, sudden and stacked though they may be, won’t send either team plummeting to the NIT. They’re more like gentle reminders of the work ahead.

These are the kinds of things that get figured out in January, in this first great surge of conference clarity. It’s when the nitpicking -- and the fun-- truly begins.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

Kansas is starting to look scary. On Saturday, our own Myron Medcalf made the rather bold proclamation that Syracuse was the nation’s best basketball team. For what it’s worth, and to channel Billy Madison, I disagree! Syracuse is a very good team -- that got a really great win over Pitt on Saturday -- but Arizona is the best team in the country. It is impossible for me to watch the Wildcats’ combination of veteran guards and elite NBA frontcourt talent (not to mention its balanced offense and ruthless execution on defense) and not see the best team in the country, and it is hard for me to imagine another team approaching Arizona’s comprehensive brilliance at any point before March.

If there is one team that might, it’s Kansas.

The Jayhawks are still figuring it out, as the second half of their scraped knee of a win against Oklahoma State demonstrated. But at the rate they are improving -- which is roughly the same exceedingly fast rate as Joel Embiid's improvement -- and if they keep it up (and Andrew Wiggins doesn’t make a habit of “three points on zero field goal attempts”) the Jayhawks are a frightening long-term prospect.

(More: Kansas finally has an elite look, by Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com)

Digger Phelps was honored by Notre Dame for his career as Irish head coach, and in the process celebrated the 40th anniversary of the school’s streak-breaking win over John Wooden, Bill Walton and UCLA. I wrote about the lasting meaning of that game here.

Iowa demonstrates depth, pulls away from Minnesota, 94-73. Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding work at Iowa goes far beyond the brilliant offense the Hawkeyes play, or the textbook timeline they’ve followed to get from “disaster” to “Big Ten title contender.” It is also about depth: Josh Oglesby or no Josh Oglesby, Iowa’s combination of scorers is as well-rounded and effective as any team in the country. Even when Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble struggle at the same time, they’re pouring in points. It’s remarkable.

STAT OF THE WEEK: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Embiid’s eight blocks Saturday constituted a 26 percent block rate -- which means when Embiid was on the floor, he blocked one out of every four Oklahoma State attempts. You know when your computer stalls and you have to restart it? I just had to do that, but with my brain.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

(For two more in-depth previews of big games in the week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)

Monday

Baylor at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: I’m not sure a Baylor team that looked so nondescript in Saturday’s home loss to Oklahoma -- and by the way, how good is Lon Kruger? -- has any chance here. But you have to watch Kansas at this point, because the experience of doing so is like watching a Power Rangers villain slowly learn how to assemble itself.

Wednesday

Wichita State at Illinois State, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Speaking of the “points of the calendar we are getting to” theme discussed in today’s intro, here’s another: The point when everyone starts to take Wichita State’s chances of going unbeaten in the regular season seriously. After handling Indiana State at home Saturday, the kenpom.com projection math gives the Shockers a 25.6 percent chance of making it to the postseason unbeaten.

Saturday

Florida State at Duke, noon ET, ESPN: You may have lost your interest in the Seminoles on Saturday, when Virginia tidied up a two-game regular-season sweep of FSU earlier than most, but in non-UVa-related games, Florida State has been mostly stellar since mid-December. Duke doesn't guard so well, but boy can it score; reverse that statement and you’ve got FSU’s M.O. This game is pure strength-on-strength gold.

Tennessee at Florida, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Tennessee rebounds 42 percent of its misses and features one of the best offensive guards in the country (Jordan McRae), and somehow is just 11-6. How so? The past two Saturdays -- a road loss at Kentucky, yes, but also a 57-56 home defeat to Texas A&M a week prior -- have not been kind. Will Florida make it three in a row?

Michigan at Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Last week, this game may have earned mention for the rivalry, though we would have covered the inherent disappointment, too -- that losing McGary to season-ending back surgery had kept reigning national runner-up (oxymoron?) Michigan from true Big Ten contention. After Saturday’s win at Wisconsin, is it safe to say even that much? Put this one back on your radar.

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