All year, there has been a perceived disconnect between Wisconsin’s “eye test” and its resume. Some may look at a Wisconsin team that has maybe two real National Basketball Association prospects and think it can’t compete with the new normal of obscene talent on elite teams, though they’ve been doing it all season.
This narrative showed up when Arizona was favored in the Elite Eight and will return with a vengeance over the coming week as the Badgers prepare for a team that is almost their exact opposite: Kentucky, who aces the “eye test” and has fallen short when it comes to game performance.
It’s not often you’re scheduled to play the preseason No. 1-ranked team and a No. 8 seed at the same time. That takes quite a fall from grace for a premier program. Kentucky struggled all year, going 12-6 during conference play in a weak Southeastern Conference. Its best win was at home over Louisville. After that? Maybe Tennessee, also at home.
That’s a pretty disappointing season for what was arguably the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. According to 247Sports’ consensus recruit rankings, Kentucky’s class of 2013 included the No. 2, 5, 6, 9, 10 and 18 ranked freshmen. That number of recruits in the top 20 is unprecedented and created a team composed primarily of freshmen that is simply not natural when it comes to size and athleticism.
These guys would be considered a large team in the NBA. In college, they have become monsters among boys when it comes to size. The three guards who get regular playing time, James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison, all measure at least 6 feet 6 inches in height. No guard in Wisconsin’s rotation is taller than 6 feet 3 inches.
To combat this, Wisconsin is going to have to move the ball around the perimeter quickly and negate some of Kentucky’s length with ball fakes. Very few teams are able to bang against the Wildcats down low, but forwards Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes’ combination of skill and quickness could give them a chance in the paint.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari likes to use his team’s length and the speed that comes with blue chip recruits to create a dribble-drive system that looks NBA-esque at times. The guards slash into the paint and either try a point-blank shot or get the ball to a big man, either through a pass or offensive rebound.
The focus on interior scoring starts with freshman forward Julius Randle, the consensus No. 2 recruit in Kentucky’s class. Randle is considered a future NBA lottery pick and can play with a ferocity and strength that is borderline unstoppable, averaging 15.1 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game. Guarding him is going to require a heroic defensive effort from sophomore forward Sam Dekker or Hayes.
This attack on the rim helped the Wildcats lead the country in offensive rebounding and rank fifth nationally in free throws attempted per game. On defense, they rank eighth in blocks per game. Their size simply allows them to do things that other teams can’t.
So how does a team like this lose as much as they have? It comes down to two things: outside shooting and team unity. Kentucky ranks 273rd nationally in 3-pointers per game. While the guards are big, their outside shot is weak. The Wildcats’ three guards collectively shoot 34.4 percent from deep, which would rank fifth on Wisconsin if their shots were combined into a hypothetical player. This lack of reliable outside shots should see Wisconsin pack in its defense and force the guards to show they can hit threes.
The other reason for Kentucky’s struggles has been a little more intangible, as the disconnect between some of the five-star recruits comes more from behavior and body language.
In many of Kentucky’s losses, a disconnect can be in seen in the play between the Harrison twins and their teammates. Neither player is very efficient when it comes to moving the ball, and both are below 1.5 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Forcing the two players into bad passes and cutting off their passing lanes to a strong frontcourt will be key.
Overall, Kentucky has the look of a scary team. Every player who sees minutes for them could have a future in the NBA. But they’re young. They make mistakes. The have flaws in their system. If Wisconsin can maintain its discipline and pester the freshmen into making mistakes, the Badgers could make their first national championship game since World War II.