After Wisconsin lost starter Traevon Jackson to a foot injury in January, sophomore Bronson Koenig stepped in and has played (11.6 points, 45.1 percent on 3-pointers as the starting PG) with aplomb. At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Koenig came off the bench to score 11 points against Kentucky in last season’s Final Four.
Andrew Harrison’s two free throws with six seconds left provided Kentucky its winning margin against Notre Dame. Though the 6-6 sophomore is struggling from the field (8-of-22, 36.4 percent) in the NCAA tournament, he is getting to the foul line and making it count (21 of 25). Look for Kentucky to try to attack the Wisconsin backcourt off the bounce. A year ago, Harrison had nine points and four assists vs. the Badgers but made only 4-of-14 shots.
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A fifth-year senior, Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser (6.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is the Badgers’ defensive ace, normally guarding the opponent’s top perimeter scorer. If you leave him open, the 6-4, 192-pounder can make you pay – he’s 5-of-11 in the NCAA tournament on 3-point shots. He’s another Wisconsin player who did not leave much of a mark against Kentucky last season, finishing with two points and five rebounds.
Aaron Harrison’s 3 from the left wing with 5.7 seconds left gave Kentucky a 74-73 win over Wisconsin in last season’s Final Four. The game winner was one of only three shots Harrison hit against the Badgers (3-of-8, eight points). So far in this year’s NCAA tournament, the 6-6 sophomore is shooting only 37.9 percent (11-of-29). Though he made only 2-of-7 last week against Notre Dame, Harrison showed his “clutch gene” is still operative. He buried a late 3-pointer that put the Cats ahead of the Fighting Irish.
Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker has been a breakout star of the NCAA tournament. The 6-9, 230-pound junior is averaging 21.8 ppg and is shooting 60.4 percent (including 13-of-27 on 3-pointers). Dekker (13.9 ppg, 52 percent shooting on the season) was Most Outstanding Player of the West Region and is a finalist for the Julius Erving Award, which goes to the nation’s top small forward. In last season’s Final Four loss to Kentucky, Dekker hurt UK at the foul line (8-of-8) and finished with a team-high 15 points.
In NCAA tournament play, Trey Lyles is Kentucky’s second-leading scorer (11 ppg) and top rebounder (7.3). The 6-10, 235-pound freshman had nine points and five boards in the Elite Eight victory over Notre Dame. However, the Fighting Irish played him physically and forced Lyles to miss makeable shots in the lane and turn over the ball five times. The Indianapolis native is seeking to win the national title in his hometown.
The Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year a season ago, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes is averaging 12.4 ppg and 6.3 rpg as a starter this season. A 6-8, 235-pound sophomore, Hayes went only 6-of-17 in Wisconsin’s NCAA tournament victories over North Carolina and Arizona. A season ago, he was no factor against UK, scoring two points and claiming no rebounds in seven minutes.
For 39 minutes, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein did not have a big impact against Notre Dame. However, in the final minute, the junior showed why many consider him the best defensive player in the country. With the game tied and less than 40 seconds left, Cauley-Stein blocked a step-back jumper by Notre Dame star Jerian Grant. After UK took a 68-66 lead, the 7-foot Kentucky big man tracked Grant step-for-step all the way down the court and forced the Notre Dame star into the deep left corner — where he launched an errant 3-point shot. It will be interesting to see whether John Calipari assigns Cauley-Stein to guard Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky or the red-hot Sam Dekker?
Wisconsin’s Kaminsky is poised to win most of the major national player of the year awards. A 7-foot, 242-pound senior, Kaminsky averages 18.7 points, 8 rebounds and 2.7 assists. An inside/outside threat, Kaminsky has made 54.9 percent of his shots and 41.5 percent of his 3-point tries. He did not, however, play well against Kentucky in last season’s Final Four – eight points and five rebounds in 32 minutes.
Karl-Anthony Towns was the offensive star of UK’s narrow victory over Notre Dame. He hit all eight of his field-goal tries in the second half and produced career highs with 25 points, four assists and two steals. The 6-11, 255-pound freshman did not play well defensively against Notre Dame, however, so it will be interesting to see who Calipari assigns him to guard from Wisconsin’s skilled frontline.
Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson (9.4 ppg, 2.6 assists) returned to action against North Carolina in the round of 16 after being sidelined since Jan. 11 by his broken foot. The 6-3, 207-pound senior made only one field goal in the West Region, but could be an X factor for Wisconsin on Saturday if he can shake off the rust. Jackson, the son of former Ohio State star Jimmy Jackson, had 12 points against UK last year. Duje Dukan, a 6-10 senior, is a capable front-court reserve (4.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg).
In the blustery cold of Cleveland, Kentucky’s Devin Booker found his shot. The 6-6 freshman shook off his slump by making 9-of-17, 4-of-8 three-pointers, vs. West Virginia and Notre Dame. Tyler Ulis’ 3-pointer from the right corner with 5:54 left in the game cut Notre Dame’s six-point lead to three and was the shot that ignited UK’s comeback. Against Wisconsin in last season’s Final Four, both Dakari Johnson (10 points, seven rebounds) and Marcus Lee (four points) played well.
Wisconsin has a big revenge motive. Badgers’ stars Kaminsky and Dekker both said they passed on entering the 2014 NBA draft, in part, to have a chance to avenge last season’s Final Four defeat to Kentucky.
UK, too, enters the Final Four looking for redemption. The Wildcats lost in the 2014 national championship game to a Connecticut team that was not as talented as the Cats. Now, against a much tougher Final Four field, UK will try to make undefeated history and some amends.