By Dylan Gordon, Staff Writer ||
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan doesn’t need to give his team a scouting report on Kentucky. They’re McDonald’s All-Americans, Jordan Classic participants, and high school legends. They’re athletic superstars, household names, and revenue-generating machines. They are one-year college ballers and future stars of the NBA. They’re everything Wisconsin is not.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is a collection of journeymen, workhorses, and buzzcuts. They are neither athletic nor physical. They won’t burn you down the court, and they certainly won’t throw down flashy dunks. But they will outsmart you, make more cuts, and commit fewer turnovers. They will play you as underdogs, and they will beat you as underdogs.
Hold on, though. How can Wisconsin be the underdog if they’re a second seed on the biggest stagein college basketball?
Let me tell you, they’ve been the underdogs their entire lives. Their best player, Frank Kaminsky, was an unknown, unranked, three-start recruit out of good ‘ole Lisle, Illinois. He barely played his freshmen year at Wisconsin, and he saw meaningless minutes his sophomore year. Kaminsky had to grind his butt off to play extended minutes at the Kohl Center. That’s the way it is at Wisconsin.
That last sentence wasn’t a joke. Aside from five-star recruit Sam Dekker, Bo Ryan doesn’t get highly touted recruits. He gets three-star, under-the-radar, small town guys to man his squad. These kids won’t play much until their junior seasons. Instead, they warm the bench and learn. They watch their teammates get benched for committing turnovers, and they make mental notes to avoid those mistakes.
These guys come to Wisconsin to be molded. They commit to a slow, systematic offense that no one implements in high school. They learn to play intense, consistent defense for the first time in their lives. They run nonstop during practice, just to see garbage time minutes against garbage opponents. But make no mistake about it. When the time comes, they’re ready to perform.
And yet, Kentucky couldn’t be more different. They start five freshmen, all of whom were ESPN top recruits. They are physical freaks, rare talents, and matchup nightmares. They played on national television before Frank Kaminsky had a star on his recruiting profile. They had scholarship offers when they were 10 and press conferences to announce their college decisions. They are the reincarnation of the Fab Five, and they have the resumes to back it up.
But don’t get it wrong; it’s not easy to manage five freshmen. Calipari’s squad is comprised of egos, cockiness, and a one-and-done mentality. They were always the best players on the court. Just ask the high school crowds that witnessed 30 and 10 performances every game. Or ask all of their former opponents that begged for autographs and pictures. These Kentucky freshmen were destined for the big lights from an early age. This should surprise no one.
Check out the following equation: dreamlike talent + renowned coach + crazy environment + preseason number one ranking + one year commitment = Kentucky. Can you blame these guys for doing this? But to revisit my former point, Calipari has accomplished something incredible this year. He’s taken five super talented, but incompatible freshmen and willed them to the Final Four. There’s no learning curve for these guys; they don’t sit for two years like Wisconsin’s Kaminsky, Gasser, Jackson, and Brust. They perform immediately. That’s the Kentucky standard.
Saturday’s Final Four showdown between Wisconsin and Kentucky is a tale of two cities, a tale of two philosophies, and a tale of two cultures. It is the dichotomy of college basketball at your fingertips. And it’s all about to culminate when Frank Kaminsky takes on Dakari Johnson for the opening tip. Johnson was the seventh best high school player in ESPN’s rankings and a McDonald’s All-American. Ask if Kaminsky cares.
Senior Dylan Gordon is a staff writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.