Wisconsin v Arizona

Why is Wisconsin basketball so good at producing talented big men?

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Bo Ryan is one of the best system coaches in all of college basketball. With very few exceptions — maybe Shaka Smart, maybe John Beilein — no coach in the country is better at identifying players that will fit into his basketball program than Ryan is.

The stereotype of a ‘Wisconsin player’ is that they are big, they are slow and they are white, and while that is not exactly inaccurate — it is a fact that Frank Kaminsky is big, he is slow and he is white — it does ignore one indisputable fact: no one on the Badgers is a stiff.

Kaminsky may not have the physical tools of Mason Plumlee and he may never get mistaken for a professional wrestler like Patric Young, but he is by no means a stiff. In fact, I’d argue that he was one of the five most skilled big men in college basketball. His low-post moves are NBA-caliber, he can step out and hit a three and he can beat a slower-footed big man off of the dribble and get all the way to the rim.

Outside of Adreian Payne on one of his good days, there may not have been a more difficult player to matchup with in the entire country. How do you guard him? He over powers smaller players and he torches bigger defenders on the perimeter. He made the second-best defensive team nationally this season — Arizona, just so happened to feature the best individual defender in Aaron Gordon — look powerless against him in the Elite 8.

Frank Kaminsky single-handedly sent Arizona into the offseason.

Think about that.

Kaminsky played about 10 minutes per game as a sophomore. If you aren’t a serious Big Ten fan or a resident of Wisconsin, you probably had no idea who he was entering the season. I’m sure there is a large population of college hoops fans that had never head of Kaminsky until that Elite 8 performance.

He may be the most improved player in college basketball, but none of that should surprise you if you’ve been paying attention.


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Brian Butch was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school in 2003, and a top ten recruit usually enters schools with a center level of expectation. They’ll get minutes right away. They’ll get a chance to showcase their skills in their first season. They’ll have a chance to show NBA scouts that they belong in the NBA Draft’s HOV lane, bypassing the traffic on the road to the riches of a guaranteed contract.


He redshirted.

“I was a McDonald’s All-American, but I was 185 pounds coming in trying to play in the Big Ten,” Butch told NBCSports.com in a telephone interview on Friday. “I sat down with the coaches and they said would I be better my freshmen year, or take some time to develop my body and really be a force my fifth year.”

For Butch, the decision was simple. He redshirted, giving up his first season on campus for the chance to get better because, in the long run, that’s what would be better for the program.

“They knew what kind of person I was, first and foremost,” Butch said. “They knew I was all about winning and all about team and not a selfish guy. I was all about what the University of Wisconsin was about. And those are the guys that they continue to get.”

Butch was just one link in a chain of Wisconsin big men that have paid their dues, as a redshirt or a scout team member, before stepping into a bigger role in the program. Mike Wilkinson gave way to Butch. Butch passed the torch to Marcus Landry, who was succeeded by Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, who gave way to Jared Berggren who, eventually, led us to Kaminsky.

“It’s a culture thing,” assistant coach Gary Close said, doing everything he could to deflect credit from the coaching staff and directing it all towards the players. The way Close sees it, all the coaching in the world wouldn’t help a kid whose uninterested in actually getting better. They put in the work, which is why they see the results.

But Close and the coaching will take some credit in what they have their players do to improve. In every college basketball practice at every level, at some point the team will split up into big men and guards, running through drills and working on specific fundamentals. Post moves and outlet passing drills for the big men. Ball-handling and jump shooting drills for the guards. Wisconsin makes a point of ensuring that every player on the roster goes through both. “We ask a little more than other programs,” he said. “We want our guys to be versatile out on the floor, in the post, passing, handling the ball, shooting. There’s a little more work there in terms of versatility.”

“The coaches have a lot to do with [our development],” current Memphis Grizzlies forward Jon Leuer said. “We work hard in the preseason and the offseason. [They] are big on the individual work.”

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that all of that individual work is done against all-Big Ten caliber big men.

“I got to play against Jared [Berggren] for two years and that really helped me grow as a player,” Kaminsky said. “I had to learn things from him and apply it to my game. I had to learn to score on him. I had to learn how to defend him.”

“Jared used to beat me up, day in and day out, but eventually got to the point where I was beating him up a little bit. It’s a process. It’s frustrating. But it really works for us.”

Wisconsin’s success lies in their ability to identify and develop players that fit in their program, and while that’s a testament to the kids that they bring in, it also says a lot about the work that Ryan has put in to get Wisconsin basketball to where it is today.

“Coach Ryan has a system and he recruits people into his system that are going to take their four years to grow, physically and mentally, into that system,” Kaminsky said. “By the time you’re ready to play you’re going to be effective in that system. It comes with a lot of frustrations and a lot of ups and downs, but he really demands the best out of every one of his players. That’s happened with me and I’ve been able to grow into this person and player that I am today.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

College Basketball Talk’s Top 25: Xavier, Syracuse, Texas A&M are big winners

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At this point in the season, I think it is still too early to solely base rankings off of on-the-court results. That’s why you’re going to find North Carolina higher in this poll than likely anywhere else on the internet. Until we see what the Tar Heels look like with Marcus Paige — which, mind you, could happen on Tuesday night when they host Maryland — I’m not sure I’m ready to drop them, even for a team that looks as good as Michigan State or Kansas.

The biggest risers of the week: Xavier and Syracuse, who both won big tournaments over the Thanksgiving holiday. They also both happened to knock off rivals in the process, as the Musketeers blew out Dayton while the Orange knocked off UConn.

1. Kentucky (6-0, LW: No. 1): Kentucky got a real scare over the weekend, as Tyler Ulis hyper-extended his elbow against South Florida. He appears to be just fine.

2. Maryland (6-0, LW: No. 2): The Terps have not looked great early on this season, but they’re going to get a real test on Tuesday when they visit UNC.

3. North Carolina (5-1, LW: No. 3): Here’s to hoping Marcus Paige is healthy when Maryland comes to visit this week.

4. Michigan State (7-0, LW: No. 4): Denzel Valentine has been sensational this season, but the most impressive part of Michigan State’s win over Providence on Sunday was that they did it while Valentine was in foul trouble and struggling to shoot the ball.

5. Kansas (4-1, LW: No. 6): The Jayhawks had a pretty good week. They won Maui, they blew out a good Vanderbilt team, Wayne Selden showed up and Cheick Diallo got eligible. I hope Bill Self bought some lottery tickets.

6. Villanova (6-0, LW: No. 5): I really like the Wildcats this year, I do, but I dropped them a spot for two reasons: 1. I thought Kansas was better entering the season and the Jayhawks looked terrific this week in Maui, before Cheick Diallo played, and 2. Villanova hasn’t beaten anyone of note yet. Next Monday they get Oklahoma. We’ll know then.

7. Iowa State (5-0, LW: No. 7): The Cyclones are 5-0 with wins over three high-major programs, but their best win may be the win over Chattanooga. I think we’ll really get a feel for how good this team next month, when, in a 12-day stretch, they get Iowa, Northern Iowa and Cincinnati on the road.

8. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: No. 8): The Sooners put a whooping on Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, the kind of performance that made it very clear Oklahoma is a contender this season and Wisconsin is not. Buddy Hield has been terrific, but so has big man Ryan Spangler.

9. Duke (6-1, LW: No. 10): The loss to Kentucky continues to look like the aberration in Duke’s early season schedule, as they rolled over Utah State and Yale this week. The big news: Luke Kennard has finally found his rhythm, as he scored 22 points and went 4-for-5 from the floor on Sunday.

10. Virginia (5-1, LW: No. 11): Virginia has won four straight since their loss at GW, scoring at least 80 points in every game and never giving up more than 66. It’s not the stiffest of competition, but it should go to show you (like I said at the time) that the loss at GW said more about GW than Virginia.

11. Xavier (7-0, LW: No. 21)
12. Purdue (6-0, LW: No. 15)
13. Vanderbilt (5-1, LW: No. 16)
14. Miami (5-1, LW: No. 9)
15. Syracuse (6-0, LW: UR)
16. Texas A&M (6-1, LW: UR)
17. Gonzaga (4-1, LW: No. 17)
18. Oregon (5-0, LW: No. 25)
19. Cincinnati (7-0, LW: No. 20)
20. Baylor (4-1, LW: No. 22)
21. Butler (4-1, LW: No. 23)
22. UConn (4-2, LW: No. 18)
23. Providence (6-1, LW: UR)
24. West Virginia (6-0, LW: UR)
25. SMU (4-0, LW: UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Cal, No. 13 Arizona, No. 14 Indiana, No. 19 Notre Dame, No. 24 Wichita State

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.