What happened in Saturday night’s Elite 8 action is not going to be easily topped by any of the three remaining nights of NCAA tournament action.
Wisconsin scored 55 second-half points on Arizona, hitting 10-for-12 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes as the Badgers pulled away from an Arizona team that, for the second time in two years, couldn’t get to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend.
It was as good as a basketball game can be when one team has control for much of the second half, as Wisconsin did, and yet, it couldn’t hold a candle to what we got in the nightcap.
Notre Dame gave still-undefeated Kentucky everything they could handle in Cleveland, spreading the floor with shooters and letting Jerian Grant, Zach Auguste and company take advantage of all the space that created in the paint. The Irish had 20 dunks and layups despite having just one player taller than Kentucky’s starting back court.
The difference ended up being two defensive plays by the Wildcats in the final minutes. Notre Dame’s offense is built around ball-screen actions, and twice in the final 1:26, Grant, a first-team all-american, had a big man switch onto him, something that he routinely took advantage of during the regular season. But neither Trey Lyles nor Willie Cauley-Stein allowed Grant to beat them off the dribble, forcing him into a pair of step-back threes, as Kentucky scored the final four points of the game to win.
You couldn’t have asked for anymore from those two games.
But here’s the best part: It sets up a rematch from last year’s Final Four, as Wisconsin and Kentucky will square off next Saturday with the right to play for the national title on the line.
It’s a dream matchup. The NBCSports.com National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, against the best front line that we’ve seen at the college level in more than a decade. The nation’s most efficient offense squaring off with the nation’s best defensive team. Two coaches that have mastered their craft, with John Calipari cornering the market on churning out wins with one-and-done prospects and Bo Ryan proving that building a program, one that survives on player development over the course of four or five years, is still possible.
And while Notre Dame diagrammed and executed to perfection a game-plan to beat Kentucky, falling just short, there is no team in the country that is better-suited to ending the Wildcats’ bid for a perfect season than Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is one of the few teams in the country that has the size to matchup with the Wildcats. Kaminsky is a 7-footer. Sam Dekker is 6-foot-9. Nigel Hayes is 6-foot-8. Duje Dukan, their first player off the bench, is 6-foot-8. And if that’s not enough, Wisconsin is also one of the best teams in the country on the defensive glass, giving up offensive rebounds on just 23.9 percent of an opponents’ missed shots. Kentucky will still be bigger than the Badgers — they’re bigger than most NBA teams — but you won’t be seeing Kentucky simply dump the ball into their posts on every possession the way they did against Notre Dame. Karl-Anthony Towns is going to have to work harder if he wants to get those 25 points.
But there’s more.
Each of those Wisconsin front court players are incredibly versatile. Kaminsky is a guard that just happened to sprout into a 7-foot, 235-pound matchup nightmare. Hayes can hit threes, can beat slower defenders off the dribble and can overpower small forwards asked to guard him on the block. And Dekker? He’s an immensely talented, 6-foot-9 combo-forward who has played the best basketball of his life during the regional in Los Angeles.
He set a career-high with 23 points in Thursday’s win over North Carolina, and then set a new career-high with 27 points on Saturday.
Just like Notre Dame did, Wisconsin will be able to spread the floor, pulling Kentucky’s big men away from the rim and putting them into situations they aren’t used to defending. Their offense isn’t as ball-screen heavy as Notre Dame’s, but they can run pick-and-rolls.
And they can isolate any of their five players against a mismatch, including their bigs on the wing and their guards in the post, a tactic known as “inverting the offense”, which Wisconsin does better than anyone.
They can also execute their offensive sets as well as anyone in the country, whether it’s Bo Ryan’s patented Swing Offense or a simple screen-the-screener action to get an open three or a post duck-in.
Wisconsin is not only the second-best team left in the tournament, but they are the team that is the best-suited to beating the Wildcats this year.
And while this game probably deserves to be played in the final, seeing them square off in the Final Four, on the sport’s biggest stage, isn’t a bad consolation price.