LEXINGTON — The questions for the 28-10 Kentucky Wildcats in Saturday’s national semifinal matchup (about 8:50 p.m.) with the 30-7 Wisconsin Badgers are largely twofold: Do the Willie Cauley-Stein-less Wildcats have enough depth in the paint to contain the Badgers 7-foot junior center, Frank Kaminsky; and does Kentucky have the discipline mentally and physically to deal with a Wisconsin program that pretty much defines discipline under coach Bo Ryan.
Kaminsky averages relatively pedestrian numbers of 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on the season, but the Lisle, Ill., native has been all but unstoppable in the post-season, playing like a potential tournament MVP.
“He’s just a tough young man, who really wants to be a player who has physically and mentally matured into what he feels he’s comfortable with as far as his body and mind are concerned,” Ryan said of Kaminsky. “He’s learned how to be stronger. He’s learned some nuances defensively of positioning and balance. He’s improved in every phase of the game.”
It doesn’t seem likely that UK freshman center Dakari Johnson has the mobility to defend Kaminsky straight up, though the stunning production of fellow freshman big man Marcus Lee in Sunday’s 75-72 Midwest Region win over Michigan is encouraging.
Cauley-Stein badly injured an ankle in last Friday’s Midwest semifinal win over Louisville, and while Calipari hasn’t said for sure we won’t see Cauley-Stein this weekend on the court in Dallas, it doesn’t seem likely given that the big man did not play at all versus Michigan.
“It’s a tough matchup for us,” UK coach John Calipari said this week when asked about the Kaminsky threat. “Tough matchup, really skilled, seven-feet tall. I wish we had Willie. Maybe we will. I doubt it, but this would be his game. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to try and do (without). Our whole plan will be let’s get ready as though he’s not playing.”
The Badgers have six players with scoring averages of 7.8 or higher. Senior guard Ben Brust follows Kaminsky on the scoring list at 12.8 points per game. Sam Decker, a 6-7 sophomore forward, scores 12.4 points per game and is second on the team in rebounding at 6.1 each time out.
Junior point guard Traevon Jackson contributes 10.7 points and four assists per game.
It’s generally thought that this isn’t one of Ryan’s better defensive teams, but Wisconsin is surrendering just 63.7 points per game.
The second-seeded Badgers edged top-seed Arizona, 64-63, in overtime in the West Region final last Saturday. They advanced to that game with tournament wins of 75-35 over American, 85-77 over Oregon (coming back from 12 points down at the half), and then 69-52 over what had been a hot Baylor team.
Calipari indicated it will take a top effort for Kentucky to advance to Monday night’s national championship game against the Florida-Connecticut winner. UConn and the Gators square off Saturday at about 6:10 p.m.
“Great, great passing team,’’ Calipari said when asked what Wisconsin brings to the table. “Movement team, keeps you on defense, makes you stay in a stance. The minute you fall asleep, like if you have a lot of young guys, then somebody is falling asleep.”
Calipari said he’s sure the Badgers’ goal defensively will be to keep the Wildcats off the offensive glass, though all have tried and none have succeeded so far on the post-season trail.
“They are a defensive rebounding team,” Calipari said of Wisconsin. “I would imagine their whole thing is that we are getting one shot at the basket and that’s it. Bo will probably have four days of scrums around the basket to make sure that we’re not getting any offensive rebounds.
“This is going to be an extremely hard game for us,” Calipari added. “All these young guys against the veterans and their style, which is, if you get impatient and don’t have discipline, it’s a very difficult game to play.”
Calipari said his team has seen enough different styles recently to not get any surprises from the Badgers.
“The greatest thing we have been able to do is play fast ... presses, we’ve done that ... play Princeton offense, we did it,” Calipari said. “This is a combination of Princeton and other stuff. We have grounded it out. There are a lot of games we play in the 50s and 60s ... we can do that. We’re a team that is prepared to play what is thrown at us.”
Calipari was asked this week if he sees similarities between this Kentucky team and his 2012 national champs.
“Totally different animals,” Calipari said. “You had four guys on that team that had gone to a Final Four, and they went back with the expectation of winning a national title. And they convinced our other guys — Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), Anthony (Davis) and Marquis Teague — what we had to do.
“We’re going in a little blind. But I’m going to tell you, we’ve got good skill. We’ve got good size. We’ve got good toughness.”
That toughness has been solidified by a murderer’s tournament trail for the No. 8-seeded Wildcats, with close wins over Kansas State (56-49), previously undefeated Wichita State (78-76), defending national champ Louisville (74-69) and then second-seeded Michigan.
“We got here through an absolute mine field and happened to not step on a mine,” Calipari said. “I don’t even know what to call what we just went through. Now my whole mission is to make sure we’re not satisfied.”
Calipari said the Wildcats simply meshed just in time.
“I think we got here by coming together, by absolutely accepting that if we don’t do this together, we’re all going down,” he said. “They started leaning on each other a little bit more and counting on each other a little bit more.
“The other thing that happened is you had a couple fearless guys out there. Shooting does matter in the NCAA tournament. One year we went 0-for-20 from the three-point line. So, you’ve got to make shots, too. I think that happened ... we started shooting the ball a little bit better.”