Bold prediction: Wisconsin will upset Kentucky in the Final Four semi-final game this weekend.
First, Kentucky has been on a hot streak during March Madness beating powerhouses Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan. They could not have played much better in these games. The rest of the reason they were not nearly as good, which is why they lost eight games including an embarrassment against Florida, 84-65. They have been making all the big shots most notably the 25-footer by Aaron Harrison to upend Michigan State on Sunday to propel the Wildcats to the Final Four. Everything has gone their way these past few weeks. Eventually every team has a bad game, an off shooting night particularly from the outside, and this will happen against Wisconsin. They have made their own luck by playing hard, loose and clutch. But they simply are not that good nor experienced nor skilled, particularly at outside shooting, to keep this up.
Second, the unique Final Four pressure will get to them. Although they have not caved to it already, and they’ve been in plenty of pressure games, the magnitude of the Final Four, college basketball’s greatest stage, will unnerve these guys. They start five freshmen, mere 18 and 19 year olds. They have never been in a bigger basketball game in their lives. Last year they played in high school gyms. Wisconsin’s players haven’t been to the Final Four either, but they as a team are much older and seasoned with five upperclassmen starters: senior Ben Brust, juniors Frank Kaminsky, Sam Jackson and Josh Gasser, and sophomore Sam Dekker. They are less likely to get rattled than Kentucky’s younger guys. You might argue that as freshmen Kentucky’s younger group will play more loose than Wisconsin because they have nothing to lose figuring they may get another chance to go to the Final Four. But at least a few of these guys, namely Julius Randle, will likely go to the NBA after this season. This team will never be together again. This is their one chance. And they know it. That alone will be a heavy emotional burden to handle.
Third, Wisconsin can beat highly talented teams and beat them bad. After the second round of the tournament, there was a lot of buzz about how talented Baylor was. Wisconsin faced them in the Sweet 16 and blew them out of the building, 69-52. The Badgers will not be intimidated by Kentucky’s talent. They will be confident they can win.
Fourth, Bo Ryan is a great coach and may be retiring after this season. His team will use that as emotional drive to play even better and harder in the game — in a similar way that Marquette’s players did in 1977 for their retiring coach, Al McGuire. This extra emotion helped lift Marquette to the championship. Ryan has led his team to 13 straight March Madness tournaments and has the seventh-highest winning percentage all time at 75 percent, according to the UWBadgers web site. This guy, who is in his 30th year of coaching, has plenty of talent at what he does.
Of course John Calipari is a fine coach also. He also has more talented players than Ryan year after year and cannot give his team an added emotional reason to play harder because he is not likely to retire. This season the talent disparity between the two teams is not as pronounced as it has been in other years because this is one of Wisconsin’s most talented teams. Ryan will not be overly emotional and make coaching mistakes. He’s been around too long, experienced too much, and proven himself too often to be victimized by any of that. His team will be careful with the ball, shoot well from the outside, and get a steady stream of points from their versatile big man, Kaminsky. Kentucky’s big men will have trouble stooping this 7-footer who has a lot of game, more offensive skills than any of the Kentucky big men.
Fifth, when a game is close, the team that wins is often the one that wants it more. Wisconsin players will want this one more than Kentucky players. They will appreciate where they are more because they have experienced not making it to the Final Four. The key Kentucky players, all freshmen, will not appreciate where they are enough because they will not felt the disappointment of not making it to the Final Four, losing before getting there. Those who value their opportunities the most, those who have invested the most, are the last to surrender.