The Wisconsin Badgers are used to being overlooked. They’re one of the very best teams in college basketball, and they’re the No. 2 seed in Saturday’s National Semifinal matchup (April 5, 8:49 PM) with the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats. However, it’s the Wildcats who have been named 2-point favorites at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
This kind of thing happens a lot to Wisconsin. Even though they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999, reaching the Round of 16 seven times during that span, the Badgers are still living in the shadow of Big Ten giants such as the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines. Part of that has to do with history: Wisconsin only has one tournament win, way back in 1941, and the program was largely in disarray for the next five decades.
You can also blame head coach Bo Ryan. The Badgers haven’t stopped winning since he took over in 2000, but they’ve also been called one of the most boring teams ever assembled. Ryan’s teams play at a very slow temp and rank No. 287 out of the 351 Division I teams on Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency charts. His Swing Offense is all about spacing and passing and movement, using up the shot clock to force opponents to expend energy on defense.
It’s an oversimplification to say that Ryan’s system churns out cookie-cutter teams from year to year, but he does get the most out of the players who choose Madison over more popular recruiting destinations. While Kentucky is loaded with freshman talent like forward Julius Randle (24.5 PER), Wisconsin’s minutes are distributed primarily among upperclassmen like junior center Frank Kaminsky (29.5 PER) and senior guard Ben Brust (17.8 PER).
Kaminsky might be the best unknown player in college basketball. He spent his first two years in Madison mostly nailed to the bench, but the gangly 7-footer seized the opportunity to take on a bigger role this year, and Kaminsky has given Wisconsin everything but the kitchen sink: 20.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.0 assists per 40 minutes while hitting 37.8% from behind the arc.
It’s doubtful the Badgers (30-7 straight up, 21-16 against the spread) would be in the National Semifinals without Kaminsky’s heroics. He was simply outstanding in Wisconsin’s 64-63 overtime win over the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats (–3.5), tipping home the decisive basket to cap off a 28-point night and earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the West Region.
While Kaminsky has toiled in relative obscurity, Julius Randle’s name has been in the press all year as a potential lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Casual basketball fans are more likely to recognize Randle, and they should be very familiar with the UK brand after head coach John Calipari (and Anthony Davis) led the Wildcats to the National Championship just two years ago. But Randle is no Anthony Davis. He might not even be a Frank Kaminsky. That’s why Wisconsin is such a good value here, both as 2-point underdogs and at +350 on the latest NCAA Tournament futures.
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