Arlington, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The Kentucky Wildcats have made an improbable run to their 16th Final Four, and they will tangle with the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night for the right to play for the national championship.
As the No. 8 seed out of the Midwest Region, Kentucky's road to Arlington, Texas hasn't been an easy one. Coach John Calipari's club opened NCAA Tournament action with a 56-49 win over Kansas State, and followed that with a 78-76 triumph against previously undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State. A rematch (from earlier this season) with intrastate rival and defending national champ Louisville resulted in a 74-69 victory, and then came a 75-72 thriller versus Michigan in last Sunday's Elite Eight matchup.
The last three teams the Wildcats have faced were all part of the 2013 Final Four.
Overall, Kentucky has won six of its last seven games, the lone loss coming in the SEC Tournament title tilt to Florida (61-60), and the Wildcats bring an impressive 115-46 NCAA Tournament record into this contest. UK, which is actually appearing in its third Final Four in the last four years, has played in 11 national championship games, winning eight of them. The 'Cats last raised the trophy in 2012 when they beat Kansas, 67-59.
Wisconsin is appearing in its third Final Four, the first since 2000, and this is coach Bo Ryan's first trip to the national semifinals after winning four Division III national crowns while at UW-Platteville. Ryan's Badgers, the No. 2 seed out of the West Region, have made the NCAA Tournament in each one of Ryan's 13 years at the helm, and they punched their ticket to the Final Four by taking out American University (75-35), Oregon (85-77), Baylor (69-52) and top-seeded Arizona (64-63, OT) in succession.
Wisconsin, which has one national title to its credit (1941), has a NCAA Tournament record of 29-18, and the team has won 13 of its last 15 games overall -- the two losses coming to Big Ten foes Nebraska and Michigan State, the latter of which occurred in the conference tournament championship game.
Kentucky owns a 3-1 series advantage over Wisconsin, and this is the first meeting between the two since the Wildcats claimed a 63-57 win during the 2003 Sweet 16.
Kentucky is a very young team, starting five freshmen including the star of last Sunday's win over Michigan, guard Aaron Harrison. He was asked after the game about what it takes to knock off the No. 1, 2 and 4 seeds en route to the Final Four.
"We showed a lot of toughness. We're just a group of tough, young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore. We just try to go out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game, and we just fight so hard."
Aaron Harrison went scoreless for more than three-fourths of the game against Michigan, but got hot late as he nailed four 3-pointers in the last eight minutes, including the game-winner with only seconds remaining in regulation. In addition to Harrison's 12 points, Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds), James Young (13 points) and Marcus Lee (10 points, eight boards) all finished in double figures. The team as a whole drained 53.4 percent of its field-goal attempts, which included a stellar 7-of-11 showing from beyond the arc. A 35-24 edge on the glass certainly aided the cause, as the game was hotly- contested throughout.
Randle, who logged his national-best 24th double-double in the Michigan game, was named a Third-Team All-American by the AP as he is averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He is the fifth UK freshman coached by Calipari to receive All-America accolades. Other double-digit scorers for the Wildcats include Young (14.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Aaron Harrison (14.1 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (11.0 ppg, 3.9 apg). Leading shot blocker Willie Cauley-Stein (106 blocks, 6.1 rpg) is nursing an ankle injury, and is listed as doubtful this weekend.
Wisconsin had its own star in the West Regional final against Arizona, as 7- foot junior Frank Kaminsky logged a double-double consisting of a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds. Despite shooting a mere 4-of-14 from the floor, Traevon Jackson was the only other Badger to reach double digits in scoring, as he tallied 10 points, while also handing out five assists. As a collective unit, UW hit just 39.3 percent of its total shots. although it went 4-of-6 from the field in the overtime period to help secure the thrilling one-point victory.
Kaminsky (14.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 64 blocks), who leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots for the season, was asked after the Arizona game to describe his emotions.
"I can't explain it, actually. This is like nothing else I've ever felt before. We've all played basketball our whole lives and we've all dreamed of going to the Final Four. To actually accomplish that is something I can't put into words."
In addition to the effort put forth by Kaminsky, Ben Brust (12.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Jackson (10.7 ppg, 4.0 apg) have all produced at different times for a team that is scoring more this season (73.5 ppg) than it has in the recent past, while also playing the kind of solid defense (63.7 ppg) typically associated with a Ryan-coached squad.
Kentucky is playing with house money at this point, and you can bet Calipari will have his young, athletic squad going for broke. As for Wisconsin, it plays fundamentally sound basketball, making very few mistakes, while capitalizing on the miscues turned in by its opponent.