INDIANAPOLIS - One year ago, an injured Willie Cauley-Stein couldn't take part in Kentucky's 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the national semifinals, and Badgers star Frank Kaminsky barely took part as the Wildcats held him to eight points and five rebounds. Now they are back on the big stage, preparing for a national semifinals rematch Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium that very well could be the game of the year.
"To be in the situation we're in right now is unbelievable,'' Cauley-Stein said. Recalling the Wildcats' loss to Connecticut in the championship game, he added, "It's crazy to think that last year after we lost, guys went back to the hotel and said, 'We're coming back. We've got to make it back to the tournament.' It's crazy that it really came true like that.''
For Kaminsky and the Badgers, that season-ending loss came one round earlier but also has been the driving force for a veteran team. Reflecting on his poor performance, Kaminsky said, "I learned that maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was at that point in time.
"Just going against a team like theirs, they have so many elite players on the court at all times, I just struggled and didn't play as well as I wanted to. I think that was a motivating factor to try to get back here, try to play better than we did last year, hopefully come out on top. It's going to definitely be tougher than last year.''
Although Kentucky has three freshman starters, including possible No. 1 overall NBA draft choice Karl-Anthony Towns, it has more of a veteran core than it did a year ago. But the 38-0 Wildcats still struggled for their most recent win, a two-point nail-biter over Notre Dame. Wisconsin's style is very similar to that of the Irish, except the Badgers are bigger and stronger.
Comparing Wisconsin to Notre Dame, Cauley-Stein said, "They run angles a lot. One of our biggest things in the Notre Dame game was giving up backdoors, easy baskets. [The Badgers] pride themselves on exploiting people's weakness.''
Wisconsin undoubtedly will spread the floor as Notre Dame did against Kentucky to create driving lanes. But the key might be the outside shooting of 6-9 Sam Dekker, who had 27 points in the West Regional final against Arizona, including 5-for-6 three-point shooting. That left room for Kaminsky to operate inside for most of his 29 points.
Cauley-Stein has the athleticism to play on the perimeter and conceivably could help cover Dekker. "I think with the guys we have, we're going to do a lot of switching anyway,'' Cauley-Stein said. "Everybody in practice has been guarding guards and bigs.''
Even if Cauley-Stein helps on the perimeter, Kaminsky could run into 7-foot Dakari Johnson, the 6-11 Towns or 6-10 Trey Lyles.
"Having so many tall, athletic players on their team definitely doesn't make it easy,'' Kaminsky said. "It's going to be a battle . . . I can't wait. It's not easy to prepare because there's no scout team in the country that can replicate what they have. But we'll be prepared for whatever.''