ARLINGTON, Texas - The Kentucky Wildcats began the season as the preseason No. 1 in both the AP and Coaches polls. By the time the regular season concluded, the Wildcats found themselves unranked in the AP Poll and No. 22 in the Coaches Poll.
Now, after putting the pieces to one of the most talented puzzles in the country together, the Wildcats find themselves in the Final Four.
But how did the Wildcats rebound their season? Well, in short, by rebounding.
Kentucky ranks first in the nation in rebounding offense, collecting 40.6 rebounds per game, and is second in the nation in rebounding margin, outrebounding its opponents by 9.8 rebounds per game. The Wildcats grab 14.6 offensive rebounds per game, fifth-best in the country, and do so by rebounding 42.5 percent of their missed shots.
"I'd say they're probably the best in the country," Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said when asked to rank Kentucky's rebounding ability.
The Wildcats have outrebounded their opponent in 32 of 38 games this season, going 25-7 in such games. In four NCAA Tournament games, the Wildcats are averaging 36 rebounds and outrebounding their opponents by 10 rebounds per game.
"Any time you slip up and don't get a box out, those guys are going to take advantage of it and get it," Sam Dekker said. "They're not afraid to send everyone there and tussle inside to get the rebound."
There are many teams in college basketball that rebound extremely well, but few have the ability to make the most of those rebounds. Kentucky is one of those few.
"They score off of their offensive rebounds at an incredible rate," Close said. "Some teams rebound pretty well but they don't finish. These guys finish."
In their Elite 8 matchup with Michigan, the Wildcats seized 17 offensive rebounds on 27 missed field goals - an offensive rebounding percentage of 62.9 percent. Kentucky turned those 17 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points. For the game, the Wildcats scored 46 points in the paint against the Wolverines.
Frank Kaminsky believed offensive rebounding was the key to Kentucky's victory over Michigan. Dekker said the Wildcats are not afraid to send all five guys in for the rebound, something the Badgers themselves, "don't always do."
So forget Kentucky's length, starting no one shorter than 6-foot-6; forget Kentucky's innate ability to get to the free-throw line; and forget Kentucky's starting lineup that may feature five future NBA players. The main focus for Wisconsin as it prepares for a Final Four meeting with Kentucky is to keep the Wildcats off the glass.
"It may be the most important thing," Close said. "You can't give a team this talented any extra looks; they're just too good. Usually the extra look is right around the basket and it turns into points.
"It's almost like a turnover," Close continued. "You're losing the opportunity to go down and score yourself, and you're giving the other team a chance to score. If you get too many of those, you're going to have a hard time winning."
Of course, those "turnovers" could play a big factor in allowing Kentucky to get easy points as Wisconsin is turning the ball over just 8.3 times per game during the NCAA Tournament and Kentucky is only forcing 9.0 turnovers per game during the tournament.
The Badgers allowed their opponents to grab 178 offensive rebounds on 581 missed field goals (30.6 offensive rebounding percentage) during conference games this season. During the NCAA Tournament, however, the Badgers have done a better job on the glass, limiting their opponents to just 31 offensive rebounds on 125 missed shots (24.8 offensive rebounding percentage).
"When they crash the glass, we know that we are going to have to put bodies on them," Nigel Hayes said. "We have been able to execute those things in the last couple of games, and if we can do that tomorrow, we'll be okay."
Kentucky starting 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game after injuring his ankle in the beginning of Kentucky's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville. Cauley-Stein has recorded 11 rebounds in 55 minutes this tournament and averaged 6.1 rebounds per game during the regular season, so his absence on the court would figure to give the Badgers reason to feel relieved.
Not so fast.
6-foot-9 forward Julius Randle is averaging 12 rebounds per game this tournament and 6-foot-9 forward Marcus Lee has logged eight rebounds in just 16 minutes of playing time this tournament. The Wildcats also have 7-foot center Dakari Johnson who is averaging 3.0 rebounds in 21.0 minutes of playing time.
Wisconsin's players are fully aware of the front court depth Kentucky has and recognize the importance of not turning the ball over on the glass, so to speak, and limiting Kentucky to one shot per possession.
In order to do that, the Badgers are going to have to play one of the most physical games they've ever played.
"We've got to be physical with them," Kaminsky said. "We've got to push back when they're pushing us. Anything we can do to counter their physicality will ultimately help us win this basketball game."
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