After watching a tenacious, versatile Kentucky team laden with mismatch nightmares dominate all season, it seemed like only the anti-establishment over-thinkers hungry for hate mail would be foolish enough pick against the Wildcats when it came to the favorite to win the national championship.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was not among those that called for Kentucky’s demise. But in the same conversation as the Wildcats? He’s always seen Wisconsin there, he said on Monday.
“Absolutely, no doubt about it,” he said when asked if he saw Wisconsin as a potential national championship team before the start of the tournament.
Wisconsin, of course, is the only one of those two teams in that conversation now – the Badgers face fellow 1-seed Duke at 8:15 CT in Indianapolis tonight after knocking off that formidable Kentucky team after all in a wild finish on Saturday night.
And anyone who’s been paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The Badgers kept almost their entire roster intact after last year’s Final Four team lost to Kentucky in the same game a season ago. And Wisconsin, who lost to Duke 80-70 on Dec. 3 on a night when the now-hot Sam Dekker struggled, dominated for most of the year. Armed with the nation's most efficient offense and a point guard -- Traevon Jackson -- that is regaining health, the Badgers are playing as well as they have all year.
Minnesota met the Badgers twice in a three-game span late in the season, getting Wisconsin as it was raring up for the postseason. The Gophers had downed their border rival in Pitino’s first season, 81-68 at home, after getting Naismith candidate Frank Kaminsky into foul trouble and on the bench early in the first half. This year, Minnesota wasn’t so lucky, falling 63-53 in Madison before taking a 76-63 loss on its home court.
“We were the only team last year to beat them by double digits and the reason we did it –when I looked back on the tape – we got Frank Kaminsky in foul trouble,” Pitino said. “That’s easier said than done because they don’t foul a whole lot. They put you in so many binds on the offensive end as well as on the defensive end. They don’t beat themselves. They’ve been there before. If I had to predict the two [most likely] national champions, it probably would have been Kentucky or Wisconsin. They deserve to be there. They’re well-coached, they’ve got the talent, they’ve got the experience, and it shows.”
Does that mean he likes the Big Ten champ (both in the regular season and the league tournament) and Minnesota rival to cut down the nets tonight? It sure sounds that way, even if Gophers fans everywhere will likely be rooting for Duke for the first time in their lives.
“The one thing I worry about for Wisconsin is that was such an emotional game that they went through with Kentucky, and Duke wasn’t really challenged,” Pitino said. “But the big wildcard is Duke beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin, so you know Wisconsin is going to have that revenge factor.”