Final Four: Stopping Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin could be tall order for Kentucky

The men's NCAA tournament is down to the Final Four. From a freshmen-starting-five to a first-time Final Four coach, here's a rundown of the madness so far. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

A self-described “spaz,” Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky claims that the first athletic move he mastered was learning to duck while going through doorways.

“I used to hit my head on everything,” the Badgers’ 7-foot center said Friday with a shrug.

That battle conquered after he grew 10 inches during high school, Kaminsky capped his prep career at Benet Academy in suburban Chicago by enrolling with scant fanfare at Wisconsin — no great recruiting prize, by his own account, rather “an immature, skinny, weak kid.”

But under the tutelage of Bo Ryan, one of the last teacher-first coaches remaining in Division I basketball, Kaminsky has toughened up, honed his on-court smarts and developed a grace and versatility rarely seen in towering post players.

The result, which has been three years in the making, has given Wisconsin (30-7) its most potent and improbable offensive weapon as it pursues the 2014 NCAA championship.

“He’s a better ballhandler than you think,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who made a point of standing next to Kaminsky this week to see if was truly 7 feet before his Wildcats (28-10) face Wisconsin in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals. (Calipari ended up persuaded.) “Obviously he’s their best three-point shooter. He’s playing with a swagger right now, like, ‘None of you can guard me.’ So that’s a challenge in itself.”

The 234-pound Kaminsky led all scorers in the Badgers’ overtime toppling of No. 1 seeded Arizona on Saturday — which gave Wisconsin its first trip to the Final Four since 2000 — scoring 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Afterward, Arizona Coach Sean Miller said flatly, “Frank Kaminsky is the reason Wisconsin’s in the Final Four.”

His performance against Arizona followed a team-high 19 points against Baylor, and he was named most outstanding player of the West Region for it.

“He’s a very unique player; not too many guys in the country like him,” says American Coach Mike Brennan, whose Eagles did the best defensive job on Kaminsky of any NCAA tournament team to date, holding him to eight points in 20 minutes’ work. But American was still flattened by the Badgers, 75-35, in the first round.

“He can obviously shoot the three,” Brennan said of Kaminsky, who made all six three-point attempts en route to Wisconsin’s single-game scoring record (43 points) in a November rout of North Dakota. “But he’s not just a shooter; he plays like a skilled wing. He can dribble, he knows when to pass, when to drive. He knows how to play.”

Under Ryan, 66, who led Wisconsin-Platteville to four Division III championships before being named head coach at the state’s flagship university in 2002, the Badgers have made tough-nosed defense and scrupulous ballhandling their calling card. They don’t beat themselves with turnovers. They don’t typically dazzle with up-tempo scoring bursts, either.

But this season’s squad has flashed a new dimension: A potent offense that’s averaging just less than 74 points per game.

“We’re trying to do two things: We’re trying to get more shots than the other team, and we’re trying to get better shots than the other team,” Ryan said, stripping his basketball philosophy of any mystique. “How do you get more shots? You don’t turn it over. Another way of getting more shots is to hit the offensive glass as hard as you can.”

As for better shots, Ryan favors two types: The ones closest to the basket and the ones taken from the free throw line.

And he predicts Saturday’s battle against Kentucky, which is making its 17th Final Four appearance, will be “a battle 10 feet and in.”

That’s the part of the court patrolled by the Wildcats’ best player, 6-9, 250-pound power forward Julius Randle. Randle will be aided by Kentucky’s own 7-footer, reserve Dakari Johnson, who’ll take over for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein at center.

“Kaminsky is a good inside-out player,” Johnson said Friday, “and we know it’s not going to take one individual to stop him. It’s going to take a whole team.”

It wasn’t long ago that Kaminsky instilled fear in virtually no one.

He recalls sobbing when informed he didn’t make the travel team of his AAU club, the Illinois Wolves, in the ninth grade. But he got no coddling at home. Son of a small-college basketball player and volleyball player, he was told instead that excelling in sports had far more to do with hard work than birthright.

Kaminsky’s first few years at Wisconsin were spent mainly on the bench. He averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds as a freshman and made only modest progression as a sophomore.

But he hit the gym hard last summer and returned for his junior season with the heft and assertiveness worthy of a spot in the Badgers’ starting lineup.

“He’s just a tough young man who really wants to be a player, who has physically and mentally matured into what he feel he’s comfortable with as far as his body and mind are concerned,” Ryan said of leading scorer, who is averaging 18.5 points and 16 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. “He learned how to be stronger. He has learned some nuances defensively of positioning and balance. . . . They improve when they’re in school. And he has improved in every phase of the game.”

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