INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody at last year's Final Four was a bigger rock star than Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, the slightly goofy big guy with serious basketball skills and a great nickname who tore through the NCAA tournament after two-plus years of relative obscurity.
But when it came time to play Kentucky in the national semifinals, Kaminsky's dominance ended, finishing with a quiet eight points and five rebounds in Wisconsin's 74-73 loss.
"I learned that maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was at that point in time," Kaminsky said Thursday.
Kaminsky, a 6-foot-11 senior is undoubtedly a better all-around player than he was a year ago and projects as a lottery pick in this year's NBA draft. But "Frank the Tank" will face an even tougher challenge in Saturday's semifinal rematch against the Wildcats — both offensively and defensively — thanks to the presence of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, neither of whom played in last year's Final Four.
"They have like seven guys over 6-10, so … It's going to be fun," Kaminsky said. "Obviously there's no scout team in the country that can replicate what they have on their team."
One of the keys to Saturday's game could be how the Wildcats try to defend Kaminsky, a rare center who can draw a defender out of the paint because of his ability shoot and drive. Notre Dame used that blueprint to an extent against Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final last week, bringing its big men out to the perimeter to open up the court.
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Theoretically, Cauley-Stein's length and agility on defense could help shut that plan down, though Kentucky has a number of options it can go to if Kaminsky gets in a rhythm.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he didn't think the Wildcats did anything unusual to slow him down last year.
"We really played him with a bunch of different guys," Calipari said. "I don't think there's one (particular) thing that we did. He missed some shots that he normally makes. Dakari Johnson played him a lot in that game and Marcus Lee was the other (defender). We know how good he is."
Though Kaminsky was arguably the hottest player in last year's tournament, averaging 22 points on 58.6% shooting in three games preceding the Final Four, his overall level of play has taken a big leap from his junior to senior season. Kaminsky raised his scoring average from 13.9 to 18.7 points despite shooting roughly the same number of 3-pointers and has more than doubled his assists from 49 to 99.
Just two seasons ago, he was barely in Wisconsin's rotation, averaging roughly 10 minutes per game. Badgers coach Bo Ryan hopes that continued growth pays off in the final act of his career.
"He's worked at every drill," Ryan said. He's worked at everything we've given him. He's looked at the films. He's very astute when it comes to picking up nuances of moves, using his body, positioning. His parents are very athletic, very smart so we were getting a player we knew was hungry and wanted to prove that he could get to be pretty good. We tend to enjoy having those kind of guys around, but for him to go to the level he has from start to finish, no, I've never had a player like that."
Kaminsky knows Saturday won't be the same game or present the same personnel he played a year ago, but he acknowledged it is somewhat comforting to be playing a familiar opponent, which has kind of been the theme of Wisconsin's second straight run to the Final Four.
Just like last year, the Badgers had to go through Oregon in the Round of 32 and Arizona in the Elite Eight and came out of a West Regional played in Southern California (last year was Anaheim; this year was Los Angeles).
The only thing Wisconsin wants to change is one more point — and a bit better performance from Kaminsky.
"It does make it a little bit easier," Kaminsky said. "It's definitely not easy, but it makes it a little bit easier having seen opponents because you get to see their sets. You have a scouting report that's just a year old. It's not going to be easy. But Kentucky's a really good team and we're going to have to prepare as well as possible from them. We know they're different from last year, so are we. So it's going to be a good game."