NCAA Men’s Tournament: Path to the Final Four: Wisconsin & Kentucky

Historically, Kentucky has a case to be considered the greatest college men’s basketball programs in the history of the sport.  The list of names that came and went through the the program’s history is endless:  Adolph Rupp, Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, and so on.  Wisconsin, on the other hand, has only a single national championship in its trophy case (which came in 1941).  Unless you are old enough to remember that ‘41 championship season, all success regarding the Badgers can be traced to either Michael Finley’s playing career or during the coaching tenures of Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan.  (Speaking of Badger basketball coaches, raise your hand if you knew that Stan Van Gundy was head coach in Madison for one season.  [Looking for hands …] Anyone? … Anyone???)

NCAA Men’s Tournament: Path to the Final Four: Wisconsin & Kentucky

Subsequently, there are endless comparisons and analogies to describe how opposite the Wisconsin Badgers and Kentucky Wildcats are, from just about every aspect.  But despite all the differences, here we are (again), with Ryan’s Badgers matching up against John Calipari’s Wildcats in the Final Four.  While they have both ended up in Indianapolis, the two programs represent the “yin and the yang” of college basketball excellence.

If you ask Ryan, there’s a more abstract analogy that applies to this match-up.  You see, Ryan likes pigs, and he does not care much for chickens, but he probably thinks Kentucky has some chickens.  (To be clear, we are not talking about “chickens” in the way people use the word to describe cowards, Ryan is referring to the actual barnyard animals.)  After his team beat North Carolina, Ryan was asked to comment on the success he’s had despite not attracting big-name recruits.  He explained by saying “[Our players] are committed,” noting there is a difference between being committed to a program and merely being involved with a program.  Ryan continued: “You sit down to breakfast with bacon and eggs, you know looking at the eggs that the chicken was involved.  You look at the bacon and you know the pig was committed.”  John Calipari might take exception to the inference his players are not committed to his program, but he would probably have to admit there’s a (chicken) nugget of truth to that analogy, given Kentucky’s track record of players leaving early for the NBA under his watch.

When looking at the type of players each program recruits, it is pretty clear that Bo Ryan recruits guys/”pigs” that he feels fit his system (mainly referring to players who can run his patented swing offense and exclusively man-to-man defense).  This is Ryan’s fourteenth year with the Badgers, and in that time Wisconsin has produced less NBA talent than what’s on Kentucky’s squad right now.  Not counting the Badgers’ current roster, Wisconsin’s only alumni in the pros are Devin Harris, Jon Leuer, and Greg Stiemsma.  During that same time-frame, only Harris and Alando Tucker were first-round draft picks (Tucker now plays oversees).  This year’s Badgers run at least three guys (Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes for sure, and possibly Bronson Koenig) who have legitimate pro potential, which only highlights how well Ryan and his staff have done developing this particular batch of talent.  This year’s Kentucky’s team could see somewhere around ten guys play at the next level.

While Wisconsin has had a modest number of NBA players go through Madison in the fourteen years Ryan has been there, the number of NBA players that have been through Lexington under Calipari is staggering.  Calipari’s first season as Wildcats coach was the 2009-10 season, since then fourteen players have went on to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft, with four more going in the second.

People often make a lot of noise about Wisconsin’s inability to get high-caliber recruits.  While there is some merit to those criticisms given the Badgers past recruiting efforts, the success of the program, the reputation Madison has as being one of the best college towns in the country (i.e.: the “marketability” of the school), as well as the university’s proximity to Chicago (which is easily one of the best American cities for elite high school basketball).  Conversely, it is not like Wisconsin is doing it with only one and two-star recruits, either.  So those criticisms are simultaneously fair and overstated.  For instance, Brian Butch was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American.  Likewise, most recruiting databases rated Sam Dekker as five-star recruit, so the Badgers do get elite recruits every now and again.

On the other side, Calipari brings in more five-star recruits year-in and year-out than pretty much anybody in college basketball.  Simply put: Kentucky is the closest thing college basketball has to an NBA minor league team.  To put this into context, Wisconsin doesn’t have a single former McDonald’s All-American on its roster, while Kentucky has seven.  While Ryan selects guys based on how they fit his system, Calipari chooses to recruit talent first and foremost, then fits the system around them.  For example, this Kentucky team, with it’s size and length, runs a different system than the Wildcats did when they had uber-athletes John Wall and Eric Bledsoe leading the way in their back-court.

The difference in recruiting strategies can also be viewed through looking at how the players at each school were rated as recruits.  Using rankings from, it becomes even more clear how each team was built.  Including this year’s commits who will be on campus next year, here’s a breakdown:

Wisconsin under Bo Ryan (beginning with the 2002 recruiting class)

5-star: 2

4-star: 12

3-star: 25

2-star or lower: 3

Kentucky under John Calipari (beginning with the 2010 recruiting class)

5-star: 22

4-star: 5

3-star: 1

2-star or lower: 0

That breakdown symbolizes the path each program has taken to get to this year’s Final Four.  Neither is foolproof nor does either offer an easier job for the coach.  Ryan has placed an all-in bet on his staff to develop players over the course of their college careers, and places a tremendous amount of trust in those players to put in the work to develop.  Calipari placed his own all-in bet on his staff’s ability to relentlessly recruit the top high school talent in the country each year.  Star system aside, just the sheer number of recruits Calipari has brought in (compared to Wisconsin under Ryan) during his much shorter stay is representative of how much roster turnover there is in Kentucky from season to season, putting an incredible amount of stress, uncertainty, and expectations on his program.

As opposite as their approaches are, combined they prove that there’s numerous ways to build a successful program and reach the Final Four.  For the second year in a row, these two schools will meet for the right to play for the Naismith Championship Trophy.  Last year, Calipari’s “chickens” came out on top, we’ll find out if Ryan’s “pigs” have what it takes to get Wisconsin to the title game this time around.


Main Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports