INDIANAPOLIS — When Wisconsin and Kentucky meet today in the second semifinal of the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament, it won’t be just a rematch from a year ago. The game will pit the top player in the game, the Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky, against the top coach, Kentucky’s John Calipari.
Kaminsky, the 7-footer who anchored Wisconsin’s run to a second straight Final Four, was the runaway choice as The Associated Press’ player of the year Friday. After molding a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans into a 38-0 juggernaut that’s two wins shy of another championship, Calipari was voted AP coach of the year.
The Wildcats, who beat Wisconsin in last year’s Final Four, are trying to become the first unbeaten national champion since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. If they beat the Badgers they will face the winner of tonight’s first semifinal, Michigan State or Duke, in Monday’s championship.
Kaminsky averaged 18.7 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from 3-point range as the Badgers ran up a 35-3 record and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
“Frank the Tank’” is the first Wisconsin player to win the award, which started in 1961. He is the third from the Big Ten in the past six seasons, joining Ohio State’s Evan Turner in 2010 and Michigan’s Trey Burke in 2013.
Kaminsky received 58 votes from the 65-member national media panel that selects the weekly Top 25. Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor received five votes and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant had one each.
Calipari received 40 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel. Tony Bennett of Virginia was runner-up with nine votes, and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey got five.
Detractors have called Calipari the embodiment of everything that’s wrong in the one-and-done world of college basketball. He’s a crook who landed two programs on probation, a snake-oil salesman who only won a national title because he was able to sell Kentucky to some top prospects.
Perhaps that perception has finally started to change.
“I know this, I’m the same guy I’ve always been,” Calipari said, when asked whether opinions of him — particularly those in the media — have softened over the years.
“Well, not really. A lot of things change as you get older. My heart’s the same,” Calipari added. “Hopefully I’ve matured and grown up a little bit. That’s questionable also, I hear.”
Speaking of growing up, Kaminsky has certainly done that the past couple of years. After averaging 10 minutes a game as a sophomore, then having a breakout junior campaign, Kaminsky took another step forward in guiding the Badgers back to the Final Four.
“I thought about it a little bit,” Kaminsky said of winning the award. “Obviously, wasn’t one of my main priorities. Getting back to the Final Four was it. But being here and being honored by the AP is awesome. I’m grateful a lot of guys think of me in that manner.”
Calipari began making a habit of the NCAA Tournament with UMass in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, leading the Minutemen to the Final Four. After a failed stint in the NBA, Calipari returned to the college game — and winning — with Memphis in 2000.
But like his first Final Four appearance, another trip with the Tigers in 2008 was later vacated by the NCAA. Calipari’s reputation was sullied, even though both transgressions were not entirely his fault: UMass star Marcus Camby was ruled ineligible for contact with an agent, and allegations of academic fraud unrelated to the university brought down Memphis.