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Ryan says perfect record can help Kentucky focus

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Before he jumped to the Division I ranks with Milwaukee in 1999 and Wisconsin in 2001, Bo Ryan coached two teams that went undefeated and won the Division III national championship at Wisconsin-Platteville.

So as Ryan prepares Wisconsin for a Final Four date with Kentucky, he understands how the pressure not only builds for an undefeated team but how it can help a team like the Wildcats improve throughout the season.

“It actually made our practices better,” Ryan said, recalling his Platteville teams from 1994-95 and 1997-98. “Our practices were very competitive, knowing that all eyes are on you.

“Needless to say in Division I there’s more eyes, all on Kentucky’s team, but going through that, I just thought it made us better while we were undefeated because of how you learned to deal with the outside pressures. Then it builds inside.”

This weekend, Kentucky coach John Calipari will see just how his young team filled with NBA talent handles the level of pressure that comes in pursuit of becoming the first undefeated team since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976.

Though Kentucky is undefeated, it has had plenty of close calls, including a 68-66 victory over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.

“The biggest thing is you cannot be afraid to miss the winning shot,” said Calipari, who watched Andrew Harrison make two free throws with six seconds left against the Fighting Irish. “It’s not that you want to make it; it’s that you’re not afraid to miss it. You’re not afraid to make a play and it go wrong. You have to have amnesia. You have to be willing to take risks.”

In addition to the Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron), Kentucky is led by star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis, as well as junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein.

With several long and athletic players, the Wildcats were second in Division I with 6.9 blocks and disrupt passing lanes as well as nearly any team.

While Kentucky has youth that has dealt with pressure most of the season, players like the Harrisons and Cauley-Stein add valuable experience after being a part of a Final Four team last season that lost in the title game to Connecticut.

Wisconsin also has experience after a Final Four run last year, which ended with a loss to Kentucky in the semifinals. The Badgers returned nearly all their top players (except guard Ben Brust) and are led by All-American center Frank Kaminsky.

But because of the changes to Kentucky’s roster, Ryan said there isn’t much to compare between last year’s Final Four matchup and this one.

“The only thing we’re hoping is that it’s not the same outcome,” Ryan said. “Even though they don’t have the same players as last year, what they’ve developed in the last 4-1/2 months is some pretty competitive drills, some pretty competitive practices and work, to where not only were they good in November, but they’re even better now.”