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Northern Kentucky-Wisconsin Preview

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The one-point loss to Kentucky in the Final Four still stings for Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky.

Instead of stewing all offseason about his team being one possession short of playing for a national title, Kaminsky says it’s all about motivation.

“It’s a combination of both. I focus a lot more on negative things than positive things to motivate me,” the 7-footer said.

The third-ranked Badgers are stocked for another deep run into March and begin that quest Friday night at home against Northern Kentucky.

Feeding off negativity is a mindset Kaminsky used last season, emerging from relative obscurity to become one of the country’s best big men. With team-high averages of 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, Kaminsky was a matchup nightmare with his ability to both shoot from 3-point range and score in the paint.

He and three other starters return from a squad that finished 30-8 and advanced to the school’s third Final Four. The Badgers, who went 12-6 in the Big Ten, lost only sharp-shooting guard Ben Brust from the main rotation.

Replacing Brust’s outside shooting and ability to rebound from the backcourt will be the two biggest question marks for Wisconsin. Either Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes or quick point guard Bronson Koenig will replace Brust in the starting five.

Unlike last year, expectations are sky-high after the remarkable 2013-14 run. The Badgers were picked to finish first in the league this preseason.

Kaminsky and 6-foot-9 forward Sam Dekker seem primed to again torture opposing frontcourts with their length and diverse games. And few teams can match the experience and backcourt savvy Wisconsin has with senior guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser.

“If you’re asking me for, ‘OK, how do you think they’ll handle this?’ – they know that there were eight, nine losses in there that we could have turned around by doing some things a little better,” said Bo Ryan, entering his 31st season as a head coach.

The shot-blocking Kaminsky can stay relatively aggressive on defense without the Badgers having to worry about depth. Besides Hayes, Wisconsin also has 6-foot-10 senior reserve Duje Dukan – he’s suspended for the first two games – while 6-foot-8 forward Vitto Brown appears poised for more minutes.

There is perhaps no better sign of how high Wisconsin’s stock has risen nationally than the worry expressed on social media last week about Dekker’s left ankle injury, which sidelined him for most of the preseason.

Dekker, however, plans to be in the lineup Friday night.

“It’s feeling good now,” he said Wednesday. “It took a little longer than I thought it was going to. Nothing else really needs to be said about that.”

As a freshman, Hayes added energy and athleticism off the bench, and was often Wisconsin’s best scoring option during a 1-5 midseason stretch. But Hayes didn’t have a consistent jumper to complement his inside play – something he worked on in the offseason.

“Yeah, I put my fair share of time you could say, that I became a decent outside shooter. More so than what I did last year,” he said.

Hayes would become quite the threat if he could come anywhere close to Brust’s 39-percent shooting from 3-point range, but he didn’t attempt a single 3 last season. Hayes, though, is just one option to take over as a starter. If Ryan goes with Koenig, it would give Wisconsin a three-guard look similar to last season.

Jackson is Ryan’s trusted point guard, a senior who’s shown a knack for making clutch shots. And Gasser was third in the Big Ten from 3-point range at 43.1 percent and Wisconsin’s top defensive player on the perimeter.

The Badgers have never faced Northern Kentucky, which was 9-21 overall last season and 5-13 in the Atlantic Sun. The Norse moved up to Division I prior to 2012-13 and are now eligible to participate in the conference tournament for the first time.

Senior Jordan Jackson returns after leading the team with 13.5 points per game last season. Junior Tyler White was the only other player to average double figures at 10.8.

Northern Kentucky took on a pair of ranked opponents last season, losing to No. 1 Kentucky 93-63 on Nov. 10 before a 75-60 loss to No. 19 North Carolina on Dec. 27.

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