Chicago’s centers will have a big Final Four impact

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Lisle native Frank Kaminsky and Chicago native Jahlil Okafor workout during the open practice for the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3rd.

INDIANAPOLIS – Whatever takes place over the next 24 or 72 hours, some hardware is heading back to Madison.

Frank Kaminsky got it before he even stepped onto the court on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Before he took the podium to speak to the media during Friday’s Final Four practice session the Lisle native accepted the Associated Press’ National College Basketball Player of the Year Award.

That honor makes him a consensus first team All-American and adds to his expanding resume that includes this year’s Big Ten Most Valuable Player Award. Kaminsky’s 18.7 points, 8 rebounds and 54 blocks during the regular season earned him one of college basketball’s biggest honors.

“I thought about it a little bit,” said Kaminsky of the prospect of winning the player of the year award. “It wasn’t one of my main priorities, getting back to the Final Four was.”

There’s good reason for that too. A much more important piece of hardware is at stake for Kaminsky and his Badgers along with a historic challenge.

For a second-straight season Wisconsin is back in the Final Four in hopes of winning the school’s first NCAA in Men’s Basketball. Once again they will face Kentucky in the National Semifinal on Saturday only this time they’re facing a Wildcats team that enters without a loss in 38 games.

The last time John Calipari’s team lost was two days after they ended the Badgers season in Dallas back in April of 2014.

“Last year’s loss was obviously very difficult,” said Kaminsky-and that’s an understatement.

The Badgers had their hearts broken at AT&T Stadium when Aaron Harrison knocked down a long three-pointer in the final seconds to give the Wildcats a 74-73 victory. Kaminsky was limited to just eight points in that game and is looking forward to a shot at revenge along with a chance to spoil a rare perfect season.

"Last year's loss was obviously very difficult to lose in the way we did on a last second shot. It left a sour taste," said Kaminsky. "It was a motivating factor to get back to this stage. It's just luck of the draw that we get to play Kentucky again and we're gonna do whatever we can to come out on top."

Experience at a Final Four figures to help Kaminsky and his teammates when the step in front of 70,000 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium to face the Wildcats. That will be much different for another Chicago-area native who'll take the floor in the first game of the day for Duke.

True freshman center and former Whitney Young star Jahlil Okafor will get his first taste of the Final Four when his Blue Devils face Michigan State at 5:09 P.M. on Saturday afternoon. Ironically Mike Krzyzewski's team is back in the National Semifinals for the first time since the Final Four was last in Indianapolis in 2010 when Duke won the championship.

Okafor is a big reason they are back as he averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game on his way to being named the ACC's Player of the Year. In two of the Blue Devils' four NCAA Tournament games Okafor has scored more than 20 points and was a major physical presence for the team.

"I think I have improved as the season progressed," said Okafor. "I watched a lot of film with coaches and talking to my teammates they've been helping me out the entire season. I think I've improved as the season has progressed and I will continue to improve."

In college that may be just one or two games since Okafor is expected to be one of the top three picks in June's NBA Draft. No matter how the next few days play out, Kryzewski wants his young center to know he's welcome to keep improving in Durham for as long as he'd like.

"He should be with us for four years and then he would really improve," said Krzyzewski of Okafor. "He's a good defensive player. He's a helluva player. We're OK with 'Jah'."

Over the next few days, however, he along with his fellow Chicago area big men will hope to be more than OK for a shot to be the best in the NCAA.

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