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Frank Kaminsky's ascent from role player to star helps send Wisconsin to Elite Eight

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The first time Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker realized how good teammate Frank Kaminsky could be, it was during a practice last season.

Kaminsky attacked elite shot blocker Jared Berrgren off the dribble and, with his back to the basket, scored on him with far more consistency than many of the Big Ten's top big men did during games.

"He was doing some of the same moves you've seen from him this season," Dekker said. "Just seeing him do that made me confident he'd be able to take advantage of his opportunity when he got it.

Never has Dekker looked more prescient than he did during Thursday night's Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor when Dekker shredded the Bears' vaunted zone from the high post. Time and time again, he positioned himself in the soft middle of the defense, caught an entry pass and attacked the rim, scoring a game-high 19 points to lead the second-seeded Badgers to a 69-52 rout.

"That was one of our points on the scouting report, getting it to the middle of the zone, try to make some plays happen," Kaminsky said. "They left the middle of the zone open a little bit and we were able to get the ball in there and get some easy baskets to the rim, some easy kick-outs for threes.  So, you know, we just kind of hammered it into the middle and made some things happen."

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Kaminsky's performance was the culmination of a breakout season in which he ascended from role player to interior standout. Having averaged only 4.2 points in 10.1 minutes off the bench as a seldom-used fourth big man a year ago, Kaminsky increased his scoring to a team-high 13.6 points this season and also improved his shot blocking and rebounding.

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Frank Kaminsky drives to the basket for a dunk against Baylor. (USA Today)

The improvement of Kaminsky is a big reason why Wisconsin is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005 and Bo Ryan is one win away from patching the lone hole in his otherwise admirable resume. The Badgers have finished fourth or better in the always rugged Big Ten in each of Ryan's 13 seasons in Madison and have reached the NCAA tournament every year as well, but that model of consistency only produced one Elite Eight and zero Final Fours prior to this March.

Few would have guessed Kaminsky would play this big of a role in the Badgers' return to the Elite Eight, but the timing of his breakout season could not have been more perfect for Wisconsin. With starters Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans all graduating last spring, the Badgers desperately needed a big man to step up and solidify its frontcourt.

Kaminsky was always a capable spot-up shooter off the bench his first two seasons at Wisconsin, but he spent the summer working with a trainer on his strength, speed, conditioning and footwork in the post. The extra hours in the gym helped him take advantage of increased playing time and he's emerged as one of the nation's most versatile big men -- a threat from the perimeter but also able to attack defenders off the dribble or score with his back to the basket.

"When he was younger in high school, he played point guard until he grew," Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. "Now he's added post skills and a more aggressive demeanor to his game. He's more aggressive, he's more physical and he's more willing to take it to teams in the paint."

All of the improvements Kaminsky made were on display against a long, athletic Baylor frontline featuring NBA prospects Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson. At one point in the first half, Kaminsky's four field goals were more than the entire Bears team had managed.

"Frank's a really good player and he's really talented," Wisconsin forward Duje Dukan said. "It was just a matter of time before he stepped into the spotlight."

Wisconsin's Bo Ryan is back in the Elite Eight for the second time in his career. (USA Today)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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