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How Frank Kaminsky went from unheralded role player to March's breakout star

The Dagger
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Arizona vs Wisconsin
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Mar 29, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Wisconsin Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky (44) celebrates cutting the net after overtime in the finals of the west regional of the 2014 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship tournament against the Arizona Wildcatsat Honda Center. The Badgers defeated the Wildcats 64-63. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

Midway through Saturday's West Regional final in Anaheim, Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker sidled up to Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski at the free throw line with a pressing question.

"How awkward is Frank to guard?" Dekker asked, referring to teammate Frank Kaminsky.

"Man, this kid, he's awkward," Tarczewski responded with a chuckle. "You never know what he's going to do, but it's effective."

Other big men at the Final Four may be stronger, more fluid or more explosive than Kaminsky, but none are more responsible for carrying their team to Arlington than Wisconsin's skilled but gangly 7-foot junior. Kaminsky has continued his evolution from role player to go-to threat, emerging as the breakout star of this NCAA tournament by averaging 22 points his past three games and showcasing an ability to score inside and out.

Seldom has Kaminsky been better than during his 28-point, 11-rebound performance in Wisconsin's 64-63 upset of top-seeded Arizona on Saturday night. The nation's best defense had no answer for him, as he rained down pick-and-pop threes whenever the 7-foot Tarczewski matched up with him and exploited his size in the low post against mobile defenders more comfortable guarding him on the perimeter.

"Frank Kaminsky is the reason Wisconsin's in the Final Four," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He's a difficult matchup. Got to be one of the best offensive players who plays college basketball, for sure."

When Wisconsin meets Kentucky in Saturday's second national semifinal, the matchup in the paint between Kaminsky and the Wildcats' stable of highly touted freshmen big men will be symbolic of the two programs' vastly different philosophies toward assembling a team.

Freshmen Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson are McDonald's All-Americans who came to Kentucky with the goal of showcasing their skills to NBA scouts and not sticking around too long. Kaminsky arrived in Madison knowing he'd probably be buried on the bench behind Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz his first two seasons, but he has capitalized on his opportunity as a junior and even developed into a potential NBA prospect.

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Frank Kaminsky reacts after making a three on Saturday (AP)

"He has very good footwork to go with inside-outside scoring ability," said a Western Conference NBA scout who compared Kaminsky to ex-Duke forward and current Los Angeles Lakers reserve Ryan Kelly. "I wouldn't say he has jumped onto the first-round radar, but he has definitely jumped from off the radar completely to being a draftable player. It would be wise for him to return to school, bulk up and improve on the defensive end and on the glass."

That Kaminsky is even worthy of interest from NBA scouts is remarkable considering it wasn't all that long ago that Division I college coaches paid him little attention.

Outside shooting and passing were the hallmarks of Kaminsky's game until a growth spurt in high school forced him to play inside more and become more comfortable with his back to the basket. The son of a dad who played college basketball and a mother who played college volleyball rocketed from about 6-foot-3 when he began his freshman year at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., to 6-foot-10 by his junior season.

It took Kaminsky a while to become accustomed to his newfound size and to learn to use it to his advantage, but his game began to come together late in his junior season. He torched Glenbard North for a career high 39 points on 16 of 18 shooting in a regional playoff game in March of his junior season and two weeks later tallied 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks against Chicago-area powerhouse Simeon in an overtime loss in the state quarterfinals.

"He became much more confident over the course of that playoff run," Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. "That's the big thing with Frank. He had the skill set, the size and the ability, but he was hard on himself and he wasn't always confident. Once he started feeling good about himself after that 39-point game, he just kind of took off from there."

The first time Howard Moore watched Kaminsky play the summer before his junior season, the former Wisconsin assistant and current Illinois-Chicago head coach didn't get to see much of the young big man on the floor. Kaminsky seldom got off the bench for the powerful Illinois Wolves AAU program because Illinois-bound Nnanna Egwu was ahead of him in the rotation.

Moore became more enamored with Kaminsky over the course of his junior season, especially after his performance in the state tournament. By the time Kaminsky followed that up with a breakout spring for his AAU program, Moore had already started to urge Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan to offer a scholarship to Kaminsky before another Big Ten-level program beat them to the punch.

"I just thought it was a no brainer because it was a perfect fit between what coach likes to have in bigs and what Frankie's abilities were," Moore said. "You saw a huge growth in Frank's game and his demeanor and his confidence over that short period of time. You look at that, his skill set, his size and his basketball IQ, and I was like, 'Wow, this kid can be really good.'"

Impressed as Moore was with Kaminsky, even he is surprised by the impact the big man has made.

Never did Moore think Kaminsky would score 43 points in a single game earlier this season. Or lead Wisconsin in scoring as a junior. Or earn West Regional MVP honors after spearheading Wisconsin's push to get Ryan to his first Final Four.

"Nobody can say they thought he'd be this good," Moore said. "It's an accumulation of his drive and desire, his dad would appreciate me saying his genes, and also a great marriage between Frank's skill set, Coach Ryan's system and that staff's ability to develop big men and get him to this position."

Though Kaminsky took some time to celebrate after his huge weekend in Anaheim, his focus quickly turned to Kentucky afterward. "One of the best weeks of my life," he tweeted Sunday. "Hopefully next week will top it."

Kaminsky elaborated on that idea at the podium in Anaheim after his brilliant performance against Arizona.

"We've all played basketball our whole lives and we've all dreamed of going to the Final Four," he said. "To actually accomplish that is something I can't put into words. But we all know we still have a lot of basketball left. We're going to enjoy this now, but this is business. We want a national championship now. We have made it to the Final Four, so why not go get it?"

Check out more NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:

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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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