IOWA CITY — No one wants to cop to a “most improved” player campaign. That means you weren’t so great the previous year.
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky was OK last season. As a role player who made just two starts he averaged 1.75 rebounds a game. He also was poked in the eye and suffered a cut on his iris and bleeding in his pupil, forcing him to miss two weeks. You probably knew him more as the “guy who got poked in the eye.”
If the Big Ten had a “most improved” or “comeback” award, Kaminsky would’ve locked that away long ago. Performances like Saturday’s in the No. 18 Badgers’ 79-74 victory Saturday over No. 15 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, might push him to first-team all-Big Ten.
The 7-foot junior poured in 21 points on 8-of-13 from the floor and was hugely clutch in the final minute, which was the difference between the two teams in the end. During the last 36 seconds, Kaminsky banked in a jump shot to give the Badgers (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten) the lead for good, stripped Iowa’s Devyn Marble for a critical steal and made four free throws to seal it off.
“He’s improving,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Frank’s one of those guys who is doing a heck of a job on his learning curve. He’s really been sharp and attentive. He’s too tough on himself sometimes, but now he understands a little bit better and that’s what happens with maturity.”
Kaminsky’s short jumper came off a pick-and-roll pass from guard Josh Gasser. That set up the Badgers, 73-72, with Kaminsky beating center Gabe Olaseni to the basket. Ryan praised Kaminsky’s hands.
“Catching the ball is key on that play,” Ryan said. “For some guys, that’s bobbled and out of bounds. Frank’s hands are better. He was able to catch that.”
Iowa forward Aaron White came out to defend Gasser. Olaseni hedged to help out. Kaminsky saw that and slipped behind Olesani.
“It was just a ball-screen set,” Kaminsky said. “The shot clock was getting down, so we just tried to set a ball screen and rub him. I slipped to the rim and Josh found me. It was an easy bucket. It’s plays like that that win a game.”
The bigger play might’ve been the steal. Off a timeout with 32.5 seconds left, Marble, who led Iowa (19-7, 8-5) with 21 points and 11 assists, tried to cut to the basket. Kaminsky reached in and stripped away the ball.
“He tried to make a play and presented the ball,” Kaminsky said. “I just tried to hit it out of his hands. That’s one of those plays where it’s up to the ref to see what they’re going to call. I thought I got it clean, but you never know how it looks to a referee.”
This is Kaminsky’s first trip through the Big Ten playing significant minutes. He’s gone from 10 minutes a game to 26. He averages 13 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Kaminsky is no longer the “guy who got poked in the eye.”
“I haven’t heard that until you just brought it up,” Kaminsky said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen with that, because right when it happened, I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see for four or five days.”
The Big Ten is seeing Kaminsky now.