Greg Gard was asked Friday afternoon if the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s defense has improved to the point where he’d consider labeling it a good one.

The Badgers associate head coach paused for a second before nodding his head.

“Yeah, I think we are,” he said. “But you’re never satisfied. As a coach, you’re always trying to push the bar higher. We can be better.”

UW (30-7) will have to be Saturday night when it plays Kentucky (28-10) in a national semifinal at AT&T Stadium, with the winner advancing to meet either UConn or Florida in the championship game on Monday night.

It would have been difficult imagining the Badgers in this position — two wins away from the program’s first national title since 1941 — back in January, when defensive stops were hard to come by and coach Bo Ryan issued an ultimatum of sorts.

UW’s struggled against ball screens and was sieve-like at times against dribble penetration, which allowed opponents to pile up points in the paint. Rock bottom came during the second half of an 81-68 loss to Minnesota, which averaged 1.74 points per possession after halftime.

The Badgers gave up 48 points in the paint to the Golden Gophers and 52 during a loss at Indiana eight days earlier.

“We kind of got away from (defense) and almost lost interest in some ways,” UW sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “Coach got into us a lot — he really did — and said we’re not going to win games, we’re not going to do what we want to do if we don’t play defense.”

Save for a few setbacks, UW’s defense has made major strides since that low point. The Badgers have been particularly good on that end of the court over the past 2½ games, a stretch that includes victories over Baylor and Arizona last week in California and the second half of an 85-77 victory over Oregon on March 22 in Milwaukee, where UW rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit.

Which brings us to the Final Four, where UW’s defense will be put to the test once again by the Wildcats.

Kentucky is led by freshman forward Julius Randle, who packs 250 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame and is a load to handle in the paint.

But the biggest key in the Wildcats’ surprising run to the national semifinals as a No. 8 seed is the red-hot shooting of freshman guard Aaron Harrison.

After shooting 32.6 percent from 3-point range in Kentucky’s first 34 games of the season, the 6-6 Harrison has gone 13 of 24 from beyond the arc during NCAA tournament play. His shooting has stretched defenses and opened up driving lanes for his teammates.

“He’s a really good player,” UW junior guard Josh Gasser said of Harrison, whose 3-pointer in the closing seconds gave Kentucky a 75-72 victory over Michigan in the Elite Eight. “A guy like him, it’s pretty much impossible to shut him down completely. He’s going to get his looks, he’s going to be aggressive and try to score for them because they need him to. But he’s just really good at getting to the basket.

“He’s got good size and strength, and then he showed against Michigan that when he’s open, he’s not afraid to take a big shot and knock them down. We’ll definitely have our hands full with him along with some other players from their team, but I think we’ll be ready for the challenge.”

The other major area concern for UW is keeping Kentucky off the boards. The Wildcats lead the nation with an offensive rebounding percentage of 42.5 percent, with Randle averaging 3.6 per game just by himself.

“That’s pretty much what teams key on us every game,” Randle said. “Our physicality is one of our strengths, along with our athleticism and length. The biggest thing is when shots aren’t falling we know we can always go out and get to the offensive glass and try to get easy buckets that way. We know that’s what teams try to key on and stop us from doing, but luckily we’ve still been getting away with it.”