Cats prep for UCLA

If anyone can sympathize with Steve Alford and his UCLA staff this season, it’s their colleagues at Kentucky.

In his second year with the Bruins, Alford was expected to have a much deeper team but lost three underclassmen – Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson – to the NBA Draft. As a result, UCLA has predominantly used a seven-man rotation with four players logging more than 31 minutes per game, a situation similar to last year’s UK squad.

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“Their starting five is really, really good – really, really talented,” said UK assistant coach John Robic, who sat in for John Calipari on his weekly radio show. “They’ve fallen into what happens to us almost every year where they had a few kids that entered the NBA Draft early off last year’s roster, (and) left them a little bit undermanned; didn’t really expect that to happen, but I really like their starting five.”

UCLA (8-3) faces No. 1 Kentucky (11-0) on Saturday in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago. It’s the second game of a double-header that will open with North Carolina against Ohio State at 1 p.m. ET, followed by the Bruins and Cats at approximately 3:30.

The two teams have a pair of common opponents this season in Montana State and North Carolina. Kentucky recorded wins of 86-28 and 84-70 against the Bobcats and Tar Heels, while UCLA split, beating Montana State 113-78, but falling 78-56 to North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis event in the Bahamas.

The Bruins are coming off an 87-74 loss to No. 9 Gonzaga, who was led by former Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer with a game-high 24 points for the Bulldogs.

UCLA’s starting lineup features a number of familiar names to the recruiting-savvy Big Blue Nation. Forwards Tony Parker and Kevon Looney were both recruited at one point by Calipari & Co. Both are playing well for the Bruins. The burly 6-9 Parker is recording 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while freshman Looney has averaged a double-double at 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds.

“We have to do a good job of keeping Looney and Parker off the offensive glass, and a good job of containing their transition game and their one-on-one game because they want to play quickly.”

The leader of that fast break is another familiar name, Bryce Alford, the son of the former Indiana standout. The sophomore guard is averaging a team-high 18 points and dishing out 6.7 assists per game.

“He really makes them go,” Robic said.

Kentucky is no stranger to seeing zone defenses this season (the Cats have shot 29.3 percent from beyond the arc, while featuring a potent inside game) and Robic expects to see more against UCLA. But it’s not because the Bruins cannot match up with the Cats physically.

“They’re going to mix it up (defensively). They’ve been playing some 2-3 zone this year because of their lack of depth,” Robic said. “… They’re trying to steal extra minutes by playing some zone.”

UCLA enters the matchup ranked 18th nationally in scoring at 80.8 points per game and 14th in rebounding at 41.9 per game. The Bruins are ranked 273rd, however, on the defensive end, allowing 71 points per game. That's a stark contrast to UK's No. 2 ranking (48 ppg) and No. 1 field goal defense mark of 30.4 percent.

The two programs with the most championships in NCAA history, Kentucky and UCLA have met only 10 times prior to this year's game with the Cats owning a 6-4 edge. They will play in each of the next three seasons. The Cats and Bruins agreed to a two-year, home-and-home series beginning next year in Los Angeles.

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