UK Has Better Sense of Its Identity:
When the Cats and Bruins first squared off on Dec. 3 at Rupp Arena, Kentucky was coming off
The Cats weren't very good offensively last weekend in the second round against Wichita
This time, the Cats' confidence will not be tied to simply trying to out-gun the Bruins. Kentucky is now 13th nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, both figures that correspond to almost all of the national championship squads since 2000. UCLA, meanwhile, is still a team that relies heavily on offense (No. 2) and hopes its defense (No. 77) can hang on for dear life.
2. Cats' Seniors Have Bigger Roles:
During the first matchup, Calipari did not lean on his bench very much. Derek Willis played 22 minutes, Dominique Hawkins 16, and Mychal Mulder did not see the court. They combined for a nondescript 16 points with very little productivity in the other stat columns. Fast forward to the last two weeks, and it's been a much different look for the senior trio.
Willis has moved into the starting lineup in place of Wenyen Gabriel, and his defense has shown remarkable improvement. In his last seven games, the 6-foot-9 forward has 17 blocked shots. In his previous eight, he had zero. Willis has also recorded five steals in UK's two NCAA Tournament wins. He's gone from being a defensive liability to a defensive impact player since getting engaged to longtime girlfriend Keely Potts on Senior Night.
Hawkins was the feel-good story of Nashville, earning a spot on the All-SEC Tournament team. He has played 20-plus minutes in seven of the last eight games, including a career-high 37 against Florida. His man-to-man defense -- often praised by Calipari as perhaps the best in the nation -- figures to loom large against UCLA's talented guards Lonzo Ball, Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford or Aaron Holiday, whichever assignment he draws.
Mulder is more difficult to project in this matchup, but with Fox and Briscoe taking fewer 3-pointers, he could be called upon to provide some perimeter firepower.
3. Same Leaf Matchup Quandary:
For all the pregame hype that UCLA's Lonzo Ball received heading into the first matchup -- deservedly so -- it was the Bruins' T.J. Leaf who had the single biggest impact on his team's 97-92 victory. "T.J. Leaf dominated the last game. He
Bam Adebayo figures to draw the primary assignment, but in doing so, Kentucky risks getting him in foul trouble. The only other viable options are Willis or Gabriel, and that still leaves a tricky matchup against face-up center Thomas Welsh for someone else. Remember, he was the star of the Bruins' win last season at Pauley Pavilion, knocking down one elbow jumper after another against a UK defense helpless to stop it.
No other team the Cats will face this season puts as much pressure on all five positions to defend. UCLA averages 90.2 points per game, and you're never quite sure who the high man will be. There is no weak link, no safe double-team options. It will be interesting to see how Calipari & Co. approach it.