Scout/Jeff Drummond

UCLA's Steve Alford says Bruins have tough matchup with Kentucky Wildcats' "elite" freshman trio

Fox, Monk, Adebayo far more developed than when UK, UCLA last met.

When Kentucky and UCLA last met on Dec. 3 at Rupp Arena, four of the Wildcats' five starters had only seven collegiate games under their belts.

On that day, De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo were riding their lofty recruiting rankings more than a resume of demonstrated productivity, and the Bruins left Lexington with a rare victory for the visiting team, 97-92.

UCLA coach Steve Alford knows he's got a different challenge on his hands now. The Wildcats' star trio might as well be crafty veterans when they square off with the Bruins in a rematch on Friday in the South Region semifinals at FedExForum in Memphis.

"They're top of the food chain," Alford said. "We've got great respect. It obviously starts (with them). It doesn't finish there because they've got other components to their team that make them very, very special. But with Bam you've got an elite center -- great athletic ability that can beat you in a lot of ways. He's averaging 14-14 in the tournament. You've got Fox, who can break down just about any defense that he's gone against, and Monk is one of the most prolific scorers in our game today.

"Those three are very special. They're very elite. And those are three of the reasons -- there's many more reasons -- but those are three very good reasons why they're in the position they're in."

The UK trio played relatively well in the first matchup. Fox had 20 points and nine assists with only two turnovers in a game that featured a breakneck pace. Monk scored a game-high 24 points, including a 4-for-8 day from beyond the arc. Adebayo scored 18 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked four shots. 

Alford sees growth in all three players' games, particularly with the guy who played his old college position. 

"We thought he was awfully good when we were in Lexington in December, and I think he's just continued to get better," the UCLA boss said. "He obviously is like a lot of freshmen, they look one way in December, and by the time they get to March, it's not just their skill set, but now you combine their skill set with some experience.

"He's got experience now. He knows what this is about now. He knows what road games are about. He knows what tournament play is about. But he's just such an elite skill set as a ball handler, and his speed and quickness to get by people, you just don't see very often."

The matchup at the point may be the best of the entire tournament: Fox versus the Bruins' own elite freshman, Lonzo Ball.

In the December game, Ball shook off a first-half performance which saw him turn the ball over five times to finish with a well-rounded line of 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Most importantly, he had only one more turnover in the decisive second half. 

"I've had very few times in a 26-year career where I've actually taken a pause in games and said, 'What do you think?'" Alford said. "Because I trust him that much, that he has such an unbelievable feel to the game. It's like, 'What do you want?' 'What do you want to do defensively here?' 'What do you want to do offensively?'

"So that trust factor from coach to your point guard is at a really high level, and he's just... he's a teammate." 

Ball enters the matchup averaging 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game as a candidate for college basketball's player of the year. Fox counters with averages of 16.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists. 

"De'Aaron is a great player, one of the best guards in the country hands down," Ball said. "It's a tough match-up, got to come ready to play because I know he is."

Both Ball and Fox are projected as potential top five picks in this year's NBA Draft.

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