Kentucky Preview

Dec. 19 -- If UCLA is to keep the game against Kentucky close, and potential win, many things will have to break right...

After being defeated by Gonzaga by 14 at home last Saturday, the UCLA men’s basketball team takes to the road to play against the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago (12:30 PM CBS national).

This game is the first in a series between the Bruins, Wildcats, Ohio State and North Carolina where each team will play each other over a three year period. The Bruins will play the Tar Heels next season in Brooklyn and will take on the Buckeyes in Las Vegas in 2016.

This game will feature the most complete opponent the Bruins have yet faced. As he has done the past several seasons, UK head coach John Calipari has assembled a roster full of future NBA players, many of whom will leave Lexington after this season. Calipari’s recruiting style has been widely documented, with its basis on getting the commitments of multiple legitimate one-and-done players while interspersing one or two multiple-year guys to give the roster some semblance of stability. However, the stability most programs require is not needed in Lexington, certainly not at the level of other major college programs. What Calipari has done is, in coaching terms, remarkable. As Greg Hicks has commented, Calipari has been able to take a team made up of highly talented players and get them to almost seamlessly buy in to the team concept. It is not a perfect system as shown by Kentucky’s implosion two seasons ago, where the Wildcats were not in the running for an NCAA Tournament bid and ended up losing to tiny Robert Morris of Pennsylvania in the first round of the NIT. This year’s version of the Wildcats, though, is much more similar to last season’s national runners-up or even the title team of 2012.

The Wildcats are made up of a good mix of wings and posts that play stifling defense and are, for the most part, elite athletes. To be blunt, UCLA’s talented freshman, Kevon Looney, is the only player on the Bruin roster who might be a starter for the Wildcats, while Norman Powell is the only other Bruin who would even be part of the Kentucky rotation. Any of Kentucky’s top 10 players would start for UCLA over every UCLA player except Looney. The Cats have serious depth. UCLA’s issues revolve around a lack of athleticism, a lack of depth, especially in the backcourt, and offensive immaturity. Kentucky has great athleticism coupled with significant depth at every spot and plays a style of defense that simply punishes teams that don’t value every possession. The Wildcats are a disaster waiting to happen for the Bruins.

Kentucky’s defense has started the season as if the Wildcats will eventually be considered the standard for defense at the college level. They hold the opposition to shooting 30% from the floor and 27% from behind the arc. They average better than 11 rebounds more than their opposition, have forced almost 70 more turnovers than their opponents, have 50 more steals and 70 more blocks.

Kentucky has yet to win by fewer than 10 points and have defeated the likes of Kansas, Texas and North Carolina. The Jayhawks and, to a lesser extent, the Tar Heels, were boat-raced by Kentucky.

Bryce Alford.
This will be the first game that UCLA has played where the Bruins’ front line of Looney, Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh will possibly be overwhelmed. Calipari will play five players in the two post spots, any one of whom, it can be argued, are better than Parker. There are the “veterans”; junior Willie Cauley-Stein (7’0” 240 lbs.) and sophomores Marcus Lee (6’9” 220 lbs.) and Dakari Johnson (7’0” 255 lbs.), as well as freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns (6’11” 250 lbs.) and Trey Lyles (6’10” 235 lbs.). Each one brings a specialty to the floor but they all have in common a desire to play hard and unselfishly.

Cauley-Stein is the leading scorer on the team at 10.7 PPG, which is terribly misleading because Calipari essentially plays 10 guys at least 14 MPG apiece. Cauley-Stein is also the team leader in rebounding at 6.8 RPG and steals. He is second on the team in blocks and shooting percentage. However, he is not the most talented post player on the squad, so even if the Bruins can somewhat neutralize him, odds are Calipari will have one of the other posts ready to replace him.

Towns is the star of the 2014 recruiting class full of stars. His natural ability and athleticism for a player of his size is outstanding. He is a prolific shot blocker and a threat to go off for a triple-double in any game. However, he can also be a threat to disappear offensively, as he did against UNC when he only scored 2 points.

Johnson and Lee can both bang down low and shoot with a deft touch. Johnson is a little bit better at everything than Lee, but they’re close. The key is that both are better than anyone Steve Alford can bring off UCLA’s bench.

Lyles, despite his size, is more of a finesse layer with a nice jump shot. He is starting now because of the season-ending injury to junior wing Alex Poythress (6’8” 238 lbs.). Lyles is a threat to hit the three but has yet to get truly untracked this season.

Things are worse for the Bruins on the wing and in the backcourt. Kentucky’s starting guards, sophomores Andrew (6’6” 210 lbs.) and Aaron (6’6” 212 lbs.) Harrison, are bigger, stronger, longer and more athletic than UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Noah Allen. Only Norman Powell physically matches up with the Harrisons, but that is only from an athletic standpoint.

Andrew is the point guard while Aaron is the designated shooter of the team, although his shooting has been off this season. While Aaron is second on the team in scoring and Andrew leads the team in assists, their real value is their ability to disrupt the opposition’s offense at the point of attack. If the UCLA guards thought North Carolina’s guards came at them with a lot of ball pressure, wait until they get a load of what the Harrisons will bring. Their length and athleticism also allows them to contest many shots that most college players wouldn’t. Many of the steals credited to their teammates can really be chalked up to them because of their ability to get the opposition running laterally and with poor vision.

When Calipari rests one or both of the twins he can count on a pair of true freshmen, Devin Booker (6’6” 206 lbs.)and Tyler Ulis (5’9” 155 lbs.), to come into the game and show little to no drop-off from the Harrisons. If anything, Booker and Ulis have been bringing more consistent offense to the squad. They are the two best three-point shooters on the team, with Ulis hitting 50%, and they are much more efficient than the Harrisons with their shots. Booker is a match-up nightmare for the Bruins for the same reasons as the twins: length, size and athleticism. Ulis brings something entirely different to the table, in that he is lightning quick. UCLA hasn’t had anything approaching that kind of quickness in the backcourt since Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook were in Westwood.

Kentucky isn’t perfect, though, and their domination speaks more to the dilution of good basketball at the collegiate level as it does to the Wildcats’ talent level. For example, any of the 2008 Final Four teams would probably beat Kentucky quite comfortably. However, the Wildcats certainly have the talent to reach that level by the end of the season.

Kentucky’s lack of perfection lies at the offensive end of the floor. Frankly, Kentucky is not a good offensive team. The Wildcats are a decent 47% from the field on the year, but they are collectively a poor outside shooting team, at less than 30% from behind the arc. The Cats aren’t a great free throw shooting team, either, averaging 67% as a team. It speaks to the level of Kentucky’s pressure defense that Kentucky has won so handily in every game this season. The Wildcats even run away from their opposition when they are playing horribly, as witnessed by their victory over a scrappy Columbia team last week.

There will really be three keys to UCLA even staying in this game, let alone win.

First, the Bruins have to rebound, especially on the defensive glass. Regardless of the defensive strategy employed by coach Alford, the Bruins have to limit the shot attempts of the Wildcats. If Kentucky has any weaknesses, they come on the offensive end of the floor. The Cats run a pretty basic offense, with Calipari looking to employ his dribble-drive motion and exploit match-ups. The Wildcats aren’t particularly patient and will often settle for questionable shot opportunities. What has been and will continue to be their saving grace is their ability to offensively rebound the ball. If UCLA can limit those second chance opportunities than the Bruins can limit the Wildcats in the half court.

Kevon Looney
The second key will be to control the tempo. This is going to be difficult for the Bruins as UCLA wants to push pace, even when they are less talented than the opposition. This was never more evident than in the game against North Carolina. The most successes any teams have had against the Wildcats were when opponents tried to slow the game down. Texas did so and had the game tied at the half while Columbia actually had a second half lead against the Cats. Kentucky’s pure talent and athleticism eventually won the day in both games, but the slower tempo gave both teams, especially Texas, a realistic chance to upset Kentucky. If UCLA can manage tempo then the Bruins could conceivably stay in the game.

If the rebounding issue is the foundation for staying with Kentucky and controlling tempo could possibly somewhat level the playing field, then keeping turnovers to a minimum will be critical. This third key is going to rely heavily on the ability of the Bruins to handle Kentucky’s defensive length and pressure defense. Bryce Alford cannot afford to make decisions that not only produce poor shot selection, but also create an unbalanced floor. Kentucky is excellent at turning turnovers into easy buckets. In fact, much of Kentucky’s offense is predicated on getting those easy buckets and setting up pressure which causes even more havoc for the opponent’s offense. By limiting turnovers the Bruins could force the Wildcats to play more of a halfcourt game, which would only help the Bruins.

For the Bruins to be successful in these areas, it will require several things to happen, with varying degrees of unlikelihood. First, the Bruins will have to stay out of foul trouble. It goes without saying that UCLA gets virtually no offensive help from its bench, so having one of the starters sit for chunks of minutes will substantially hurt the Bruins.

The Bruins will have to do a much better job at choosing good shots than they’ve done to this point in the season, especially Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Those two have been the biggest culprits when UCLA’s “green light motion” offense doesn’t work. If either, let alone both, play as they have in most of the games this season, then the ability for UCLA to navigate the keys to the game will be severely curtailed.

The UCLA defense will have to step up in a manner that the Bruins have yet to show this season. Coach Alford will undoubtedly choose to play mostly zone defense, particularly because Kentucky is not a good outside shooting team, again, hitting on less than 30% of its three-point attempts on the season. Even with a good zone defense, UCLA is going to have to hope that Kentucky has a particularly bad shooting night and even then UCLA must clean up the defensive boards or Kentucky will simply score on second chance opportunities. Then, UCLA must recognize when Booker and/or Ulis are in the game because they are the two Wildcats who have shot the ball well this season.

While Calipari has certainly made strides in the past few seasons as a game coach, his in-game adjustments still rely quite a bit on his being able to motivate the Wildcats coming out of a timeout, as opposed to creating subtle tactical shifts. UCLA’s coach Alford must stay one step ahead of Calipari in this area for the Bruins to have a chance at staying close. Specifically, Alford must make judicious use of timeouts while also being able to predict any adjustments Calipari is going to make when he calls a timeout. Alford has had a tendency to stick to a game plan, whether its with regard to substitution patterns or how he wants to Bruins to attack an opponent so it remains to be seen if the coach will be flexible enough to stay one step ahead of Calipari.

Although Kentucky has blown out North Carolina and Kansas, both teams tried to run with the Wildcats and the Jayhawks played a particularly poor game that snowballed on them. Again, Texas showed the blueprint for how to beat Kentucky, and it would be interesting to see what the outcome would have been had that game been in Austin rather than Lexington. However, UCLA hasn’t shown any signs that it will try to play the style of controlled tempo necessary to slow down the Wildcats.

Interestingly, Kentucky has played 10 of its 11 games at Rupp Arena, with only the Kansas game taking place outside of Kentucky. However, that game was arguably Kentucky’s most impressive performance of the year. Still, it will be worth watching how the Wildcats handle playing away from home for only the second time this season.

Even if UCLA is able to play against its tendencies in this game, specifically slowing the tempo and valuing each offensive possession, that probably will only limit the final score differential rather than the overall outcome. Kentucky is simply too long and athletic, not to mention unselfish for the Bruins to hold out any real hope at an upset. Quite frankly, considering what UCLA has shown so far this season, the best the Bruins can hope for in this game is that it won’t be humiliated on national television. Perhaps there will be lessons the Bruins can truly take from this game, specifically having the coaching staff recognize how important both a true point guard and bench depth is to the success of a program. There is every reason to believe that Bryce Alford is going to be attacked and blitzed by Kentucky’s pressure defense and coach Alford is going to have no one to turn to if his point guard is thoroughly exposed on national television.

Kentucky 83
UCLA 58

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