SG Isaac Hamilton (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Kentucky Preview

Dec. 3 -- Kentucky comes to Pauley today, and the Bruins are looking to avoid an embarrassment like last season...

The UCLA basketball team returns to the hardwood on Thursday night to host top-ranked Kentucky in a nationally televised game (6 PM PST, ESPN). It will be the first time ever that a Kentucky team has played UCLA in famed Pauley Pavilion. The Kentucky athletic site is touting the game as a battle of the “blue bloods,” with UCLA the current leader in total NCAA men’s basketball championships (11) and Kentucky in the second spot (8). However, recent history has shown that one program, Kentucky, continues to compete at an elite level, while the other, UCLA, has fallen off a bit in recent years. UCLA’s last title was in 1995, when most of the members of the current UCLA roster weren’t even born yet.

Every Bruin basketball fan should clearly remember the embarrassing loss to Kentucky last season in Chicago, in a game Kentucky led 41-7 at the half. The fact that UCLA lost to a Kentucky squad that would end up with an undefeated regular season was not a surprise. However, the manner in which UCLA capitulated early and often in that game was shocking, and led to arguably the worst single-game performance of a UCLA team in the modern era.

Both teams enter the season less talented than they were the year before. While that means that the Wildcats won’t have the length or athleticism that last year’s squad had, the game represents a very difficult assignment for a Bruin team that has already been blown out by one “blue blood” this season when the Bruins faced Kansas in Maui.

Say what you want about Kentucky coach John Calipari (and there is quite a bit to be said about the only man in NCAA history to have to vacate 2 Final Four appearances at 2 different schools for NCAA violations on his watch) he has become arguably the best coach in America at meshing a group of elite basketball players into a very cohesive team. Let’s face it, every year Calipari gets his players, many of whom eventual lottery picks in the NBA draft, to subvert their individual desires for the good of the team.

Calipari has never been a great tactical coach, relying instead on his ability to recruit and then motivate his players. He was one of the early adherents of the dribble-drive motion offense and this Kentucky team also uses that offense. The difference between this year’s Kentucky squad and last year’s is that the 2014-15 Wildcats had clutch outside shooters with a suffocating defense. This year’s defense is good, but it isn’t the elite level of last year. This year’s Wildcats also suffer from poor outside shooting, especially compared to last season’s Final Four team.

Another issue for Kentucky is that Calipari likes to have a 9 or 10-player rotation. His philosophy is that even if the defense isn’t up to snuff in a particular game, the Wildcats will simply exhaust the other team with the many bodies being thrown at them in a given game. This year, however, Calipari is really only using a 7-player rotation.

That, of course, includes Kentucky’s starting point guard, sophomore Tyler Ulis (5’9” 160 lbs.). Ulis takes Kentucky to another level simply by his heady play. He is an outstanding defender who passes very well, sees the floor and can score when necessary. If there is a weakness in his game right now it’s his poor outside shooting. He’s below 30% from beyond the arc. However, no opponent has been able to keep him out of the lane and UCLA’s guard combination of Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Prince Ali have not exactly been stout man-to-man defenders. Ulis hyper extended his elbow this past weekend and sat out Kentucky’s game Monday against Illinois State. He continues to be listed as day-to-day, although he did practice on Wednesday, and Kentucky is taking him to California. The probability is high that Ulis plays, but he certainly won’t be 100% as Calipari stated that Ulis was only able to participate in a very limited manner in that Wednesday practice.

Playing without Ulis would be a significant blow to the Wildcats, but they have more than ample talent in the backcourt with true freshmen Isaiah Briscoe (6’3” 202 lbs.) and Jamal Murray (6’4” 207 lbs.). Briscoe is the point guard when Ulis isn’t on the floor, but his assist-to-turnover ration is almost even. He is a very good slasher and will try to get into the paint constantly. However, he has been horrible behind the arc, currently sitting at 18% for the season.

Murray is the team’s leadings scorer at 15 PPG. While Briscoe is the better overall shooter, Murray is much better from distance, averaging 32% on his three-point shots. Murray isn’t a great rebounder, an area where Briscoe excels at 6.3 RPG, and he leads the team in turnovers. He isn’t as quick or as athletic as Briscoe, but he should still have an athletic advantage against most of UCLA’s roster.

Freshman wing Charles Matthews (6’6” 189 lbs.) provides much of the necessary rest for the backcourt starters, with junior guard Dominique Hawkins (6’ 190 lbs.) giving some time at the point. However, neither play nearly as much as the starters and there is a significant drop-off from the starters to the two guards coming off the bench. Keep in mind that last year Kentucky was so stocked with talent that Ulis was coming off the bench.

Calipari’s roster was significantly deeper in the post last year than it is this season. Kentucky basically plays three frontcourt players for two spots on the floor.

The unquestioned low post starters are freshman Skal Labissiere (6’11” 225 lbs.) who was considered one of the top two recruits in the country this past year, and junior Marcus Lee (6’9” 224 lbs.). Neither has attempted a three-pointer this season and both are shooting 61% from the floor. LaBissiere has struggled at times with decision-making and the speed of the college game, but his athleticism is off the charts. Some pundits, however, have questioned LaBissiere’s toughness as he only averages 4.3 rebounds per game and appears to avoid contact on occasion. Lee is the “old man” of the pair. While he may not have the physical gifts of LaBissiere nor the offensive array in the low post, he is tough and battle-tested. His 7.6 RPG leads the team. He and LaBissiere are going to be a handful for Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh.

The third member of the frontcourt is the other “old man” on the roster, senior Alex Poythress (6’8” 230 lbs.), and he has a more complete offensive game than either of his younger teammates. While he hasn’t hit any of his 4 three-point attempts this season, he has the ability to stretch the floor. He is also ‘banger’, averaging 7 RPG and doing a lot of the defensive dirty work that an elite team needs in order to be successful. He, too, will come at Welsh and Parker with a great deal of intensity and ferocity.

While that roster isn’t as daunting as the one the Bruins faced last season, it is immensely talented, and that talent is something UCLA just can’t match, especially with Jonah Bolden not having yet lived up to expectations and Gyorgy Goloman still out.

Kentucky has some holes in its collective game, but the Wildcats also do some things really well. Offensively they get into the paint and they get to the free throw line. They rebound very effectively, especially on the offensive end and defensively they force a lot of turnovers and contest most shots. They also want to play at a faster pace that often pulls an opponent out if its comfort zone.

Unfortunately most of their strengths exploit UCLA’s weaknesses. UCLA’s defense has allowed opponents to get into the lane off dribble penetration at will. The Bruins are especially poor at dealing with ball screens and giving help when playing man-to-man defense. The Bruins have done a good job for most of the young season at controlling the boards, but while the Bruins have a chance to limit Kentucky’s offensive rebounding, they may not be able to take advantage of that because of their inability to take care of the ball against better competition. The Bruins, specifically Bryce Alford, have struggled to get off good shots against those teams that have focused on contesting the three-point line.

UCLA’s best chance at staying competitive in this game depends on Steve Alford’s personnel choices. If the Bruins play their most athletic line-up, namely some combination of Holiday, Ali, Bolden and then one or both of the posts, then the Bruins can attack the basket, and Kentucky is not nearly as good at defending the hoop as it was a year ago. Bryce Alford has been shut down by teams that have focused on defending him, and the athleticism that Kentucky will bring to the floor will more than likely make Isaac Hamilton anything from a non-factor to a clear detriment to the Bruins. The move by Coach Alford to have Bryce run the point and get Holiday off the ball may alleviate some of the turnover concerns and allow the Bruins to realistically attack more. Still, Hamilton’s issues against defensive pressure have to be a concern heading into this one.

Ulis’ availability will have an impact on the final score, especially if he can’t play, because Briscoe didn’t appear totally comfortable running Kentucky’s halfcourt offense Monday night. Illinois State isn’t anything more than a mediocre mid-major team, but they did a very good job, especially in the first half, of rebounding on the defensive end and limiting turnovers. The athletic advantage Kentucky had allowed the Wildcats to pull away in the second half.

The expectation is that Ulis will play, and even if he’s limited, which he should be, he will bring a calming effect to Kentucky’s play. However, even without him, the game should resemble Kentucky’s game against Illinois State. The Bruins may be able to keep it close if they can control the defensive glass and limit turnovers. While they have a good chance at the former, the Bruins haven’t shown anything yet this season to prove they can do the latter.

The unknown in this game is whether Kentucky will approach it with an attitude of “we rolled these guys last year,” and suffer a letdown in focus and intensity because of it. Calipari has done a good job over his tenure in Lexington of getting his team ‘up’ for games like this, but if he can’t, that would give UCLA a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.

However, even if UCLA played a very good game, it would still take Kentucky having an off night for the Bruins to prevail. There are simply too many things that would have to break UCLA’s way to believe that will happen. It may not be the embarrassment of last year’s game, but the result should be the same: a Kentucky victory.

Kentucky 86
UCLA 75


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