De'Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball (USA Today)

NCAA Sweet 16 Preview: UCLA v. Kentucky

Mar. 24 -- It's probably the most-talked-about Sweet 16 match-up of the NCAA Tournament. Can UCLA reproduce the win it got over Kentucky back in December in Lexington, or will the improved Wildcats get revenge in the win-or-go-home stakes this time...

The UCLA men’s basketball team continues its trek through the NCAA Tournament South Region on Friday night when the third-seeded Bruins take on the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in Memphis (6:40 PM PDT; CBS).

This will be the second meeting of the year between these teams and it is the almost unanimous pick of the pundits as the marquee game of this year’s Sweet Sixteen.

Because it is the second time this season these teams have played and because it matches the all-time winningest program in major college basketball history (Kentucky) against the school with the most NCAA Division I championships in history (UCLA), this game is loaded with subplots. There are many questions surrounding the game, including whether UCLA’s superlative offense can once again offset the athletic advantage of the Wildcats.  There is the question of whether UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford can guide UCLA to the Elite Eight, which would be a first in Alford’s coaching history.  There is also a question of whether this game, being played in relative close proximity to Lexington, Kentucky, will see a crowd dominated by Kentucky fans when the game is being played in a city where Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari used to walk the sidelines.  There is little question that Calipari is generally loathed in Memphis, a city that loves its basketball,  because of the manner in which he left Memphis and how NCAA sanctions hit the program because of transgressions committed during his tenure.  There is a great deal of conjecture that many Memphis residents are buying tickets to the game simply to root against Calipari.

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These are fascinating questions, but the reality is that the game is one between two relatively evenly matched teams in which the outcome should ultimately be decided by three things: whether Kentucky can get UCLA to turn the ball over; whether UCLA can keep Kentucky off the offensive glass, and whether UCLA’s Lonzo Ball can play like…well…Lonzo Ball

Both teams enter the game with 31 wins on the season, though UCLA is 31-4 while Kentucky is 31-5.  Both teams struggled a bit in their respective second-round NCAA Tournament games, although neither UCLA nor Kentucky really appeared as if they were in any danger of losing to Kent State and Northern Kentucky, respectively.

Interestingly, both teams played elite defensive squads in their second games last weekend, with the Bruins taking out Cincinnati and Kentucky surviving against Wichita State.  The manner of the wins was very different.  Kentucky had to grind out a win against a Shockers team that held Kentucky almost 20 points below its season average.  It took a series of blocked shots by Kentucky at the end of the game to preserve the three-point win.  Conversely, UCLA, which was held in check in the first half against Cincinnati, and actually trailed at halftime, saw its vaunted offense kick into overdrive in the second half as the Bruins essentially ran the Bearcats off the court in the final twenty minutes.

Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has the kind of defense that either Cincinnati or Wichita State showed, although it should be noted that Kentucky has the athletes to approach that level on a given night, but both teams possess high-level offenses.  Let’s concede that Kentucky is easily the better defensive team, while UCLA gets the nod on the offensive end.

As noted, these teams faced off in early December in Lexington with the Bruins coming out 97-92 winners in a game that wasn’t that close.  The Bruins led by double digits for much of the second half, and if not for a flurry of three-pointers at the end of the game by Kentucky, and some missed free throws by UCLA, the margin of victory would have at least been double the five-point outcome.

Both teams have clearly changed and improved since that first meeting more than three months ago.  The question is which team has improved more.

One of the things that Kentucky didn’t do well in December was get the ball inside to freshman post Bam Adebayo (6’10”, 260 lbs.).  There is no question that Adebayo has improved his game since December and it’s probably not coincidence that Kentucky has become a more potent offensive team as it’s gained more inside/outside balance.  Adebayo presents a difficult match-up for UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Ike Anigbogu.  He isn’t as offensively polished as Kent State’s Jimmy Hall, who gave UCLA fits last Friday night, but he is bigger, stronger and much more athletic.  He is a monster on the offensive glass, an area that has bothered UCLA to varying degrees all season, and now he’s developed a more mature low-post offensive game that UCLA didn’t see in December.  Now, Adebayo had 18 points in that December game, but many of his points came as a result of the 7 offensive rebounds he pulled down.  Kentucky didn’t make a concerted effort to get him the ball.  If that fact repeats itself on Friday night then that will help UCLA.  Adebayo still struggles at the free throw line, but even though Welsh and Anigbogu had strong games in December, Adebayo and his teammates were able to get both Bruin big men in foul trouble in that game.  His improved offensive game figures to put the pressure on both of them to stay out of foul trouble while still being able to adequately defend the paint and clean the defensive glass.  While UCLA’s Gyorgy Goloman has provided important minutes in the defensive low post this season, the reality is that if both Welsh and Anigbogu get into foul trouble, especially early in the game, then UCLA will be in dire straits.  It’s not as if all the possible issues flow one way when looking at Adebayo.  He has struggled defensively at times this year when guarding posts who can pull him out of the paint and Welsh’s offensive game should do just that.

T.J. Leaf (USA Today)

If Adebayo posses a real concern at one post position, then the question is flipped at the other forward spot.  UCLA’s T.J. Leaf essentially had a coming-out party in the game in Lexington.  If there is another Bruin who could dictate the outcome of the game besides Ball, it’s Leaf because of the match-up advantage he should have against either of Kentucky’s power forwards; senior Derek Willis (6’9”, 228 lbs.) or freshman Wenyen Gabriel (6’9”, 213 lbs.).  Gabriel started the December game and has started much of the year, but Willis has been the starter since before the Big Dance started.  Willis doesn’t match-up well with Leaf one-on-one because Leaf is the superior athlete with the superior skill-set.  Willis could give Leaf problems on the offensive end because of his ability to hit outside shots.  He is one of the two dangerous outside shooter Calipari has at his disposal.  He’s hitting 39% of his long distance shots on the season and had two critical three-pointers against Wichita State.  His shooting ability will force Leaf to leave the paint in order to guard him, making UCLA’s rebounding issues possibly even more pronounced.  However, when Leaf is on offense, Willis simply won’t be able to guard him without help.   If Kentucky starts sliding help towards Leaf, it should open up UCLA guards for open looks from beyond the arc as Leaf kicks the ball back out against double teams.

Gabriel has the athleticism to guard Leaf but he is much more raw than either Leaf or Willis.  He is the better rebounder of the two Kentucky power forwards but he is nowhere near the offensive threat that Willis poses.  In December, Willis scored 11 points, including going 2-4 from beyond the arc, but he only pulled down 4 boards in 22 minutes.  Gabriel only played 17 minutes but he recorded 8 rebounds.  However, he only scored 2 points.  Leaf went for a double-double of 17 points and 13 boards as well has having 5 assists.  Leaf absolutely needs to dominate this match-up for UCLA to have a good chance at winning.

The marquee match-up of the game is going to be the battle of the freshmen, with Kentucky’s point guard De'Aaron Fox (6’3”, 187 lbs.) and Malik Monk (6’3”, 200 lbs.) pitted against UCLA’s Ball.   The real question of the game is which freshman (or two) is going to do a better job of putting his stamp on the game.  Fox is the best athlete of the three, while Monk has the ability to shoot the Bruins out of the game.  There’s really no need at this point to go into what Ball can do.  The Kentucky guards combined for 44 points in the first meeting, while Ball only had 14.  Fox had 9 assists while Ball only had 7.  However, there was no question, especially in the second half, of which guard controlled the game.  Fox and Monk took 39 combined shots to get to their 44 points as they essentially became Kentucky’s offense the entirety of the second half.  Ball’s second half simply made the Bruins look like an offensive juggernaut.

Ball will probably start the game defending Fox and vice versa.  That leaves UCLA’s Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton to guard Monk.  While that should be a match-up that favors Kentucky, keep in mind that Monk is in the midst of a pretty bad shooting slump from beyond the arc.  The one thing the Bruins cannot do is allow Monk to get into the lane, although that fact applies to any of Kentucky’s perimeter players.

The Bruins also need to be concerned with sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (6’3”, 210 lbs.), who is a fine player in his own right.  He had 12 points when these teams met earlier in the year, but he was 0-5 from the three-point line, which was critical in the Bruin victory.  Briscoe probably won’t throw up a goose egg from distance again in this game, but if the Bruins can turn him into one of the two primary shooters for the Wildcats then the Bruins should be happy.

The benches will play a critical role for both teams but for varying reasons.  We’ve already written about Anigbogu, Goloman and Gabriel, but there are several other players who will play a part in this contest.  Calipari will throw sophomore Isaas Humphries (7’0”, 255 lbs.) on the floor to spell Adebayo, but he’s been getting fewer and fewer minutes as the season has progressed.  He simply doesn’t have the athleticism to play the style that Calipari prefers.

The Wildcat backcourt depth is provided by seniors Dominique Hawkins (6’0”, 191 lbs.) and Mychal Mulder (6’4”, 185 lbs.).  Hawkins, who played 16 minutes in December and was solid.  However, Mulder missed that December game and he is dangerous because of his ability to hit outside shots. He is hitting almost 38% of his three-pointers this season and he is clearly an outside shooting specialist, with over 60% of his overall shot attempts coming from outside.

With respect to Mulder’s shooting being able to possibly affect how UCLA defends Kentucky, the reality is that both Hawkins and Mulder are complimentary players.  UCLA has the luxury of bringing a true game-changer off the bench in Aaron Holiday, who is probably the sixth-man of the year in college basketball and would start for virtually every other college team in the country. He had 13 points in December (one of six Bruins in double figures) and provided very good defense on Fox after it appeared he would run roughshod over the Bruins at the beginning of the game.

Expect Holiday to actually play a lot of minutes on Friday because he has the athleticism to match Kentucky’s players and because he’s been playing well in the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA’s offense tore Kentucky’s defense to shreds the first time these teams met.  UCLA shot 53% from the field for the game and 44% from behind the arc.  Keep in mind that Kentucky’s defense is only allowing opponents to shoot 42% from the floor and 31% from the three-point line for the season.  Interestingly, it wouldn’t be a shock to see UCLA shoot close to as well in this game simply because the Bruins are fully capable of doing so.

After facing two tough halfcourt defensive teams who did a good job of limiting transition opportunities in the last round, both of these teams are probably relieved that they are facing an opponent that wants to get up and down the floor.  This is where defense and rebounding on UCLA’s end is going to be key.  Kentucky still suffers from some shot selection issues despite its improved halfcourt offense, relying at times on its ability to hit the offensive glass to get second-chance points.  Alford should game plan to limit Kentucky’s ability to drive and try and turn the Wildcats into a jump shooting team.  If that happens, then UCLA needs to adequately clean the defensive glass.  That’s because doing so will limit Kentucky’s offense because of the lack of second chances, and because it will allow the Bruins to get out in transition.

If the game is one where transition opportunities off rebounds is limited, then the key is going to be turnovers.  Kentucky wants to pressure the ball and force turnovers, as does UCLA’s zone defense, but keep in mind that UCLA turned the ball over 18 times in December to Kentucky’s 9, and the Bruins still won the game relatively easily.  The Bruins only turned the ball over 3 times against Cincinnati on Sunday and if the Bruins can limit turnovers to that level again on Friday, the UCLA will win, pure and simple.

Calipari has shown some interesting coaching tendencies over the course of his career when facing a team for a second time.  He has generally not made major adjustments against a team he’s already defeated, but tends to really game plan changes when facing a team that’s defeated him in an earlier game.  Expect him to throw something different at the Bruins, whether it means double-teaming Ball, going to a zone or face guarding all of UCLA’s perimeter players.  Coach Alford needs to be ready to adjust as the situation calls for it.  The good thing for UCLA is that the Bruins are coming off two games where they faced teams that wanted to face guard the Bruins, so if Calipari chooses to go that route then the Bruins should be ready for it.

The outcome of this game is a bit of a toss-up because you just don’t know if one team of the other is going to play one of its best games of the year while the other struggles.  Generally that doesn’t happen, so some things will go the way of the Wildcats and some the way of the Bruins.  Calipari will clearly play-up the revenge factor with his kids because it will be a good motivator and, if anything, Calipari can generally motivate his players.

The one thing that shouldn’t be an issue in this game is the toughness of either team, whether it be physical or mental.  UCLA answered any questions regarding its toughness in the Cincinnati game.

Still, there is only a single once-in-a-generation player on the floor, one who makes his entire team better by his grit, determination, leadership and skill, and that’s Ball.  Certainly things can come off the rails for the Bruins, as we’ve seen earlier this year in the two losses to Arizona and the loss to USC, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  Assuming that doesn’t happen and that Ball isn’t too amped up, as he was in the first half the first time these teams met, then it would be foolish not to put faith in a player of his caliber who more and more looks like he is on a mission.

UCLA              91
Kentucky         87

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