It's the tenth anniversary of the Wooden Classic, which conjures of memories of Wooden Classic #1 – when #2-ranked UCLA beat #7-ranked Kentucky 82-81 on clutch, last-second free-throw shooting by J.R. Henderson. Of course, that UCLA team went on to win the national championship.
But the names on the front of the jerseys are just about the only thing reminiscent of that game. UCLA is, in 2003, trying to erase the bad taste in the program's mouth left over from the decimation wrought by the previous coaching staff. And Kentucky, while still ranked #3 in the country, is made up of some fairly unknown and undersized guys.
It's really a win-win situation for UCLA. The Bruins go into the game without two starter-caliber players, T.J. Cummings and Trevor Ariza. Three of their top eight players are walkon caliber. Head Coach Ben Howland has a built-in excuse, and a very legitimate one, if UCLA loses to Kentucky. Everyone expects UCLA to lose. Howland will get praise if the Bruins play hard and fundamentally sound and even get blown out by 20.
So, the pressure is on Kentucky. They're 3-0 so far this season, getting all three of their wins against fairly easy opponents, Winthrop, Tennessee Tech and Marshall. The Marshall game might be the best gauge of how the Kentucky-UCLA game might go. The Wildcats beat Marshall 89-76, at a neutral site, which was practically a Kentucky home game with the majority of the 12,000 fans being Kentucky fans. Marshall stayed close for much of the game, actually chipping the lead down to six in the second half.
So Kentucky will head off on its first true road game to Anaheim, with a fresh #3-ranking and the pressure of facing a UCLA team with really nothing to lose.
From a personnel standpoint, this isn't like any Kentucky team you would remember. It has to be the smallest team Kentucky has put on the court in many, many years, with its frontline going 6-8, 6-6 and 6-5. It would have been kind of fun to watch Ariza match up with Kentucky's 6-8 forward, senior Erik Daniels, since Daniels himself only weighs 215 pounds. Chuck Hayes is the one starter with any bulk, at 6-6 and 247, but he's still undersized for a baseline player. Kelenna Azubuike is the sophomore small forward, and he's 6-5 and 208.
Matching up against UCLA's frontline, the biggest concern is Hayes. He'll probably be the best rebounder UCLA faces all season, averaging 9.7 in Kentucky's first three games. He not only is very physical, but is one of those guys who has a natural knack of being around the ball. UCLA's two post players, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, will be particularly challenged in keeping Hayes off the boards, and also keeping out of foul trouble when trying to put a body on him. He's also averaging 12 points a game, mostly by getting the ball inside and being physical enough to convert. He doesn't have a diversity of moves, like Vili Morton of UC Riverside did Wednesday, but he's more physical.
Daniels is an easier matchup for UCLA, liking to face up and score, rather than with his back to the basket. Hollins will have an easier time with him than he would a real low-post scorer. Daniels is still a handful, with some nice all-around scoring ability, averaging 15 points a game.
Azubuike, who UCLA fans might remember when he was a high school prospect, is a potent scorer himself. He creates well, shoots well from the outside (7 for 10 from three), and is tough and physical inside. He could be a tough matchup for Dijon Thompson. He averages 14 points and 7 rebounds.
Overall, it's an interesting frontcourt matchup. UCLA has the distinct advantage in size, but Kentucky has the advantage in experience and developed skills. If UCLA had Ariza and/or Cummings, you'd probably have to give the nod to UCLA in the frontcourt.
In the backcourt, Kentucky has the player that could very well make the difference in the game in Gerald Fitch, the 6-3 senior shooting guard. Fitch, having played point guard previously, is far more comfortable off the ball and shooting it. So far, he's having an All-American type season, averaging 24 points a game. He can really shoot, if just given a little look at the basket, and UCLA will have to be aware of him wherever he is on the court. You'd have to think that Cedric Bozeman will get the assignment of guarding him, and it's bound to be a great matchup, with Ced using his length and athleticism to try to shut down Fitch.
Senior Cliff Hawkins runs the point, and he's no slouch himself. He supplies most of the quickness on Kentucky, as well as their play-making, averaging 8 assists per game. He's not a big scorer or shooter, but sets up his teammates well.
Kentucky's bench isn't long, which is very good for UCLA. Antwain Barbour is a 6-5 senior who comes off the bench as an enforcer-type. 6-9 Bernard Cote provides most of the frontcourt backup minutes, with 7-3 project Shagari Alleyne offering some. 5-9 sophomore Brandon Stockton gives Hawkins a breather.
But Kentucky's five starters play the bulk of the minutes. They're similar to UCLA in being vulnerable to foul trouble, but Kentucky has played very intelligently in its first three games and hasn't really had to deal with fouls as a problem.
Defensively is where Kentucky probably will have an edge against UCLA. Kentucky's pressure man-to-man has been very effective, with their quickness possibly harrassing UCLA's guards. UCLA's offense is still under construction and could struggle against Kentucky's fine-tuned and tough defense.
On paper, Kentucky doesn't look like the #3-ranked team in the country, and are probably a bit over-rated. On paper, UCLA, even in its depleted condition, matches up pretty well against the Wildcats. Perhaps if UCLA were further into its season and more adept at operating Howland's offense, even without Cummings and Ariza, UCLA would have a better chance of beating Kentucky. But there is some evidence for hope. Kentuck,y being a bit over-rated, on the road, undersized and with a limited bench, makes UCLA pulling off an upset here very realistic. We won't go as far as to predict it, but wouldn't at all be surprised if it happened.