Although Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley said that running with Kentucky was the basketball equivalent of sticking your head in the mouth of a lion, that’s exactly what UCLA plans to do.
“They run the floor as well as anybody,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said of the Wildcats. “And it’s kind of our identity, too.”
This suggests a high noon (plus 30 minutes) showdown on Saturday to determine who’s the fastest. That excites even the most hardened of basketball observers.
ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, who covered UCLA’s three games in the recent Wooden Legacy event, called the Bruins and Kentucky “probably the two most entertaining offensive teams in the country.”
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Sean Farnham, the analyst on the telecasts of those Wooden Legacy games, expects “a fantastic game.” Added Farnham, “I anticipate there’s going to be a lot of highlights. Maybe as entertaining as any college basketball game we’re going to see this year.”
Kentucky, unbeaten after seven games, averages 95.6 points. The Cats scored more than 100 in each of the last three games.
UCLA, unbeaten after eight games, averages 97 points. The Bruins scored more than 100 in three of their first four games.
“This has all the makings of a national television game that I don’t know if you can get up during timeouts to get anything,” Alford said. “Because it’s going to be quick. . . . You could miss two or three possessions if you’re not back in your seat quick enough.”
If judging solely by a stopwatch, Kentucky is considered the faster of the two teams.
“UCLA is not as fast as Kentucky,” Goodman said. “But the way Lonzo (Ball) advances the ball, he is tremendous. The rest of the team isn’t super fast and athletic like Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo.”
That said, Goodman added that UCLA “has the best passer, best guy advancing the basketball in the country in Lonzo Ball.”
Ball is UCLA’s version of De’Aaron Fox: the stellar freshman point guard who serves as his team’s offensive ringmaster.
Goodman called Ball “the best passer in college basketball.”
Farnham said Ball was “as skilled a freshman guard as I’ve seen in the Pac-10 or Pac-12 since Jason Kidd.”
Jerry Meyer of the 247Sports recruiting service went further.
“Without a doubt, he is the best passer I’ve ever scouted,” Meyer said, “and probably ever seen. He sees and executes passes no one else in the gym even knew existed.”
Without a doubt, (Lonzo Ball) is the best passer I’ve ever scouted, and probably ever seen. He sees and executes passes no one else in the gym even knew existed.
Jerry Meyer, 247Sports
Meyer has judged prospects for 14 years as a recruiting analyst. Prior to that, he appraised prospects as a coach.
“Listen, there are four elite point guards in the country,” Goodman said, “and you’re going to have two of them on the (same) floor.”
Farnham said that in the three Wooden Legacy games he worked, Ball did not make a single pass that caught a teammate by surprise or out of position to try to do something with the ball. “Blew my mind,” Farnham said.
Ball, who averaged a triple-double as a senior at Chino Hills (Calif.) High School, improved UCLA at two positions this season. He allowed Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, to move from point guard to his more natural position of shooting guard.
“The first three years all I heard is ‘You’re not a point guard, you’re not a point guard,’” the younger Alford told Goodman. “I was trying to prove myself as a point guard. To have him come in and take the burden off my shoulders is huge.”
Ball is the first of three brothers expected to play for the Bruins. Li’Angelo Ball, the middle brother, made 13 three-point shots and scored 72 points in a high school game Wednesday. This followed a 56-point performance the night before.
“I’ll probably call him tonight and tell him he did all right,” Lonzo Ball said. “Seventy-two, that’s a lot of points for one kid.”
Li’Angelo Ball signed with UCLA this fall. The youngest brother, LaMelo, a sophomore who scored 31 points Wednesday night (yes, the brothers combined for 103), has committed to the Bruins.
One distinction about Lonzo Ball is his shooting motion. Although he’s right-handed, he brings the ball up to the left side of his head before releasing the ball.
This has all the makings of a national television game that I don’t know if you can get up during timeouts to get anything. Because it’s going to be quick. . . . You could miss two or three possessions if you’re not back in your seat quick enough.
Steve Alford, UCLA head coach
Alford has said he will not try to “fix” Ball’s shooting motion. For one thing, the ball goes in. Ball has made 57.7 percent of his shots (47.4 percent from three-point range) and 70.8 percent of his free throws.
“He’ll be in Westwood about the same amount of time as Malik and De’Aaron will be in Lexington,” Farnham said of Ball’s likely one-and-done college career. “So if the NBA wants to fix it, the NBA will fix it.”
UCLA’s defense and toughness have been questioned. Alford has conceded that the Bruins are “an offensive-minded group.”
No one questions Kentucky’s defense, not with the first seven opponents shooting with 37.6-percent accuracy while averaging 10.6 assists and 19 turnovers.
If Kentucky throttles UCLA’s offense, it figures to take a compelling effort. The Bruins’ leading scorer, Isaac Hamilton (18.0 ppg), balked at Hurley’s advice about slowing the tempo against Kentucky.
“I’m a competitor,” Hamilton said. “So I’m not going to just bow down like that. I feel we can run with these guys.”
No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky
12:30 p.m. (CBS-27)