Three keys for Kentucky in Friday night’s game against UCLA:
1. Keep UCLA from going crazy from three
Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe was asked Thursday what the Cats learned from the first game. You know, the game UK lost to UCLA 97-92 at Rupp Arena back on Dec. 3. It was the game that snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak.
“We learned they had good three-point shooters,” Briscoe said.
The Bruins made 10 of 23 beyond that arc that Saturday afternoon. Isaac Hamilton, who led the Bruins with 19 points, hit three of five threes. Off the bench, Aaron Holiday was two-of-three. Bryce Alford was two-of-five. Lonzo Ball made just two of his eight three-point attempts but one came two seconds before intermission. It gave UCLA a 49-45 lead and momentum going into halftime.
On the season, UCLA is shooting 40.6 percent from three. T.J. Leaf, the 6-foot-9 freshman forward, leads the way at 45.6 percent. He’s attempted just 57 threes, however Alford is hitting 43.3 percent from three. Ball’s corkscrew delivery is unorthodox but effective. He’s shooting 42 percent for the year. He is 6-of-10 from three so far in the NCAA Tournament. Holiday is shooting 41.4 from three. Hamilton is at 35.5.
UK ranks 12th nationally in three-point defense. Opponents are hitting just 30.5 percent of their attempts beyond the arc. In the past six games, foes are 33-of-122 from three for 27 percent. Still, stopping UCLA won’t be easy.
In Sunday’s comeback 79-67 win over Cincinnati, the Bruins were seven-of-14 from three in the second half and 11-of-28 for the game. There was a key stretch in the second half. Cincinnati had taken a 47-46 lead with 14:08 left. At 13:29, Ball answered with a step-back three-pointer. Cincinnati missed a three. At 13:03, Ball buried another triple, this time from the top of the key. Cincinnati missed another shot. At 12:27, Alford knocked down a three from the right wing off a Holiday assist.
Suddenly, UCLA led 55-47. Game over. “Once they got on a roll a little bit, they were running downhill,” said UC coach Mick Cronin.
For Kentucky to win Friday night, that can’t happen.
2. Bam Adebayo must stay out of foul trouble
The freshman center fouled out of UK’s win at Alabama on Feb. 11.In the 11 games since, however, he’s committed just 25 fouls. That’s 2.27 per game. He’s committed just three fouls in the NCAA Tournament -- two against Northern Kentucky in the opening round; one against Wichita State last Sunday.
Gone are the silly reach-ins 90-feet from the basket that drove John Calipari nuts. Gone are the over-the-backs going after rebounds. Adebayo has learned where to pick his spots. He’s 35 games into his college career. He’s learned from experience.
The result has been more time on the floor. More time on the floor has meant more points and especially more rebounds. Remember, Adebayo scored 18 points and claimed 13 rebounds in that December loss to the Bruins. The next 17 games, he failed to get double-digit rebounds. He no longer has that problem.
In fact, Adebayo has 10-or-more boards in six of his last 11 games. He has posted double-doubles in five of his last 10, including both NCAA Tournament games. He scored 15 points and grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds against NKU. He scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked the game’s final shot in the three-point win over Wichita State.
As Adebayo’s rebounding has improved, Kentucky’s rebounding has improved. In that 22-point loss at Florida, the Cats were embarrassed 49-24 on the glass. Since then, they’ve been outrebounded twice. Alabama beat UK by five on the boards in the SEC Tournament but UK won 79-74. Wichita State entered last Sunday ourebounding opponents by nine per game. The Shockers outrebounded UK by two.
UCLA averages a 3.9 edge on the boards. The Bruins don’t miss many shots. They’re shooting a ridiculous 52.1 percent from the field. When they do miss, however, Kentucky has to get to the glass. The Cats can’t allow second shots. The Bruins are too good to get extra chances.
3. Malik Monk needs to have a Malik Monk game
Earlier this week, John Calipari made a proclamation. The Kentucky coach said he didn’t care how Malik Monk did it, just that he did it. He said someway, somehow, the freshman guard has to score at least 20 points a game from here on out.
During the open locker room segment of Thursday’s festivities at the FedEx Forum, Monk was reminded of Calipari’s comment. The freshman guard nodded his head in a agreement.
Monk hasn’t scored 20 points in a game since UK’s comeback win over Vanderbilt on Senior Night at Rupp. He was eight-of-21 from the field that night, but made two of his six three-point attempts and was nine-of-10 from the foul line. Down 30-24 at the half, the Cats prevailed 73-67. Monk went four-for-four from the foul over the final 21.1 seconds to clinch the victory.
In the six games since, Monk has scored 71 points. He scored just six points against Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. It was his first single-digit scoring game all year. His second came the very next game when Georgia held Monk to two points -- one-of-seven from the floor -- in the SEC Tournament. He’s proved to 20 points against Alabama, 17 against Arkansas against NKU and 14 versus Wichita State.
He drained a huge three in the nip-and-tuck game against the Shockers. Open from the left wing, Monk knocked down the triple to push the Cats to a 61-56 advantage 2:08 remaining. Three possessions later, he blocked a Markus McDuffie three that would have put Wichita State ahead. Teammate Dominique Hawkins called it the play of the game.
Another teammate, De’Aaron Fox, says Monk is a volcano ready to erupt. There hasn’t been a true Monk eruption in awhile. He famously scored 47 points against North Carolina in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. He scored 34 at Ole Miss on Dec. 29. He scored 37 against Georgia on Jan. 31. He scored 33 against Florida at Rupp on Feb. 25. UK won all four of those games.
The Cats may need another game on Friday night. Calipari wants at least 20 from the SEC’s leading scorer against the Bruins. At least.
KENTUCKY VS. UCLA
- When: Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET approximate
- Where: FedEx Forum in Memphis
- TV: CBS (WKYT) with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson
- Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt