You might think the high-octane challenge that comes with Saturday’s Kentucky-UCLA game would excite the coaches as well as players and fans.
“I used to say that,” UK Coach John Calipari said Friday. “As I got older, no. Let’s just win by 30, and go run and get something to eat.”
If Kentucky beats UCLA by 30, the Cats may need to score 130 points. Both teams rank in the top five nationally in scoring: Kentucky No. 4 at 95.6 points per game; UCLA No. 3 at 97 points per game.
With the potential of that kind of burn-the-nets firepower, Calipari, 57, suggested that UK-UCLA might be the exception to the seeming ironclad rule about defense winning games. Maybe UK-UCLA will require the winner to outscore the opponent.
“This is a shot-maker’s game,” Calipari said. “And if either team is not making shots, you’ll be in trouble because I doubt that … both teams won’t be making shots.
“So you just hope it’s them and not us.”
Passing ability fuels both offenses. Kentucky and UCLA rank third and first, respectively, in assists. UK, which is coming off a 33-assist rout of Arizona State, averages 21.3 assists. UCLA leads the nation with an average of 24.8 assists.
Monk explained the willingness of UK players to share the ball to “just us trusting each other more. We’re getting comfortable in practice with each other. We know how each other plays now.”
Practice helped hone the on-court harmony of this latest freshman-dependent Kentucky team, Monk said. “It’s working for us good,” he said, “and we’re going to keep it rolling.”
And although Calipari always stresses unity of purpose, Monk suggested this season’s UK players already had a sharing gene.
“We share the ball naturally,” he said. “I don’t think he (Calipari) knows that we’re going to share the ball the whole game.”
When asked why this penchant for sharing does not always happen, Monk said, “Some players get a little antsy and want to shine more.”
That’s obviously not the case, neither with Kentucky nor UCLA this season.
“They’re really skilled, so they can share,” Calipari said in explaining the one-for-all approach. “When you’re not skilled, you put your head down. You bounce it and you run people over, OK?”
Kentucky has “five guys with nimble minds and are skilled,” Calipari said. “That’s what you get: bop-bop-bop-bop-bop.”
“They play the same way,” Calipari said. “If a guy is open, he gets the ball.”
UCLA (8-0) has had at least 19 assists in every game and had 29 assists in three games. In a 98-56 victory over UC Riverside on Wednesday, the Bruins had 37 baskets and 29 assists.
“We’ve just done a phenomenal job through eight games of sharing the basketball and helping each other score,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “That’s always fun.”
The ringmaster of UCLA fun is freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, who is one of six Bruins averaging double-digit points. He has had 77 assists (and only 18 turnovers) in eight games.
UK’s Malik Monk, who played in the same McDonald’s All-American Game as Ball, found it difficult to put into words how the UCLA freshman plays.
“Whew,” he said. “You can’t describe it. He does everything so well.”
Teammate Isaac Hamilton credited Ball with leading the way in UCLA’s transformation from a 15-17 team last season to undefeated and No. 11 going into the game in Rupp Arena.
“The ball moves,” Hamilton said. “Last year was a little stagnant. We kind of dribbled it up instead of advancing it. But I think this year, it’s been a lot easier for everybody. Everybody gets their fair share of shots, and it’s fun playing that way.”
When asked if comparisons of Ball to Jason Kidd are valid, Calipari said, “Somewhat. But he shoots it better than Jason did in college.”
Ball, a right-handed shooter who launches the ball from his left side, has made 57.7 percent of his shots (47.4 percent from three-point range).
“He’s like our guys,” Calipari said of Ball. “He has a nimble mind.”
UCLA has talked about running with Kentucky, an approach that Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley questioned after his team lost to the Cats 115-69 Monday.
One of UK’s freshmen, Monk, welcomed the prospect of a fast-paced game.
“Oh, we love that,” he said.
No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky
When: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: UCLA 8-0, Kentucky 7-0
Series: Kentucky leads 7-5
Last meeting: UCLA won 87-77 on Dec. 3, 2015, at Los Angeles.
Kentucky leads its all-time series vs. UCLA 7-5. How the Cats have fared game by game:
Dec. 26, 1951: W, 84-53
Dec. 4, 1959: W, 68-66
Feb. 17, 1961: W, 77-76
March 31, 1975: L, 92-85
Dec. 3, 1994: L, 82-81
March 20, 1998: W, 94-68
Nov. 28, 1999: W, 66-62
Nov. 10, 2000: L, 97-92
Dec. 6, 2003: W, 52-50
Nov. 21, 2006: L, 73-68
Dec. 20, 2014: W, 83-44
Dec. 3, 2015: L, 87-77