UK Men's Basketball

In elite point guard showdown, will Fox or Ball impose his will?

De'Aaron Fox: This is going to be a track meet, definitely

Kentucky guard De'Aaron Fox says Friday's NCAA Tournament game against UCLA promises to be an up-and-down affair.
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Kentucky guard De'Aaron Fox says Friday's NCAA Tournament game against UCLA promises to be an up-and-down affair.

The Kentucky point guard’s last name is “Fox.” It should be “Cheetah.”

There have not been many high-level college point guards with the scintillating, end-to-end speed of De’Aaron Fox.

“As far as pure speed, he’s one of the fastest I’ve ever played against,” says UCLA senior guard Bryce Alford.

The UCLA point guard’s last name is “Ball.” It should be “Pass.”

No one in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball in 2016-17 has more assists than the 266 Lonzo Ball has produced.

“A fantastic passer,” UK’s Fox says. “His vision is ridiculous.”

When South Region No. 2 seed Kentucky (31-5) meets No. 3 UCLA (31-4) Friday night in FedExForum around 9:39 p.m., it will be more than a March Madness battle of college hoops blue bloods.

Fox vs. Ball with a berth in the NCAA tourney South Region finals at stake is a marquee showdown of elite “quarterbacks,” what a College Football Playoff meeting between Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson might have looked like.

You have two elite talents who represent a tantalizing contrast in styles.

“Lonzo is more a ‘passing game,’” says UCLA super sub Aaron Holiday. “De’Aaron is more ‘down-hill scoring.’”

When the two expected one-and-done frosh went head-to-head in Rupp Arena Dec. 3 in what became UCLA’s 97-92 victory, it was a Dickensian “tale of two halves.”

Kentucky’s Fox was stellar in the first half. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Houston product hit 5-of-10 shots before intermission and had 12 points and three assists at halftime.

Conversely, UCLA’s Ball struggled in half one, shooting 1-of-5, 1-of-4 on treys (the one he made was a big one, with four seconds left in the half, to give UCLA a 49-45 lead) and turning the ball over an uncharacteristic five times.

The second half swung dramatically.

Fox made only 3-of-10 shots after halftime, though he did have six assists.

Ball, a 6-6, 190-pound product of Chino, Calif., hit 4-of-7 shots — two of which were, arguably, the game’s decisive plays — had three rebounds and four assists and only one turnover as UCLA upset then-No. 1 ranked Kentucky.

For the game, Fox finished with 20 points, nine assists and two turnovers, Ball had 14 points, six rebounds, seven assists — and six turnovers.

“We got him to turn the ball over last time,” Fox said, “and they still won. But we’ve got to try to do that again.”

Ball’s teammates say the impact he has had on the Bruins’ program is easily quantifiable: UCLA went 15-17 a year ago.

“I definitely think Lonzo was what we were missing last year,” says senior guard Isaac Hamilton. “A guy who gets the ball, distributes, makes guys better. … He doesn’t really care how many shots he takes. He really cares about his assists.”

From afar, the biggest challenge for Ball (14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 7.6 assists; 55.6 field-goal percentage in spite of a funky-looking shot) this season has often seemed dealing with the public reaction to the brash comments his father, LaVar Ball, makes in the media.

“It’s pretty normal for me,” Lonzo Ball says. “He’s been talking like this since I’ve been born, so it’s nothing new for me. Ya’ll get to see it for the first time — he’s always on TV. That’s the only difference.”

While replacing the departed Tyler Ulis as Kentucky’s point guard, Fox’s biggest challenge was defense. As UK struggled to stay in front of straight-line drivers and to defend pick-and-rolls, Fox (16.1 ppg, 4 rpg, 4.7 assists) seemed a big part of the problems.

As UK has won 13 in a row, that has changed.

“(Our) effort has changed,” Fox said. “We all are just picking up the intensity. When (UK’s intensity) is high, we play well.”

On Friday night, what is likely the most-anticipated game of the 2017 NCAA Tournament to date, may easily come down to whether the “cheetah-fast”or the “fancy-passing” point guard can impose his will.

Says Ball: “It’s a tough matchup. (I’ve) got to come ready to play because I know (Fox) is.”

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