During UCLA’s victory at Kentucky in December, former Kentucky All-American Kevin Grevey sat in the first row behind UK’s radio broadcast team. This fostered a telling communication with analyst Mike Pratt.
Not able to talk — one ex-Cat to another — on the air, Pratt passed a note. “Hey, this Leaf kid is unbelievable,” he wrote.
“And I wrote, ‘Yeah, and nobody’s guarding him,’” Grevey said he wrote back.
Ouch. The truth hurt.
TJ Leaf scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds — one of seven double-doubles posted against Kentucky this season. This led UCLA to a 97-92 victory that saw the Bruins make 53 percent of their shots (tying Sunday’s possible opponent, North Carolina, for the second-best accuracy against UK this season).
When asked about the biggest difference between then and Friday night’s NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal, both Kentucky and UCLA touted better defense. UK’s improvement begins with a better appreciation for Leaf, a 6-foot-10 freshman who leads the Bruins in scoring (16.2 points per game).
“I don’t want to say we took him for granted,” Derek Willis said. “I just didn’t think we knew what he could do. And he came out there and showed us.
“We’re definitely a different team than we were,” he said, “and they are as well.”
Willis said he was different. “I feel like I’m just more desperate now,” he said.
UCLA was hardly the only Kentucky opponent to try to get production from a player going against the forward tandem of Wenyen Gabriel and Willis.
Thomas Welsh, one of the “bigs” who plays alongside Leaf on UCLA’s front line, acknowledged how the Bruins had seen the forward position as a possibly favorable matchup.
“Yeah, that was one thing we were focusing on,” he said, “because TJ is a hell of a player. And if we can get him the ball in situations like that, we know he can make great plays for us.”
‘He bullied us’
Kentucky cited several ways Leaf excelled in the first game.
“He killed us on the glass,” De’Aaron Fox said. “Got second-chance points. Knocked down threes (actually just one). … He was probably the best player on the floor last time, without a doubt.”
“He bullied us,” Malik Monk said. “Outworked us. Dominated us on the glass. Offensive glass. Defensive glass. Everything. We just can’t let that happen again.”
Added UK Coach John Calipari: “He drove the ball more than we expected.”
If he had been in Kentucky’s tiny locker room (there’s no space in the name FedExForum, either), Leaf’s father would have enjoyed the multi-faceted tributes.
Brad Leaf, who grew up in Indianapolis and played 17 professional seasons for a team in Israel, trained his son to be a versatile big man.
“I grew up with the European game,” said the elder Leaf, who was his son’s high school coach. “All ‘bigs’ were perimeter. So he always had the ball in his hands. He was always bringing the ball up the court. And he was always a perimeter-oriented player. So I had to develop his post game because he grew up playing perimeter.”
Leaf, whom his father described as “stoic,” brightened when asked if “European big” was an accurate description of his playing style.
“Pretty accurate,” he said. “Not too far off, I’d say.”
Grevey likened Leaf (the initials stand for Ty Jacob) to a former NBA star.
“This kid is Bobby Jones reincarnated,” Grevey said, “because he can jump. He’s so athletic. He was a force in that game against the Wildcats.”
There’s a touch of irony in Grevey’s Leaf-Jones comparison. When Willis was a freshman, Calipari said the player from Mount Washington could someday be Bobby Jones.
At least two factors make a suffocating shutdown of Leaf and UCLA unlikely.
One is pace. UCLA plays fast, which has helped the Bruins rank first nationally in scoring (90.2 ppg). No doubt, easy baskets off transition offense enabled UCLA to also lead in shooting (52.1 percent).
Pace also helps Leaf and his teammates show their offensive skill.
And, of course, Leaf is hardly the only Bruin who can score. Six UCLA players have double-figure averages. This whack-a-mole attack makes it risky to concentrate a defense on any one player.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Fox said. “But every team you’re going to play from here on out is going to have five good players on the floor.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
When: 9:39 p.m. (UK is the second game of a doubleheader in Memphis. Butler plays North Carolina in the opener at 7:09 p.m.)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky 31-5, No. 3 seed UCLA 31-4
Series: Kentucky leads 7-6
Last meeting: UCLA won 97-92 on Dec. 3, 2016, in Lexington