Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s media opportunity on Friday previewing Saturday’s game with UCLA at Rupp Arena:
1. Get it and go, go, go
Given that both the Cats and the Bruins enter Saturday’s get-it-and-go affair averaging over 95 points per game -- that’s ridiculous, by the way -- the contrarians would argue that the difference between winning and losing in such a turbocharged tilt could come down to defense.
On Friday, at least, John Calipari wasn’t buying that line of alternative thinking. The UK coach declared that “this is a shot-maker’s game” and said the team that is not making shots on Saturday is putting itself at deep peril since it’s unlikely both teams will be misfiring.
The numbers back up that belief. UCLA is shooting 55.3 percent from the field. The Bruins are shooting 45.6 percent from three-point range, second in the nation to Creighton’s 46.3. They are hitting 74.8 percent from the foul line. All give of UCLA’s top scorers are shooting 41.7 percent or better from three-point range. Meanwhile, Kentucky is shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 32.3 percent from three and 71.1 percent from the free throw stripe.
Ken Pomeroy’s latest advanced statistics rank Kentucky No. 5 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. UCLA is peering over UK’s shoulder at No. 6. Pomeroy has UK averaging 116.8 points per 100 possessions. He has the Bruins averaging 116.2 points per 100 possessions.
Unless something extremely strange happens Saturday, those new scoreboards at Rupp Arena are in for quite a test.
2. The unique excellence of Lonzo Ball
When UK freshman star guard Mailk Monk was asked Friday to describe the game of UCLA’s freshman star guard Lonzo Ball, Monk really couldn’t come up with an answer. It wasn’t because Monk is unfamiliar with Ball. The two played against each other in high school and both participated in the McDonald’s All-American game. It’s just that, as Monk said, Ball does everything so well.
The 6-foot-6 point guard from Chino Hills, California does it with an unusual flair. Through eight games, he leads the nation with 9.6 assists per game. Despite an unorthodox twisiting motion, Ball is shooting 57.7 percent from the floor and 47.4 percent from three, having made 18 of 38 shots from behind the arc. He’s making 70.8 percent of his free throws and averaging 4.9 rebounds per game.
Draft Express’ most recent mock 2017 NBA draft places Ball at No. 4 overall behind Washington’s Markelle Fultz at No. 1, North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith at No. 2 and Kansas’ Josh Jackson at No. 3. Monk comes in at No. 5. (UK’s DeAaron Fox is 10th and Bam Adebayo 16th on the board.)
Watching UCLA win the Wooden Legacy tournament last week, Ball’s biggest benefit to the Bruins has been allowing Bryce Alford, sharpshooting son of coach Steve Alford, to move from point guard to shooting guard. Without the extra responsibility of handling the basketball and setting up the offense, Alford is shooting 45.6 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three. He can be a streaky shooter, one Kentucky can’t let find his rhythm on Saturday.
Ball’s stellar early play as overshadowed the play of another UCLA freshman. T.J. Leaf, who withdrew his commitment to Arizona and signed with the Bruins, is averaging 17.3 points and nine rebounds per game. The 6-10 forward from El Cajon, California has also blocked 11 shots. Tough to deal with around the basket, Leaf can also step outside and make the perimeter shot. He’s 8-of-16 from three-point land.
3. Mixed signals on a revenge factor
When UCLA beat Kentucky 87-77 last December at Pauley Pavilion, much was made of the fact the Bruins wanted revenge for the 83-44 thrashing they took at the hands of the Cats the year before in the CBS Sports Classic at Chicago. That was the game in which Kentucky led 41-7 at the half.
Friday, UK’s Dominique Hawkins downplayed any revenge factor on the Cats’ part with regards to last year’s loss at Westwood. As almost always, this is a different Kentucky. Four of last year’s starters (Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis) are now elsewhere. Isaiah Briscoe is the lone starter still around and he’s joined for the most part by freshmen in Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel.
Calipari has a longer motivational memory, however.
Despite Ball and Leaf’s rookie-year impact, UCLA has more of a veteran presence. Thomas Welsh, a 7-foot junior, scored 21 points in last season’s game. He’s averaging 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds this year. Isaac Hamilton, a 6-5 senior, scored 15 points last season against UK. Hamilton is UCLA’s leading scorer this year at 18 points per game. Alford scored 15 points last season. He’s averaging 15.5 this year.
As Calipari pointed out Friday, though Kentucky lost by 11 last season, the game wasn’t really that close. UCLA jumped to a 9-2 lead out of the game and led by as many as 11 points in the first half before setting for a 37-29 advantage at the break. For most of the second half, Kentucky was never closer than nine points -- the second time coming when Briscoe drove the left baseline for a bucket that cut the Bruins’ advantage to 44-35 with 16:58 remaining.
UCLA extended the lead to 15 points first at 54-39 with 13:08 left and then 62-47 at the 9:57 mark when Price Ali dunked over Alex Poythress while being fouled. (Poythress’ fifth foul.) Jamal Murray did score eight straight points, six of those on back-to-back three-pointers, to cut the lead to 83-74 but with just 1:09 remaining. UCLA made 12 of 14 free throws over the final 2:45 to salt the victory away.
As it turned out, it was just one of 15 wins for the Bruins, who finished 15-17 on a season that was so bad head coach Steve Alford returned the money from his one-year contract extension and apologized to UCLA fans. The Bruins lost their final five games, including a 95-71 defeat at the hands of USC in the first game of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Bruins are much, much better this year. The additions of Ball and Leaf are major upgrades. Welsh, Hamilton and Alford appear to have benefited from the experience. Aaron Holiday, a starter last season, is now the team’s sixth man. Gyorgy Goloman, a 6-11 junior, has played well off the bench. And after pre-season knee surgery, 6-10 freshman Ike Anigbogu made his college debut in the Wooden Legacy. Rivals rated Anigbogu as the 25th best prospect in the Class of 2016.
NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament titles
1964, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1995
1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012
1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015
1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, 1987
1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009
1999, 2004, 2011, 2014
1952, 1988, 2008
1980, 1986, 2013
UCLA at Kentucky
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
Records: Kentucky 7-0; UCLA 8-0
TV: CBS with Brad Nessler and Bill Raftery
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt