Five things about Kentucky’s opponent in the CBS Sports Classic, the UCLA Bruins:
1. The Balls have rolled out of Westwood
Lonzo Ball was supposed to be the first of a long line of Balls to grace the UCLA campus and lead the Bruins to glory. His one year in Westood, Lonzo led the Bruins to a 31-5 record and a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft, Lonzo moved cross-town to the Lakers while the middle son, LiAngelo, joined Steve Alford’s roster as a freshman.
A trip to China for the season opener against Georgia Tech threw everything off the rails. Ball and fellow freshman Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were detained for allegedly shoplifting. All three were suspended. President Donald Trump became publicly involved in lobbying for the players’ release, then was upset that he was not thanked by father LaVar Ball and said he should have left the trio in China.
Back in the states, Hill and Riley are still suspended. The publicity hog LaVar pulled LiAngelo from school, then signed LiAngelo and brother LaMelo to professional contracts with a team in Lithuania, which is a long way from Hollywood.
More than a few have speculated that coach Steve Alford is actually happy to be rid of the entire Ball circus. Alford won’t say, though LiAngelo was not considered to be nearly as talented as his older brother.
And give Lonzo credit. Despite all the publicity, mostly negative, his showboat father LaVar has incurred with his boasts, his Big Baller apparel company and now his supposed plan for a post-high school professional league, his oldest son has kept his head down, worked on his game and should be an excellent NBA player.
2. UCLA has a very short bench
Alford entered the season thinking he would have an 11-man rotation, but with Hill and Riley still suspended, the Bruins have been forced to play with eight men. True, last year’s team played eight on a regular basis and won 31 games. This team, however, is not as talented and could have used the reinforcements.
On Dec. 9, the Bruins lost a 15-point lead (46-31) against Michigan and ended up losing 78-69 in overtime. Tuesday night, UCLA nearly let a 24-point lead slip away against South Dakota before holding on for an 85-82 victory. Fatigue probably contributed to both games.
Turnovers have been a huge problem, especially the number UCLA has committed compared to the ones the Bruins have forced.
Thanks in part to UCLA’s 15 first half turnovers, Cincinnati went on an 18-0 run for a 36-23 halftime lead. The Bearcats ended up winning 77-63.
Meanwhile, according to the latest Ken Pomeroy numbers, UCLA is 334th out of the 351 Division I teams in forcing turnovers. Opponents are turning it over on just 15.6 percent of their possessions, compared to 17.5 for the Bruins.
UCLA does block a lot of shots. Pomeroy has Alford’s club blocking every 4.6 shots, which ranks sixth highest in the nation.
3. The Bruins do have some freshmen with potential
Even with Hill and Riley on the sidelines and Ball overseas, Alford does have some rookie talent on his roster. Rivals ranked UCLA’s signee class the sixth best for 2017.
Freshman Kris Wilkes, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Indianapolis, was ranked No. 20 in the Class of 2017 by Rivals. Wilkes made four three-pointers and scored 18 points in UCLA’s opening-game win over Georgia Tech. He scored 20 points when the Bruins held off Central Arkansas.
Freshman Jaylen Hands, a 6-3 guard from San Diego, was ranked No. 23 by Rivals. Hands scored 22 points in the team’s 96-68 win over South Carolina State. He scored 23, including 17 in the first half, in the team’s win over Detroit Mercy.
Riley was ranked No. 44. Hill was ranked No. 68. Chris Smith, a 6-9 freshman from Chicago, was ranked No. 102. LiAngelo Ball was an unranked three-star prospect.
4. Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday are UCLA’s leaders
Holiday, a 6-1 junior from Chatsworth, Calif., leads the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game and in assists at 5.4 per game.
Holiday scored 25 points in the loss to Creighton in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. In the consolation game, Holiday scored 18 points and dished five assists as the Bruins rallied from a 65-59 deficit with four minutes left to beat Wisconsin 72-70.
Holiday also scored 27 in the loss at Michigan. He had 15 points and five assists Tuesday night against South Dakota.
Welsh, the 7-footer from Redondo Beach, Calif., is averaging a double-double at 13.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He’s recorded seven double-doubles in the season, including 19 points and 11 rebounds against South Dakota. Welsh had a season-high 22 points and 10 rebounds at Michigan.
Welsh can step out and shoot the three-pointer. He was two-for-two from three at Michigan and made three of seven three-point attempts against South Dakota.
Prince Ali, a 6-3 guard from the Bronx who redshirted last season, scored 21 points in the team’s 87-63 romp over UC-Irvine. He scored 20 against Detroit Mercy. Ali is averaging 10.1 points per game.
5. This is the fifth UK-UCLA game in the past four years
Kentucky rolled over UCLA 83-44 in the first CBS Sports Classic in Chicago during the 2014-15 season. That was the game the Cats led 41-7 at the half.
UCLA extracted the revenge the next season, winning 87-77 in Pauley Pavilion. Welsh scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in that game. Holiday started and played 33 minutes, scored 10 points and dished seven assists.
Last year, the two teams split their two games. UCLA came to Rupp in December and knocked off the Cats 97-92. Welsh had 14 points in that win. The big man hit five of seven shots and went four-of-four from the foul line. Holiday came off the bench to score 13 points and contribute four assists in 20 minutes. UCLA shot 53 percent.
Kentucky got revenge in the NCAA Tournament, winning the Sweet 16 game 86-75 thanks in large part to DeAnthony Fox’s 39 points. Welsh was held to just nine points and seven rebounds in the Bruins’ loss. Holiday again came off the bench and scored five points with four assists.
UCLA basketball roster
HOMETOWN / HIGH SCHOOL
Roswell, N.M. / La Lumiere School [IN]
Kansas City, Kan. / Sierra Canyon HS [CA]
Chatsworth, Calif. / Campbell Hall HS
San Diego, Calif. / Foothills Christian HS
Chicago, Ill. / Huntington Prep [WV]
Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach HS
Indianapolis, Ind. / North Central HS
Kormend, Hungary / The Sagemont School [FL]
Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach HS
Fontana, Calif. / Kaiser HS
The Bronx, N.Y. / The Sagemont School [FL]
Corona, Calif. / Centennial HS
Woodland Hills, Calif. / Sierra Canyon HS
Lagos, Nigeria / East HS [IA]
Redondo Beach, Calif. / Loyola HS
UCLA basketball 2017-18
South Carolina St
Kentucky vs. UCLA
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Smoothie King Center in New Orleans
TV: CBS with Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery and Allie LaForce
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt; Westwood One (WLXG-1300) with John Sadak and Steve Lappas