For UCLA to have a realistic chance at upsetting the No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators on Thursday night, it will need a unique player to have an MVP-worthy showing that he has been building to all season long.
Let's focus on that word, unique, for a minute. It gets tossed around entirely too liberally in sports these days. It has become a lazy descriptor for a player with a nice set of skills, perhaps some that are unalike to anyone else on said player's team. Truth is, uniqueness in modern sports, certainly college basketball, is mostly folkloric. There was an art and quirk to a lot of players in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and into the '80s, when the game was still growing out. Athletes were introducing new ways to excel and discovering never-before-seen skills that continued to advance the style of play.
But for most of the past three decades while college basketball has dwindled in overall quality, the sport has -- by natural advancement -- almost entirely eliminated players with a skill set that could be classified as peerless.
But Kyle Anderson is the irregularity. He is unique. He has no match in college basketball. Standing 6-feet-9 and playing point guard -- and doing it damn well -- he's the closest thing to Magic Johnson since Magic Johnson. No, he's not the next Magic Johnson, nor is he approaching Magic Johnson. But a player so tall, lengthy and commanding never gets trusted to run an offense in contemporary college hoops. Yet Anderson has, and you could easily make the argument he deserves mention on any first-team All-American list.
On KenPom.com, the possession-based player stats track and rank in 15 categories. Players whose stats fall in roughly the top 10 percent among all players in specific rankings are highlighted in yellow. Anderson's stat line is yellow in 11 out of the 15. Only a handful of players, no matter the season, can match that.
Anderson grew into playing the point because he was always the smallest kid on the court growing up. His ability allowed him to play an age or two or three -- or four -- up, so he would go with the bigger kids when he was 10, 11, 12 years old. Anderson finished top 10 in the Pac-12 this season in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He is so productive, and when you watch him, you'll wonder how he pulls it off. Anderson's game looks as though someone is seamelessly controlling his limbs remotely because of how leisurely he'll move with the ball. Elite players aren't supposed to cosmetically appear this casual.
"They call him 'Slo-Mo' because he really knows how to play,” teammate Jordan Adams said. "Every game it's a mismatch. We [Anderson's teammates] have freedom because of it."
Anderson got the nickname in eighth grade, when he was playing in an organized tournament with mostly 16-year-olds. It was their first game, in Queens. One of the coaches on the team saw Anderson's style and gave him the moniker. His play has never dictated ditching the nickname, and he embraces it.
"I think it's just craftiness," he said. "I've played 'up' my whole life. It's guys that are bigger, quicker, stronger than me. It's against guys with those size. Change of speed is big."
He thrives off adjusting pace and luring opponents into his space, almost like a boxer would. He'll dupe opponents into rhythms and body positions, then jerk with a bolt from the blue. It's not just about speed, but the angles. Even his dunks are surprising because there is no boost, there is no coil for propulsion.
Just watch this. It ends with the dunk, but the plays leading up to it are vintage Anderson. Who else looks like this?
Though Anderson played point guard throughout his high school and prep days, that changed under Ben Howland last season. Anderson is valuable and talented enough to play many positions. That's also what makes him distinct in D-I: He can efficiently play any position on the court. But assigning him to multiple roles never fully worked for UCLA's scheme. And the surprising thing about Anderson's bloom in his sophomore season: He was mentally prepared to do it again, even with new coach Steve Alford.
"I didn't come in to this year with a specific position that I wanted to play," Anderson said. "If he [Alford] wanted me to play the 4 this year, or the 3, that's what I would've done. But he let me know that he wants me to be the leader of this team. He doesn't like to label guys with positions. He knew he wanted to put the ball in my hands."
And he has flourished under Alford, who quickly made the decision to put Anderson at the 1 after he got the job in Westwood last spring. Anderson has been the navigator -- averaging 14.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists, shooting nearly 50 percent from 3 -- in getting UCLA to a No. 4 seed with a 28-8 record and a Pac-12 tournament title.
"I don't want to say our team was selfish last year, but I think this year our team is a little more unselfish," Anderson said. "Different coaches have different styles. Howland wanted to have more hands-on with what we're doing on offense. Where, this year, Alford is a little more loose and will let us handle it."
In terms of running the offense, Alford is still dictating a lot of what the team runs, calling out sets to Anderson, but there are times when Alford has let him guide the team and make the call on the floor. Alford recently said on the phone that he had never coached any player close to Anderson. Under Alford, all of Anderson's numbers have gone up.
"He slows the game down to his level and yet can see it in fast-paced mode," Alford said. "I think when teams play us, the most-asked question is, 'OK, with what and how do we match with Kyle Anderson?"
"Playing at one speed is a way a lot of guys get caught up," Anderson said. "I'm not that fast, but if I can change my speeds -- if you know how to change speeds it adds an element to your game. I don't read [the defender]; I like him to read me. I just like to go at him. He's not going to decide what I'm going to do. It's not something where I like to read defenders or how they like to guard or anything."
As with any point guard, the beauty lies in the method of distribution. Anderson's height, patience and strength have made for some stunning assists. He's prone to some turnovers due to his ambition getting the better of him, but the rewards for the risks he takes are often gorgeous.
"I truly think I have a gift. It was God-given ability," Anderson said. "I know with the guy who's cutting and know what he would want to do and where he'd want the ball to go. As soon as I see that window, I decide, Should I throw?"
UCLA has been, for the most part, better than people expected. Even in reaching the Sweet 16 -- something an Alford teams has not done since 1999 -- was a noteworthy achievement. Alford took over in April with six scholarship players, and no one quite knew what UCLA would be. The Bruins, who have either certain future pros and possible NBA-worthy guys up and down the roster, couldn't know until Alford
"We very easily could have come in here and had a losing season with a new coach," Adams said.
Because UCLA has plenty of help around Anderson -- seven players average 7.0 points or more, and nine are playing at least 16.5 minutes -- it has been vital to UCLA's run under Alford in his first season. The tempo, pushing the ball on very possession, has been a new identity for the Bruins and made them one of the best watches in college basketball.
"It's been an experience -- I didn't know what to expect," Anderson said.
Neither did we. Anderson's abnormal combination of size, mind and skill set was what made him so valuable during his recruitment. By returning to UCLA he has not only enhanced his pro potential, but also given Bruins fans a reason to believe Thursday night might not be the end of their team's season.
Chances he gives the college game one more year? His draft stock remains top-20 range, and he already bypassed the pros last year, so probably slim. That's the unending pleasure problem with college basketball. Normally, the most unusual players are the ones we don't get to see for long enough. Slo-Mo will be gone too fast.