I was looking over the past 15 years worth of NCAA Tournaments, trying to see if I was ever as amped for any regional semifinal as I am for this UCLA-Kentucky matchup Friday night.
The answer is a definitive no. And there have been some really good matchups over the years. I’m talking only in terms of the build-up to those games, not how those games played out. Scanning across the past decade and a half, here are some of the matchups from previous years that I remember being particularly geeked for: Indiana-Duke in 2002; UCLA-Gonzaga in 2006; Syracuse-Butler and Kentucky-Cornell in 2010; Kentucky-Indiana in 2012; Michigan-Kansas in 2013; Kentucky-Louisville in 2014.
None match my anticipation for Bruins-Wildcats in Memphis. So let’s look at this game from dozens of approaches and angles. There’s a lot to cover, and it’s all the more interesting because these teams already played this season. UCLA beat Kentucky at Kentucky. Kentucky almost never loses at Kentucky. Future lottery picks, two title-contending blue boods, the revival of UCLA’s program. A game worthy of the national title stage that is played for a chance to reach the Elite Eight.
Walk with me. Let’s burrow deep into this game and get into why it should be so terrific, and what you should know before the Sweet 16 gets going.
Numbers to know:
90.4: UCLA’s points per game. UCLA averaged the second-most points in college basketball this season.
52.1: UCLA’s overall field goal percentage, the best in college basketball. Interesting trend is that the 2006-07 Florida team shot 52.6 percent, and no team has been better in the decade since. But UCLA could eclipse that mark.
4.2: The percentage of the time UCLA has one of its shots blocked. That’s the lowest rate in college basketball. (Kentucky is the 27th-best blocking team.)
6.4: UK turns the ball over via a steal only 6.4 percent of the time. Needless to say, Kentucky will not lose this game because of UCLA getting into the passing lanes.
46-to-9: UCLA’s assist-to-turnover ratio in its first two tournament games. That’s beautiful.
7: Lonzo Ball needs seven assists against Kentucky to have the second most in a season in Pac-12 history. He would pass Jason Kidd. Ball sits at 266 dimes. If UCLA makes the Final Four, Ball will have a chance to break the league record, which is 294, set in 1997-98 by Arizona State’s Ahlon Lewis.
13: Kentucky has won 13 straight games, the longest win streak of any team left in the tournament.
54: The number of points scored via 3-pointers the first time these teams met, accounting for 29 percent of the scoring output in UCLA’s 97-92 victory on Dec. 3.
10 -- yes, 10! -- things to watch for
1. No shot clock necessary
Both teams are so dangerous because they don’t turn the ball over despite playing at such a high speed. That is, ultimately, why this will be a terrific game. UCLA has a historically good and entertaining offense. The Bruins’ movement with the ball -- and this goes beyond merely what Lonzo Ball does -- is a wonder to watch. But Kentucky has plenty of razzle-dazzle, too. This game is likely to hit the 80-possession mark, which would be 12 possessions higher than the average game.
2. Where art thou, Malik?
Given the styles, Malik Monk should have a big game. He scored 24 points (and had five steals) in the previous meeting. Since both teams will go-go-go, more possessions means more opportunities. It’s a good sign for Kentucky that it hasn’t had a big showing from Monk as of late, by the way. He went 0 of 6 from 3-point range against Northern Kentucky, then 2 for 5 from deep vs. Wichita State. He’s absolutely due. This is the perfect opponent for Monk’s grand return. And, for obvious reasons, he has to show up in this one. If you tell me Monk scores 15 points on 40 percent shooting, I’m telling you Kentucky is losing.
3. Kentucky’s defense will determine this outcome
The Thomas Welsh? Adebayo , as his play has been paramount to Kentucky’s steadiness in recent games. For UCLA, it has run some 3-2 zone (quirky!) that has helped. Throwing that against Kentucky would be mega interesting. And it would be abandoned quicker than a Bruins fast break if Monk hits 3s on consecutive possessions.. Monk can score 60 points and it won’t matter if UCLA runs what it wants to run. I want to see how John Calipari junks up what UCLA wants to do. Scouts will be drooling over this game to see what Fox does on Ball, and vice-versa, but how about what Adebayo does against Leaf and/or
4. Lonzo vs. De’Aaron
The point guard matchup is great. Ball will be drafted ahead of Fox, but remember that although Kentucky fell to UCLA earlier this season, Fox outplayed Ball in that game. I wrote about it, NCAA Tournament featuring two NBA lottery picks at point guard. Enjoy it.. Ball had six turnovers, the most giveaways he has had this season. Fox went for 20 points and nine assists, plus two turnovers. The twist on this head-to-head is Fox’s speed vs. Ball’s craftiness. Fox’s driving ability vs. Ball’s 3-point shooting. Fox will not beat you from deep; Ball will not be able to D up and win more battles than he’ll lose one-on-one. We almost never get games in the
5. Best player you forgot about
UCLA sophomore guard Aaron Holiday. Ball, Leaf and Bryce Alford get the most of UCLA’s pub, but having a weapon like Holiday, who would start for like 348 other programs? He’s coming off the bench, people. Averages 12.5 points and 4.4 assists. Don’t be shocked if it’s Holiday who winds up putting 18 on the board and giving UCLA a couple of big return serves on Kentucky in the second half. He’s the best sixth man in college basketball.
6. Ugh, LaVar Ball
Unfortunately, the Big Baller Dad is going to be a story here as well. I’m totally over whatever LaVar Ball has to say, but rest assured he’ll work his way into the headlines at least one more time before Friday’s tip and then certainly again by Saturday, no matter if UCLA wins or loses.
7. What changes from the first game?
The teams we see Friday are different from the teams we saw Dec. 3. Kentucky’s defense is noticeably better. UCLA’s defense is, too! The biggest difference in this game will be the contributions from Kentucky’s seniors. If you’ve noticed over the course of this winning streak, Derek Wills, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins have been getting much more playing time. In the first game, Mulder wasn’t on the floor. Willis played 22 minutes and had 11 points. Hawkins scored five points in 16 minutes. They’ll almost certainly be used more liberally. Kentucky is deeper than UCLA, and having more bodies in an 80-possession game could be a necessary asset to thwarting defeat.
8. Alford to Indiana backdrop
Will this be Alford’s last game as UCLA coach? If UCLA loses, it would not surprise anyone in the business to see Alford leave Westwood and head to Bloomington to be named as Indiana’s next coach within 72 hours of the game ending. Alford has not denied hearing from Indiana and has not said he will be UCLA’s coach next season. He could well be the front-runner for the Hoosiers job. This situation is almost unprecedented. The only other time a guy at a blue blood school was coaching deep into the NCAA Tournament while another blue blood school opened, and said guy was up for the job, was Roy Williams in 2003. He coached Kansas to the title game, and North Carolina was just waiting for him. Indiana will do the same for Alford, but I want to stress that this is not a guaranteed thing, not yet. Alford will probably get asked about it again during Thursday’s day-before media obligations. Be on the lookout for what he might, or might not, say. I do wonder if the UCLA players even care at this point, though. It’s so out there, and Alford’s deep connections to Indiana have been known forever.
9. Cal back to Memphis backdrop
John Calipari coached at Memphis from 2000-09. He took the Tigers to the title game in 2008, and had Mario Chalmers not made a memorable 3-pointer, Memphis would have won the national title. Memphis (previously Memphis State!) was a proud program before Calipari got there, and it’s a top-40 job still. But the school was never as good for as long, during any other period of its history, as what it experienced from 2005-09. Calipari earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in four straight seasons, averaged 34 wins, recruited myriad first-round NBA picks and made Memphis as nationally relevant as it has ever been.
Now he returns to a city that will not welcome him, as hundreds of thousands of Memphis fans do not wish him well. They don’t like the way he left for Kentucky, the way he took John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins with him, the way he apparently put down the Memphis job by praising the UK one. The irony in this: Inside FedExForum, Kentucky fans will overtake the building. And so he’ll be cheered again in that arena, loudly and proudly by Big Blue Nation.
10. Why are so many picking against Kentucky?
UCLA is a one-point favorite at most Las Vegas sports books. Yet Kentucky has gone to the Final Four in all but two seasons since Calipari arrived. Kentucky is on the bigger winning streak, has the better defense, a more successful coach in March, will have a much stronger fan contingent. Listen, I picked UCLA to win this game. But Kentucky feels like an abnormal underdog here. Check your pool. How many people have UCLA winning this game? Doesn’t it seem unusual that so many more people are riding the Bruins? That alone gives me pause here. I think part of this is a tugging desire to see UCLA be great again, and the fact the team is the closest thing -- in terms of visual appeal -- to an NBA squad. They look the best, have that brand name and so we want to see UCLA go further.
Yet Kentucky is the higher seed. Kentucky is ranked fifth by KenPom; UCLA is 14th. For all the discussion about how great this game should be, seems most are riding UCLA. It’s strange to see Kentucky’s chances diminished like this. The one outcome no one is giving any possibility to getting: UK beating UCLA easily. As this tournament proves every year, though, the least likely outcome has a way of turning into the actual result.
Ha. With that in mind, here goes:.