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Battle of the Blues

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UCLA- Kentucky. What a way to get through the early workweek leading to Turkey day. Pretty much everyone here has been looking forward to this game ever since the pairings for Maui was announced few weeks ago. I am going to spare you the clichés on each program's hoops tradition because I am sure we are going to get full doze of all the requisite hyperboles from the no talent ass clowns on WWL who will be broadcasting the game tonight (those of you who missed watching last night's game Jay Bilas actually said, "Steve Lavin did a magnificient job at UCLA").

Two notes are worth mentioning re this match up. Kentucky is 6-3 head-to-head against UCLA. And during the last edition of this Battle of the Blues, Tubby's Cats beat Howland's Bruins in a sloppy 52-50 win in Wooden Classic during Howland's first season in Westwood. Afflalo was just a committed recruit at that time watching the game from stands in Anaheim:

The Bruins will play the Wildcats on Tuesday in the second round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational at the Lahaina Civic Center. Although UCLA has 11 national championships to seven for Kentucky, the Wildcats hold a 6-3 advantage in head-to-head games. The last UCLA loss was in Coach Ben Howland's first season, when the Bruins would struggle through an 11-17 campaign. It was almost a highlight when UCLA lost by only 52-50 to Kentucky at the Wooden Classic in 2003.

Guard Arron Afflalo, who had 25 points in UCLA's 88-63 win over Chaminade on Monday in the first round here, said he was sitting in the stands at the then Arrowhead Pond, already a UCLA recruit but unable to help on the court.

"It was a heartbreaker for us," Afflalo said. "The memory is still there for me. And that's what this tournament is about, playing consecutive basketball games against really good teams."
So AA gets his chance tonight to make up for that heart-breaker against a Kentucky program going through some interesting times. If you read our SBN colleague over at A Sea of Blue you will get the hint of brewing (intense?) internal divisions among the Wildcat faithful concerning Tubby Smith's program, which is coming off a disappoint (22-13) season:
One thing that is not at stake, however much some malcontents would have you believe, is Tubby Smith's job. However you want to look at it, Smith is not going to be fired. His performance, while uneven over the last few years, has more than warranted a few bumps. He doesn't deserve to get canned, and in my opinion, there's no chance of it happening, assuming there are no NCAA violations or legal issues.

But the pressures of not winning up to Kentucky's demanding standards are another matter. Pressure can be applied without the Athletic Director having to do anything. And Smith is undoubtedly a man with options. A disappointing season could work itself out, with Smith reading the writing on the wall and/or moving on.

But despite his high profile, Tubby isn't the only member of the Big Blue with a lot to prove. Smith's assistants have been much maligned, and with a few top recruits still up in the air, a lot is at stake. Assistants, even at a top program like UK's, have to prove their worth to move on. While David Hobbs may not be worried about upward mobility, younger assistants Reggie Hanson and Scott Rigot surely are. Leaving under pressure is not the best way to impress future employers.

Similarly, for NBA hopefuls Morris, Crawford and Bradley, a standout season could put them back on the professional map. A subpar one could slam a lid on their short-term pro futures.
Well despite all the pressure Kentucky is off to a good start. I watched most of the Kentucky-DePaul game last night. Although they didn't look all that great as a defensive team, there is no question about the serious talent in Tubby's ball club. And it all starts with the big guy inside - Kentucky C Randolph Morris. Pucin reports (linked above) on how Mata and co. will have their hands full with the Kentucky big man in the face of crow advantage Kentucky will enjoy at Lahaina:
Morris, the 6-foot-11 junior who had declared for the NBA draft after his freshman season and needed a special NCAA ruling to clear him to return to college last year, had 20 points and nine rebounds against DePaul. "He's real strong," said Mata, who had eight points and six rebounds in 19 minutes against Chaminade. Mata is still playing himself into shape after sitting out all but three preseason practices because of knee surgery.

And he'll have a big job against Kentucky, whose coach, Tubby Smith, said the Wildcats' first option right now is, "We have to go inside. Always inside."

Mata said he remembered playing against Morris twice in AAU games. "Once in Los Angeles and once in North Carolina," Mata said. "I was pretty much the only big man on our team."

Kentucky also will probably have the crowd advantage in the 2,400-seat gym. Against DePaul all but about 100 of the fans were wearing Kentucky shirts and yelling, "Go Big Blue."

Howland said, "It will be like a road game at a neutral site."
Well Mata has done all right in his firs two games coming of early season surgery. Let's hope his team-mates Aboya and Wright can provide a lot of help in containing Morris.  I am sure Luc is going to play a huge part in our defensive game plans in quick double teams down in the low past. Morris is a very talented athlete who is pretty good in passing the ball out, so the Bruins will not have the luxury to be a little relaxed like they were last night.

Morris is not the only athlete in Tubby's roster. Kentucky also has couple of solid guards in their backcourt. From BBR
Kentucky has a number of superb athletes who prefer an uptempo game and will run at every opportunity.  The Bruins will need to get back in defensive transition better than they did against either BYU or Chaminade if they expect to slow down the Wildcat's offense.

With Rajon Rondo playing in the NBA this season, the Wildcats  now have junior Ramel Bradley (6'2, 170 lb) at the point this year. He had suffered from off-court problems in the past but appears to have left all those issues behind him.  Bradley has a reputation as a first shoot point-guard and Coach Tubby Smith has pleaded with him to distribute the ball more and to improve his defense in order to help the team.  At times his play at the point has been erratic but he remains a dangerous offensive player.  Against DePaul, he scored 16 points and had 4 assists in the win.

It will be an interesting match-up between Bradley and Collison, both are ultra-quick point guards who are establishing themselves as starters this season.

Joe Crawford (6'5, 211) starts at shooting guard for Kentucky.  Strong and athletic, Crawford has struggled at times with consistency on offense and his effort on the defensive end.    He scored 13 points and dished out 6 assists against DePaul on Monday.

Both Crawford and UCLA's Arron Afflalo are physical shooting guards and will be guarding each other most of the game.  Afflalo's defense and leadership on the team gives him a decided advantage in this match-up.
And it was great to see AA get off to a hot start last night. That is going to help him immensely because he is one of those emotional athletes who just keeps building on positive performances.

I mentioned above how Kentucky will have a decided home court advantage. One factor that may work in our favor - the depth in our rotation. 3 of Kentucky's starters logged over 30 minutes of action last night, and another one - Joe Crawford - logged in 29 minutes of action. In contrast none of the Bruin starters played over 30 minutes in which Dohn called "a systematic, although not nearly flawless, destruction" of Chaminade.

This should be a really awesome pre-season game. It may not be the most polished game this early in the season but it will have the intensity of Madness. Tipp off is currently set for around 9:30 pm EST on ESPN. I can't wait. Again what a way to get through early part of Thanksgiving Week.

Yes this Nation is thankful for Ben Howland and our basketball team.

GO BRUINS.