Welcome to Bruins Nation’s Preview of the huge game tomorrow between the UCLA Men’s Basketball team (#11 AP/#9 USA Today) and the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. A nationally televised audience, including Bruins on the West Coast drinking their coffee and brunching it up on Saturday at 9:30 a.m., will watch the Bruins face UK for the third season in a row, but the first in Kentucky’s home venue, Rupp Arena.
Let’s talk a bit about Kentucky at Rupp Arena, which opened in 1976. UK has a record of 551-64 there, a .896 winning percentage. (By comparison, UCLA is 704-111 at Pauley Pavilion, good for "only" .864). The Wildcats have not lost at home in almost three years, since they fell at the hands of Arkansas in overtime on February 27, 2014. Interestingly, although UCLA has played UK 12 times, never has it faced the Wildcats in Rupp.
Moreover, I think it is fair to say that Wildcat fans are, by and large, more rabid than UCLA fans, so the Bruins will be facing one of the most if not THE most formidable road tests in all of college basketball. Kentucky is excited about the game, and has announced that half of Rupp will be wearing white and the other half blue for the game.
The Rupp experience, along with a nationally televised audience, will make for quite a trip and true test for the 2016-17 Bruins, especially for true freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.
Two of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, Kentucky leads UCLA in the series over the years, 7-5. After the Bruins went 0-3 in their first three battles with the Wildcats, UCLA broke through in 1975 with an NCAA Championship victory over UK, 92-85, at the San Diego Sports Arena, uh, Valley View Casino Center, bringing UCLA its tenth title in Coach’s final game at the helm of the Bruins.
Generation X and older Bruins fans may remember another outstanding game in the 1994 Wooden Classic, when UCLA came back to beat Kenctucky,82-81, on the strength of freshman J.R. Henderson’s two free throws, with .6 seconds remaining in the game. That game helped springboard UCLA to its 11th championship four months later.
So, at least from UCLA's perspective, there is some very good history in its wins against Kentucky. Will tomorrow’s game hold true?
Until two years ago, the Bruins and the Wildcats had not squared off since 2006. In 2014, no UCLA fan can forget the Bruins getting absolutely mauled by the ‘Cats, 83-44, at the United Center in Chicago, where Kentucky scored the first 24 points of the game and held UCLA to seven points in the entire first half. Like this season, Kentucky was ranked #1 going into that game.
The Bruins gained a measure of redemption at Pauley Pavilion last year--to the day, actually, on December 3, 2015--knocking off the then #1 ranked Wildcats, 87-77. It was one of the Bruins’ best two games—Arizona at Pauley was pretty good too—in what was otherwise a historically dismal season in Westwood.
2015-16 was a below average season for the Wildcats, who lost 9 games on the year, and were eliminated by Indiana in the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 32. Before last season, UK had gone to four straight Final Fours, winning one NCAA Championship in 2012. The 2015-16 ‘Cats, however, did win the SEC Tournament and tied for the SEC regular season crown. The Wildcats clearly did not sink down to the depths to which UCLA sunk in 2015-16.
But that was last year. Both the Bruins and (especially) the Wildcats have had substantial makeovers this season.
Battle of Undefeateds
Both teams are coming into the game undefeated but neither team appears to have played elite competition. Yes, UCLA has solid wins over Nebraska and Texas A&M in "neutral site" games some 45 miles across the L.A. basin, but neither of those programs can be considered remotely elite.
Kentucky’s best win this season was 69-48 victory in Madison Square Garden over a usually elite Michigan State team that now has four losses. MSU has had a brutal schedule, with their other three losses to #5 Duke, #9 Baylor, and #16 Arizona, so the Spartans may turn out to be close to elite this seaso, but the jury is still out. UK's win over MSU, however, is likely better than either of the aforementioned UCLA wins. It should also be noted that, in their last game, the Wildcats whupped Arizona State by 46 points in the Bahamas. Ouch, Sun Devils.
So, coming into this "rubber match" after a 1-1 split the last two years, both teams are playing good basketball and both fan bases appear to be energized about their respective programs. Something is going to give tomorrow and one team will be knocked from the ranks of the undefeated.
The 2016-17 Wildcats
As has been the case with many of Head Coach John Calipari’s teams, this UK team is filled with true freshman, three of which appear to be "one and done" players. Indeed, four true freshman are expected to start for the Wildcats tomorrow.
Like UCLA, Kentucky has a very talented true freshman running the show, De’Aaron Fox. Fox starts at point guard for the ‘Cats and averages 15.3 points, 5.7 boards, and 7.6 assists. By comparison, Lonzo Ball is at 14.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and 9.6 APG, so Kentucky fans feel the same way about Fox as Bruin fans feel about Ball. Many draft pundits have Fox and Ball both going in the top ten of the 2017 NBA Draft. Fox had a great outing against Arizona State on Monday, recording only the second triple double in UK history.
Here are some good highlights of Fox in his first college game:
True freshman shooting guard, Malik Monk, is one of the best athletic wings in the nation. Monk averages 19.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. And he can fill it up from three point land:
He is also freakishly athletic:
We might not see a more athletic play all year better than this one from Malik Monk. #BBN pic.twitter.com/zqvCp9n2d3— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 29, 2016
Monk is also high on most draft boards, either in the top ten or just outside of it
Compared to the rest of the expected starters, the third guard to start in Kentucky’s three guard offense is an old man. True sophomore, Isaiah Briscoe, who pours in 18.4 points per game, to go with 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists, started for most of the season as a true freshman last year, including the game against UCLA. Briscoe led the ‘Cats in scoring last season against the Bruins, with 20 points.
Briscoe's pretty good:
So UK has an outstanding back court,maybe the best in the country this season. One pundit, ESPN's Dino Gaudio, however, thinks that the duo of Fox and Monk are the best freshman back court in college basketball history. EVER.
That remains to be seen, but they, along with Briscoe, are damn good and incredibly athletic. UCLA's guards will have their hands full.
Edrice "Bam" Adebayo is a 6’10", 250 lb. true freshman power forward/center, averaging 11.1 points and 7.6 rebounds on the year. Adebayo, thought by many to be a mid-first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, has a long, NBA ready body and plays the game with explosiveness and power.
I worry about Adebayo and how he will match up with UCLA’s frontcourt. I am not sure if the Bruins have anyone who can match up with him. Athletically, he reminds me of some of those guys on Oregon who brutalized UCLA around the rim in both of their games last season, except that Adebayo has a wider body.
The other expected starter for Kentucky will likely be true freshman forward, Wenyen Gabriel. Gabriel, who is 6’9", 210 lbs., did not start for UK early in the season, but has started the last two games for the Wildcats. Despite not starting for most of the season, Gabriel is averaging 8.6 points and 5.7 rebounds on the season in over 22 minutes per game.
Kentucky has not been challenged this season. Its smallest margin of victory has been by 21 against the aforementioned Michigan State. So it is tough to tell how deep Calipari will go into his bench against UCLA. I guess a whole lot of it depends on if the Bruins are hanging with UK in Rupp. That being said, I expect Calipari to play 10 guys, although one or two may get very limited minutes.
Senior forward Derek Willis averages 17.4 minutes per game. At 6'9", 228 lbs., Willis can spell either Adebayo or Gabriel. Willis started over Gabriel earlier in the season but is now relegated to the bench in his senior season over a true freshman. Willis should still get extensive action against UCLA. He averages, 6.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Senior guard Dominique Hawkins plays an average of 7.1 minutes per game, with 3.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game to show for it. Expect Hawkins to spell Fox at the point.
Sophomore center Isaac Humphries, a 7’0" specimen from Sydney, Australia, chips in 5.1 points and 5.0 rebound in an average of 11.4 minutes per game. Humphries had 4 points and 6 bounds against UCLA last year.
Senior guard Mychal Mulder, didn't play a minute in his first two seasons of eligibility, and only played limited minutes last season (none in the UCLA game). A senior, Mulder averages 11.4 minutes per game, pouring 7.9 points per game.He'll fill the shooting guard role whenever Monk or Briscoe need a breather and Hawkins is already on the floor or needs a breather of his own. Mulder is a threat from three point land, shooting 47% from outside the arc.
Sacha Killeya-Jones, who is listed at 6’10" 230 lbs., is another true freshman forward. Killeya-Jones averages 9.6 minutes per game, with 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds. He has seen action in all of UK's games this season. We may see a bit of Jones tomorrow morning, but I would guess that he would be the last man off the bench.
Kentucky is loaded. But so are the Bruins. The Ball v. Fox match-up will be a treat. I am very curious to see who on UCLA will match-up with whom on Kentucky. Thomas Welsh on Adebayo and TJ Leaf on Gabriel seem like no brainers, although both match-ups seem to favor Kentucky on pure athleticism. The guard match-ups are even more intriguing. I would guess that Bryce Alford will guard Briscoe, who may be the least athletic of Kentucky’s trio of starting guards.
With starting upperclassmen at three positions, UCLA has the experience advantage in big games. Further, Kentucky’s four starting freshman have not played a team like UCLA yet. On the other hand, two of the Bruins' critical pieces this year have never made a road trip of this magnitude. How will Ball and Leaf fare in the hostile environment of Rupp Arena? I also give the coaching advantage to Calipari (who I am personally NOT a fan of). Coach Alford has his work cut out for him with some of the defensive match-ups. It will take a spirited effort from UCLA to win this game.
In the end, IMO there are too many tangible and intangible match-ups that favor UK in this one. I hate to pick against the Bruins, especially undefeated Bruins, but I think Kentucky wins. UCLA will keep it interesting until the end though.
I hope that I am wrong and UCLA wins in a statement game at its first ever visit to Rupp Arena.