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Why UCLA Beats “Favorite” Kentucky so Often

UCLA is 3-1 in the regular season against Kentucky the last four years

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA
Thomas Welsh has helped underdog UCLA beat Kentucky three times out of five
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

While UCLA could again meet Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, last Saturday is likely the last time UCLA plays Kentucky for a while. It is worth noting that UCLA won this battle of blue bloods series either three games to two or three games to one. The latter is relevant because UCLA scheduled a four game series with Kentucky (home, away, and two neutral site games) and the fifth game was in the NCAA tournament and thus not scheduled, per se.

So, why did UCLA win this series? Kentucky was ranked at the time of the regular season game #1, #1, #1 and #7. UCLA was not ranked three times and ranked #11 the other year. So, how did UCLA win 3 out of the 4 regular season games? Briefly let’s review each game with some thoughts on the NCAA Tourney game as well.

12/13/14 The Worst Game Ever

#1 Kentucky destroys UCLA 83-44 at Chicago. The headline says it all: “UK starts with 24-0 run, holds UCLA to lowest points total (7) in half.” Kentucky dominated UCLA in every fashion of the game. The story was the Kentucky defense completely shutting down UCLA so much so that nothing else mattered. This was a Kentucky team that would go undefeated until the final four.

12/4/15 Revenge

Unranked UCLA upsets #1 Kentucky at Pauley. Again the headline says it all: “Year after embarrassing loss, UCLA dominates No. 1 Kentucky in rematch.” UCLA shot 52% and the best player on the floor was Thomas Welsh who led both teams in rebounds and points.

12/3/16 The Best Game Under Alford

#1 Kentucky loses to #11 UCLA at Rupp Arena. Wow. The headline was: No. 11 UCLA (9-0) ends 42-game home winning streak for No. 1 Kentucky but the quote was “It was the most points scored against a Kentucky team coached by John Calipari.” This one was fun. Kentucky dared UCLA to run with them and UCLA ran them out of their own building. Lonzo Ball struggled early but proved why he was special even playing some power forward on defense. The score of 97-92 was a bit deceptive as Kentucky mounted a late comeback when they hit threes and UCLA stumbled.

3/25/2017 In a battle of heavyweights, Kentucky wins the Big One

Kentucky beats UCLA 83-75 in the NCAA tourney. The headline is accurate in this: “De'Aaron Fox outplays Lonzo Ball as Kentucky makes Elite Eight.” “Fox not only turned in the best NCAA scoring performance for Kentucky since Tayshaun Prince had 41 against Tulsa in 2002, it was the best by a freshman in tournament history.” Ball limps in the second half some and says after the game he was hurt.

12/23/2017 Alford Proves He Owns Calipari in the Regular Season

#7 Kentucky loses to unranked UCLA 83-75 in New Orleans. The headline is “Holiday, Wilkes, lead UCLA to upset of No. 7 Kentucky, 83-75.” Aaron Holiday and Kris Wilkes light up Kentucky and the defense holds them to under 43% shooting. UCLA again is in control of a game over Kentucky for much of the second half.

UCLA was an underdog in all 5 games and a significant underdog in three of them. Kentucky was number one three times, yet UCLA beat them twice. What were the keys to the games?

1. Steve Alford’s base defense is a good one against Kentucky.

The generic defense for UCLA under Alford is to sag and give up the three. Put more positively in the sparse crowd in New Orleans Saturday, Alford could be heard yelling “no drives!” In the three losses Kentucky has shot 8-25, 8-24, 6-21 from three. Never higher than 33%. In the two wins, Kentucky has shot 12-26 and 10-23 from three. So in three losses Kentucky has shot 31% and the two wins 45%.

2. The winner of the game is the winner of the rebound wars

Although all the games have been close on the boards, each game the winner has been the one who wins the rebound battle. In the two loses UCLA was out rebounded 42-47 and 28-29. In the three wins UCLA out rebounded Kentucky 38-37, 41-38, and 37-36. Yes, that is close, but it’s also a key stat in that those extra possessions mattered.

3. Alford has out-coached Calipari

Alford has had a plan for Kentucky each time. It is more than giving up threes. It is stopping Kentucky from getting inside. Make Kentucky a jump shooting team. On the flip side, Kentucky has tried to run with the Bruins. It’s something they cannot do or, at worst, plays to UCLA’s strength. Kentucky’s set defense versus UCLA’s set offense is generally a win for Kentucky. That’s surprising for Kentucky with their great athletes while a running game with UCLA is not. In Kentucky’s defense, this may be a case of different goals. Kentucky does not regard the UCLA game as a big deal and does not have a special plan. Alford seemingly has considered this game a big deal and twice beaten then-#1 Kentucky.

4. When the Bench Contributes for UCLA, UCLA wins

In the losses, UCLA’s bench scored 4 and 9 points. In the wins, UCLA’s bench scored 15, 19, and 16 points. Maybe the best symbol is Aaron Holiday last year. People forget Aaron Holiday was key in the first half of the win over #1 Kentucky at Rupp when he carried UCLA for a while. He finished the game with 13 points, 4 assists to one turnover. In the loss, he finished with 5 points, 4 assists to 3 turnovers. This last game Jaylen Hands played well for his minutes and chipped in 14 points. The bench does not have to outscore Kentucky’s bench but it has to contribute.

5. Thomas Welsh

Kentucky’s bigs are incredibly talented...and raw. Welsh is big and fundamentally sound. Welsh has been the steadying presence in all the wins and, in the second loss, he was limited due to fouls (he fouled out in just 19 minutes). A great indication of this is the last game when Welsh was out. When Welsh went out at the 6:46 mark til the 4:16 mark in the first half Kentucky proceeded to get 5 of their 16 offensive rebounds for the game in those two and half minutes. With Welsh out, Kentucky owned the inside. It is not just that Welsh gets the rebounds it his presence and positioning that takes up space and makes a difference. This let’s a TJ Leaf or GG get more rebounds as well.

Congratulations to Steve Alford for his success against Kentucky. It has been arguably the best part of the Alford era at UCLA. Maybe that is the rub. The three wins have been great, but the two losses were the (1) worst in UCLA history and (2) the most disappointing of the Alford era.

But, today, should be a half full day. I love Wooden’s school beating Rupp’s school, especially as an underdog. Thanks, Steve Alford.

Go Bruins!