As painful as it may be, I have to begin this preview by taking you back to December 2014 when the Bruins and the Wildcats last met. The Bruins Nation postgame recap written by chrissorr carried the headline "UCLA Basketball: Kentucky Annihilates the Bruins, 83-44." In a sentence, this is how chrissorr summarized the game:
"It was a complete beat down, and an embarrassment for the team, staff, administration, fans and us bloggers."
In case you've forgotten, Kentucky scored the first 24 points of the game. UCLA couldn't even reach double digits by the end of the first half, and trailed 41-7 at the break. In the end, it was the second worst loss in UCLA history. One year later, will #1 Kentucky rout UCLA again?
As a UCLA fan, it's hard to be optimistic about the rematch. The Bruins (4-3) are off to a much worse start than last season, and Kentucky (7-0) is the top-ranked team in the nation. Of course, as you'd expect from a Calipari program, there are a lot of new Kentucky players this season--a lot of very talented freshmen playing a lot of minutes--but Calipari makes it work in spite of the fact that his team is "young and inexperienced." In fact, none of the five Kentucky starters from last year's massacre are on this season's roster.
On the other hand, the Bruins' starting lineup isn't drastically different from what it was a year ago. Kevon Looney is gone, but the likely starter in his place--Thomas Welsh--played in last season's embarrassment. Norman Powell is also gone, but Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Tony Parker will all be playing Kentucky for a second time. Last time around, BAlford led the Bruins in minutes played (37), and I'd be surprised if he doesn't lead the team in minutes this time around. Despite improved backcourt depth this year, BAlford (36.1 minutes/game) and Hamilton (34.1 minutes/game) are averaging almost exactly as many minutes per game as they did last season. That's not an encouraging sign one month into the new season.
It's likely that Steve Alford will continue his big-big lineup experiment in spite of the defensive problems that it causes. Obviously the Bruins' big-big lineup has potential advantages on offense, but unfortunately UCLA hasn't done a particularly good job of exploiting those advantages. After the Bruins dominated a weak CSUN team on Sunday, ArmyBruin75 perfectly summarized the problem that frustrates many of us:
"One area that this team needs to improve upon greatly is feeding the post. We have an outmatched opponent that gives us the chance to work on some of this stuff. What do we get? A lot of jump shots. And, it isn't just about the shots. It's about the number of times the ball goes inside. It is about establishing a post presence and an inside game which will in turn create more open shots for the guards as well. Simply put, the Bruins are poorly coached."
Although the Bruins haven't done a good job of consistently exploiting their advantage on the inside, Calipari has no trouble identifying the threat posed by Parker and Welsh:
"If they watch this game, they're going to post us up," he said after the Cats had more trouble than expected against Illinois State on Monday night. "Tony Parker is. Every time they throw it, they're going to go at our bigs, so we better have some ideas what we're going to do."
I'm skeptical that the Bruins have the discipline and experience that this strategy requires. Tony Parker is fourth in field goal attempts and Thomas Welsh is fifth, and that doesn't take into account the fact that a significant chunk of Parker's and Welsh's field goal attempts come from offensive rebounds. Simply put, the Bruins haven't demonstrated that they can consistently run their offense through the post.
Moreover, in spite of Calipari's stated concern about the Cats interior defense, Kentucky has plenty of size. 6'11" freshman Skal Labissiere will probably start again in the frontcourt, but he'll have to play better than he did in Kentucky's last outing against Illinois State (2 points, 2 rebounds) if he's going to see much court time. Labissiere is averaging nearly 13 points/game and 4.3 rebounds/game and leads the Cats in blocks. Either 6'8" senior Alex Poythress or 6'9" junior Marcus Lee will start alongside Labissiere. both average 8+ points/game and 7+ boards/game. Although he averages just 12 minutes/game, 6'9" junior Derek Willis gives Kentucky another big body inside, and unlike the Cats' other bigs, Willis can (and will) shoot from deep.
The glimmer of hope for the Bruins is that sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis is injured and is unlikely to play on Thursday. Ulis is far and away Kentucky's best ball handler, creator and distributor. Without him against Illinois State, the Wildcats had just 7 assists and 15 turnovers.
With Ulis injured, 6'6" freshman Charles Matthews got a rare start. Although Matthews struggled from the field and from the charity stripe, he was the best of Kentucky's starting guards at taking care of the ball. Freshman guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray are the other starting guards, and although they are turnover-prone, they are scorers, creators, and tough defenders. Murray leads Kentucky in scoring (15 points/game) and three-pointers attempted and made, but he's shooting just .324 from beyond the arc. Briscoe averages over 12 points/game and shoots well from the field (,500), but shoots less than 40% from the free throw line.
Junior Dominique Hawkins may see extended minutes in Ulis' absence, but he should be a non-factor on the offensive end. Frankly, although Calipari professes to be concerned about his interior defense, he should probably be more concerned about his lack of backcourt depth without Ulis. Briscoe is foul-prone--in fact, he fouled out against Illinois State--a problem that Kentucky can't afford with Ulis on the bench.
Although Calipari claims that this game may hinge on a battle between the bigs, I think it is more likely to be determined by the guards. Can Kentucky avoid the turnover problems it had in its last game without Tyler Ulis? Can the Wildcats make the Bruins pay by scoring from the perimeter if UCLA uses a compact zone? Can the Bruins demonstrate patience and discipline in running their offense through the post? Can BAlford, Hamilton, Holiday and Ali be smart with the ball in the face of defensive pressure by the Wildcat guards? Those questions will be answered by Kentucky's and UCLA's guards, not by either team's bigs.
I don't see any reason to expect another blowout, but if we witness anything like a repeat of last year's annihilation, Steve Alford will have a lot of explaining to do.