9:39 PM EST, CBS – Line: UCLA -1, Over/Under: 166
College Basketball Royalty collides in the Sweet Sixteen tonight at FedEx Forum, in Memphis, Tennessee, as the Third-Seeded UCLA Bruins face off against the Second-Seeded Kentucky Wildcats in a rematch of an earlier meeting this season. Basketball Royalty. That’s what these two historic programs are, and you have to believe that we’re not overstating their collective credentials; between the two programs, they have accounted for a grand total of 4,090 victories, thirty-five Final Fours, and nineteen National Championships, with hallowed names such as John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, and Rick Pitino stalking the sidelines over the ages. In the present, both teams can be described as favorites on some level entering the second weekend of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, with fate bringing them together a helluva lot earlier than we’d all prefer. Let’s start with UCLA (31-4, 15-3 in Pac-12), who after a brutal 2015-2016 campaign in which they went just 15-17, have rebounded to a thirty-win season, their most successful in ten years. So what’s changed in Los Angeles, you ask? Two words: Lonzo Ball (14.7 PTS, 55.6% FG, 42.0% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 7.6 AST, 1.9 STL). Simply put, the highly decorated Freshman Point Guard has been a revelation for Steve Alford and his charges, transforming a decent offensive attack into the most prolific in the country. Just look at the turnaround; last year, the Bruins averaged 77.5 points (67th Overall) on 45.4% shooting from the field (105th Overall), with 15.7 assists (71st Overall), only to rank first overall in all three of those categories this season (90.2 PTS, 52.1% FG, 21.6 AST). They have the potential to be a blur in transition, with the silky smooth, 6’6″ maestro playing well beyond his years. There is something to be said about a Point Guard that can initiate the offense to a degree where his teammates are getting the basketball in the right place at the right time, which is something that Ball has shown to be preternaturally adept at. UCLA has six different players averaging in double-figures, led by Freshman Forward T.J. Leaf (16.2 PTS, 61.6% FG, 45.6% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.1 BLK) and Alford’s son, Bryce (15.6 PTS, 44.8% FG, 43.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 2.6 AST), who have gelled seamlessly with their young teammate. Their collective offensive prowess has been on display throughout the Tournament thus far; after obliterating Fourteenth-Seeded Kent State (97-80) in the First Round, Alfrod’s troops overcame a slow start against Sixth-Seeded Cincinnati to blow them away in the second half en route to an impressive 79-67 victory. Trailing 33-30 at the midway point, the Bruins caught fire after intermission, outscoring the Bearcats 49-34 over the final twenty minutes, shooting a stellar 50.0% from the field, including 11-of-28 from beyond the arc (39.3%) when it was all said and done. As usual, Ball filled up the stat sheet, compiling a total of eighteen points on 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), seven rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals, while Alford added another sixteen points, nailing four of his eleven attempts from three (36.4%). Credit Alford and his Staff for making the requisite adjustments at Halftime, particularly on the defensive end, causing Cincinnati to stall considerably in the second half, as they only shot 44.8% from the field, with no hope of outgunning the Bruins in a shootout. With that said, this team has proven able to slow things down and win with a more physical brand of play, just ask Kentucky, whom they defeated 97-92 back on December 3rd. To the surprise of many, UCLA dominated Kentucky in the interior, shooting 25-of-43 inside the Arc (58.1%), and outrebounding them 40-37, while getting to the Charity Stripe twenty-one times. Balance was huge, as six different players scored in double-figures, with the triumvirate of Ball, Leaf, and Alford accounting for forty-five points on 16-of-34 shooting (47.1%), nineteen rebounds, thirteen assists, two steals, and two blocks.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s (31-5, 16-2 in SEC) murderer’s row of competition to a National Championship continues against a team that dealt them one of their five losses this season. As we stated earlier, the Wildcats and Bruins met back in Lexington in early December, where the hosts were shocked by the physicality of the visiting side. It’s not often that John Calipari’s charges get punched in the mouth and throw around in the Paint, let alone at Rupp Arena, but that was exactly what happened against UCLA, who relegated them to just 41.3% shooting from the field, including a dismal 25-of-56 from inside the Arc (44.6%). Big Blue remained in the contest due to their tenacity on the offensive glass (eighteen offensive rebounds) and in contesting passing lanes (seventeen turnovers), while also taking up residence from the Free-Throw Line (18-of-27, 66.7%), but ultimately they failed to keep their opponent from finishing far too many times. As he typically does, Calipari had his own cadre of star Freshmen, who put on a show, as Guards Malik Monk (20.0% PTS, 45.0% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.0 STL) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PTS, 47.3% FG, 4.0 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.4 STL) accounted for forty-four points on 18-of-39 shooting from the field (46.2%), including 5-of-12 from downtown (41.7%), with five rebounds, nine assists, and six steals. However, one would have to think that this team would love another shot at the Bruins, for after all, Kentucky is one of the few teams in the country that can match offensive firepower with UCLA. On the season, Calipari’s troops averaged 85.2 points (9th Overall) on 47.4% shooting from the filed (40th Overall), including 53.2% from within the Arc (49th Overall), and 35.0% beyond it (170th Overall), while dishing out 15.3 assists (31st Overall). Where they can really do some damage though, as hinted at before, is on the offensive glass and from the Free-Throw Line; simply put, nobody draws more fouls than the Wildcats, who have attempted more free-throws than anyone in the country (26.2), making the second-most (18.4), while earning a plethora of second-chance opportunities via the offensive glass, securing 12.3 per game (11th Overall). This is where the likes of Edrice Adebayo (13.3 PTS, 60.9% FG, 8.1 REB, 1.5 BLK) and Derek Willis (7.0 PTS, 48.9% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 5.23 REB, 1.1 BLK) become absolutely crucial, for these two bigs need to keep the Bruins off the glass, lest they fall into the same trap they did in their earlier meeting. Getting to the Charity Stripe frequently goes a long way towards disrupting the flow of a game, particularly transition offense, which is a considerable weapon in UCLA’s holster. What they can’t do though, is get into foul trouble, which has been by far and away this team’s biggest weakness throughout the term; while they shoot a ton of free-throws, so do their opponents, who have averaged 20.4 attempts (280th Overall), making 13.8 of them (240th Overall), negating a large chunk of that sizable disparity which must drive Calipari crazy. Basically, it just comes down to communicating and executing on that particular end of the court, which these guys haven’t always been consistent at. Whatever Coach Cal told them heading into their Second Round meeting with Tenth-Seeded Wichita State, is definitely a motivational speech worth repeating, as the ‘Cats limited the Shockers to a dreadful 38.7% shooting from the field, including 16-of-38 from inside the Arc (42.1%) and 8-of-24 from beyond it (33.3%) in the narrow 75-72 victory. Most importantly though, they sent them to Stripe just nine times, outscoring them six in that regard. Granted, Wichita State doesn’t possess the type of offensive talent that UCLA does, but that is certainly the level of discipline that this team needs to play with defensively.