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Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

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The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

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If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

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On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-UCLA, Baylor-Xavier and the rest of Saturday’s Showdowns

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Malik Monk #5, De'Aaron Fox #0, and Wenyen Gabriel #32 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: Outside of the Champions Classic, this matchup between a pair of blue-bloods in one of the nation’s most famous arenas is likely the most anticipated game of the season to date. Why? For starters, the amount of talent that’s going to be on the floor is ridiculous, but more importantly, that talent allows Kentucky and UCLA to both play styles that are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our full preview for this game can be found here.

  • Prediction: The official lines are not out yet, but according to KenPom.com, which is usually a fairly good approximate for Vegas, Kentucky looks to be around a 10-point favorite. At (+10), I’ll be on UCLA.

No. 7 Xavier at No. 9 Baylor, Sat. 3:30 p.m.: UCLA-Kentucky may be the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, but Baylor-Xavier is the game that will pit two top ten teams against each other. Xavier we all expected to be in this spot this season, but Baylor’s emergence as a potential Big 12 contender caught a lot of people by surprise.

There are going to be two key matchups here. The Bears are going to have a huge advantage on the interior. Johnathan Motley will be the best big man on the floor by a wide margin – if he keeps playing the way that he’s been playing, he’ll be in the discussion for all-american teams – while Jo Lual-Acuil has been a revelation this season. That duo can really protect the rim, and the Bears have been good about making sure they run offense through them on the other end of the floor. I’m not sure who Xavier has to slow them down.

On the other side, we have the Musketeers, who are going to have to figure out how to deal with Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone, which looks like a junk defense on the surface but is tough to figure out the first time you see it. Chris Mack’s club has some perimeter talent – Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner are the big names, but J.P. Macura has been terrific this season – but Myles Davis, the guy that makes their offense run smoothly, still is not cleared to play.

  • Prediction: We’ll update this when an official line comes out. KenPom has Baylor winning by four, and if that’s the case, Baylor (-4) is a good bet.

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SEVEN MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 25 West Virginia at No. 6 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Styles don’t get any more contrasting than that of Press Virginia and the Pack-Line. The Mountaineers want to play full court, frenetic basketball while the Wahoos like to control every detail of a game. What wins out?
  • Saint Joseph’s at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Holy War! An always-intense rivalry, I don’t think that the Hawks have the horses to take a run at Villanova this season, especially not when the game is being played in the Pavillion.
  • No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Arizona, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: This game looked a lot more interesting when we thought Arizona would have Parker Jackson-Cartwright, not to mention Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith and Terrence Ferguson.
  • Oklahoma at No. 17 Wisconsin, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Sooners are sitting at 6-1 on the season despite learning to play without Buddy Hield and company. This will be their biggest test of the season to date.
  • No. 21 Rhode Island at Providence, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: A battle for supremacy in the state of Rhode Island. It may not make waves nationally, but this rivalry matters in the state.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky and UCLA are both playing elite teams for the first time: That is the No. 1 story line that needs to be taken out of this game.

Kentucky has been absolutely massacring opponents this season. They’ve only scored fewer than 87 points once and cracked triple-digits in their last three games. UCLA has reached triple-digits quite often themselves this season, putting together a transition attack that is less ruthless but more aesthetic than Kentucky’s. Both of them look like the runaway favorites to win their respective leagues as of today, but neither of them have played anyone all that good. Kentucky has wins over Michigan State and Arizona State. UCLA has picked off Nebraska and Texas A&M.

Those wins are nothing like the wins that Indiana now has, which is the beauty of this game. UK and UCLA matchup really, really well, so this should not only be an incredibly entertaining game to view, it is going to be our first chance to really see how they do going up against a significant test.

2. The same can be said for West Virginia and Virginia: The Mountaineers are doing crazy things with their press this season – like, for example, forcing 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game – but they aren’t exactly doing it against the best competition. They have beaten Illinois (who lost to Winthrop) and lost to Temple (who lost to New Hampshire and UMass). So who knows just how good they actually are.

The same can be said for Virginia, who gave up an average of just 41.3 points in their first six games but who also found themselves down 32-16 with five minutes left in the first half at home against Ohio State. The Wahoos eventually won that game, but seeing as the Buckeyes, who are a borderline tournament team, are the best team that Virginia has played this season, I don’t think we really have a feel for just how good this team is or how much they miss Austin Nichols.

We’ll learn a lot in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Virginia guard London Perrantes (32) reacts to a three pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Virginia won the game 63-61. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard London Perrantes (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

3. About Nigel Hayes … : Hayes played easily his best game of the season in Tuesday’s win over No. 22 Syracuse, coming within a point of a triple-double as he almost single-handedly sliced apart the Orange zone. It wasn’t a coincidence that Wisconsin looked as good as they have all year when Hayes, who hasn’t shot a three in two games, operated as a playmaker in the paint and played inside-out. But that was also against a zone, where it only makes sense to play Hayes at the high-post.

So what happens this weekend? What happens against Oklahoma? Will Hayes continue to embrace what he does best at this level, or will be continue to try to prove what he can be to the next level?

4. Melo Trimble vs. Jawun Evans: Evans might be the best point guard in the country that you haven’t heard of yet. Trimble, on the other hand, is a guy that everyone knows, a guy that has developed a reputation for saving his team in crunch time. Both Evans’ Oklahoma State team and Trimble’s Maryland Terrapins really could a win on Saturday night when they play at the XFinity Center.

5. So who’s hurt the most by injuries?: Duke’s problems aren’t exactly a secret anymore. Neither are Michigan State’s, although news came down on Thursday evening that star freshman Miles Bridges is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for a few weeks. USC learned on Thursday that Bennie Boatwright, a starting forward, will be out for six weeks after spraining his MCL while Arizona is going to be without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright for some time with a high-ankle sprain. And Indiana? They have two games this weekend and neither of them will be played with O.G. Anunoby on the floor.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 30: O G Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs his ankle after being injured during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Assembly Hall on November 30, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
O.G. Anunoby (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

No. 14 UCLA secures Wooden Legacy title with win over Texas A&M

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 11:  Isaac Hamilton #10, Bryce Alford #20, TJ Leaf #22, Lonzo Ball #2 and Aaron Holiday #3 of the UCLA Bruins wait for a free throw against Pacific Tigers at Pauley Pavilion on November 11, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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UCLA has as flashy of an offense as we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory, but entering Sunday night’s battles with Texas A&M in the title game of the Wooden Legacy in Los Angeles, there were still plenty of questions regarding what they can be this season.

What happens when a team gets physical with them?

What happens when they get dragged into a slow-tempo, half-court game?

Are they going to be able to get enough stops to beat good teams?

And while it’s too early in the season to definitively give an answer to any of those three questions marks, the early returns sure are promising.

The No. 14 Bruins improved to 7-0 on the season with a 74-67 win over the Aggies on Sunday, an impressive performance against a team that plays the exact style that we all thought would give UCLA trouble. Billy Kennedy’s club wants to slow the game down. They want to pound the ball inside to Tyler Davis – who might be the pound-for-pound strongest man in college hoops – and Robert Williams. They win games not because they’re going to light up the scoreboard but because they’ve been pretty efficient at playing at their pace, keeping games in the 60s.

It didn’t matter.

Isaac Hamilton scored all 17 of his points in the first half, Lonzo Ball finished with 16 points, 10 assists, five boards and three blocks and Bryce Alford shook off a cold-shooting night to make a number of critical shots down the stretch. More importantly, Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf held their own against A&M’s front line and, when Steve Alford needed his team to make a play on the defensive end of the floor, they did just that.

We’re not quite sure how good this A&M team is going to be up being this season. With the pieces they lost to graduation and with projected starting point guard J.J. Caldwell ineligible, the Aggies do have some limitations.

What they are is a solid, well-coached team that plays a style that matches up well with how UCLA wants to play, and the Bruins got passed them in a game that never really felt like they were in danger of losing.

The real test for the Bruins comes on Saturday, when they head to Rupp Arena to face off with Kentucky.

And after UCLA’s run to the Wooden Legacy title, Bruins fans should feel a bit more confident that their team may be able to eke out a win on the road.

UCLA freshman to miss 4-6 weeks with knee injury

UCLA head coach Steve Alford, second from right, watches action against Cal Poly with his assistant coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Baker)
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The degree of difficulty just went up for UCLA in a season that was already likely to be filled with intrigue.

Ike Anigbogu, one of the members of the Bruins’ highly-touted recruiting class, suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss 4-to-6 weeks, UCLA coach Steve Alford announced Tuesday.

The 6-foot-10 center is one-third of Alford’s top-10 2016 class, which also included five stars Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. He wasn’t as highly regard as those two, but Anigbogu was a consensus top-50 recruit coming out of Corona, Calif. He averaged a double-double for UCLA during their foreign trip this summer.

“We’re optimistic we’ll have him back in four weeks so not going to miss a lot,” Alford said, according to Bruin Report Online. “The first three games probably.”

The Bruins aren’t without depth to weather the loss of Anigbogu as returning center Thomas Welsh averaged 11.2 points and 8.5 rebounds a game as a sophomore year ago and of course Leaf will play a major role.

Still, it’s a blow for a team that whose future appears so dependent on a group of freshmen, to lose one to start the season complicates the issue.

“Ike is doing a lot of good things,” Alford said. “Fortunately it’s a small tear. It’s not a major tear. I don’t think it’s going ot be a huge setback, but every time you have an injury there’s a setback.”

The timetable for Anigbogu’s return is interesting as if he’s able to hit the short end of the rehab window, which Alford repeatedly indicated they expected, he could be back for UCLA’s toughest stretch of non-conference games, starting with Kentucky on Dec. 3, then against Michigan on Dec. 10 and Ohio State on Dec. 17 before the Bruins open Pac-12 play against league favorite Oregon.

Five-star Bowen cuts list to six

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 19:  Mississippi Rebels and Xavier Musketeers players run by the logo at mid-court during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Five-star 2017 prospect Brian Bowen has trimmed his list of possible collegiate destinations to six.

Creighton, North Carolina State, UCLA, Michigan State, Arizona and Texas are still under consideration, Bowen announced Wednesday evening.

Bowen, a consensus top-20 recruit, is a 6-foot-8 small forward out of Sagniaw, Mich., but he currently is attending the prestigious La Lumiere School in Indiana. He’s also the cousin of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson, leaving many to believe that he’s a heavy Spartan lean.

“People think I’m 100 percent to Michigan State,” Bowen told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com earlier this month. “I love them to death and I’ve been there my whole life and everything — it’s a great coaching staff and everything — but I’m not 100 percent to a school until I commit there. Right now, I’m open to the schools that are recruiting.”

Bowen hasn’t said when he plans on making a final decision.

Love matches Westbrook’s record UCLA donation

WESTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 02:   (L-R)Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Love #42 of the UCLA Bruins celebrate during game against the Arizona Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion on February 2, 2008 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook will forever be linked for their one year as teammates on the 2007-08 UCLA team that reached the Bruins’ third-straight Final Four as they then went on to be top-five picks in that summer’s NBA Draft.

Now they share the distinction as giving their alma mater the biggest donation ever by a former hoops student-athlete from the school.

Love contributed an unspecified amount toward the school’s Mo Ostin Basketball Center project that the school says matches Westbrook’s record 2015 donation, and he will have the building’s strength-and-conditioning center named after him.

“UCLA will always be my home,” Love said in a statement. “I have such fond memories of my time here from meeting Coach (John) Wooden, to our run to the Final Four. I want to give back to the school and help prepare all the athletes who come through UCLA sports programs for their next steps, just like my time on campus prepared me.”

UCLA is building what it is calling a state-of-the art practice facility that will be located near Pauley Pavilion that it hopes to open next fall.

“From his selflessness and dedication on the court here in Pauley Pavilion to the thoughtfulness and philanthropy he has exhibited as an NBA star,” athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement, “Kevin is a tremendous ambassador for this university. To see him, still very early in his life journey, give back to the UCLA Basketball program in this way is certainly a testament to the bonds our student-athletes build here. While we are grateful for his generosity, we are even more proud of the remarkable man Kevin has become.”