The last time that UCLA and Kentucky got together to play, the Bruins were totally and utterly embarrassed.
The Wildcats jumped out to a 24-0 lead in Chicago last season. They were up 41-7 at halftime while shooting 3-for-37 from the floor. They lost 83-44. It was brutal.
Thursday was totally different.
The Bruins jumped out to a 9-2 lead and never really looked back, controlling the game throughout and eventually handing No. 1 Kentucky their first loss of the season, 87-77.
I’ll get to the Wildcats in a minute, but before we do … UCLA, where in the HELL was this effort level all season long? They lost to Monmouth in Pauley Pavilion — the same building that they just beat Kentucky in — in the season opener. They nearly lost to Cal Poly in their second game. They were totally worked over by No. 4 Kansas in the Maui Invitational a day before they lost to Wake Forest in the third-place game.
And here they are smacking around No. 1 Kentucky? Look, prior to the season, if you had told me that UK was going to lose at UCLA, I would not have been all that surprised. The Bruins, at least on paper, are a borderline top 25 team. From a strictly talent perspective, they should probably be a top 15-20 team. Thomas Welsh is a really tall, really slow white guy that was a freshman on a mediocre team from the west coast last season, so fans that don’t get the Pac-12 Network and don’t feel like watching a 10 p.m. tip on their iPad probably have never seen him play before. But Welsh, who went for 20 points, 11 boards and two blocks while totally and completely outplaying Skal Labissiere, was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and is the second-best big man on this UCLA team to Tony Parker.
Prince Ali, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton were all highly-regarded recruits when they were in high school and, love him or hate him, Bryce Alford averaged 15 points and five assists last season.
UCLA’s got some dudes.
Which is what made their play early in the season so frustrating. This is who they should be every night. When they play like this — with Welsh hitting his patented 15-footer, with Holiday and Ali getting to the rim, with Alford and Hamilton limiting the number of stupid shots they take — the Bruins might be able to contend for a Pac-12 title.
That’s how wide open the league is.
But until they prove they can avoid the mind-numbing slip-ups, it’s hard to believe they can actually do it.
Back to Kentucky, I don’t think we actually saw the “real” Kentucky tonight. The elbow injury Ulis suffered last week clearly bothered him shooting the ball. He was 2-for-12 from the floor and spent much of the first half looking hesitant to shoot open jumpers. Marcus Lee disappeared at some point in the first half due to a head injury that kept him out of the game. Essentially, Kentucky was down a starter-and-a-half, and that’s before you factor is that Skal Labissiere was a complete no-show. He finished with six points and one board, was totally embarrassed by Welsh and was so out of it that Tyler Ulis actually shoved him on the floor to try and wake him up:
Labissiere’s adjustment to the college game has been much more different than what expected. I knew that he was going to have issues on the defensive end of the floor, but I did not think that he would be completely overwhelmed at the college level. I don’t know if he’s soft or he’s scared or he just doesn’t quite understand what he’s supposed to be doing yet, but Kentucky is never going to reach their true potential this season until Labissiere starts rebounding and defending like he’s a 7-footer projected as a lottery pick.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that a loss, even one in this manner, isn’t really that much of a concern for me at this point.
It’s the question marks that the loss exposed that is.