By Daniel Greenwald
In an alternate reality, this game would’ve been a stellar Final Four battle. Two offensively gifted squads chalked full of NBA talent pitting two of College Basketball’s blue bloods against each other. Kentucky versus UCLA should’ve been a Final Four collision. Yet due to one of several seeding quirks in this March Madness, a Sweet 16 showdown will have to do.
If their matchup earlier this season is any indication points won’t exactly be at a premium. A 97-92 shootout ensued that ended with UCLA handing Kentucky its first loss at Rupp Arena in 43 games. It’s unwise to take too much stock in a game that took place on December 3rd, eons ago in the college season, but certain aspects will undoubtedly carry over.
Namely, both teams are going to fill it up. UCLA led the nation in scoring at 90 points per game and UK wasn’t far behind at 85 a game. However each team goes about getting buckets in a different way.
Kentucky is once again fueled by its endless pipeline of stud freshman. Bam Adebayo is a nice interior force cleaning glass and pummeling shots, but the team’s engine is its back court, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Fox utilizes his size, 6’3 with a 6’6 wing span, and incredible explosiveness knifing through the paint to distribute and do damage at the rim. Meanwhile “The Holy Assassin” Malik Monk unleashes the lord’s vengeance from downtown, one long range snipe at a time.
Fox can dominate a game by wreaking havoc in the lane and Monk can overflow the chalice. Malik’s ridiculous scoring outbursts have become common place, topping 25 points 9 times including a 47 point epic against North Carolina. But if De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk aren’t cooking Kentucky is doomed. Luckily for Kentucky, they most usually are because they are really good.
On the other hand, UCLA’s offense has a more balanced approach. They led the country in points per game, field goal percentage, and assists by a wide margin. Dazzling do-it-all freshman Lonzo Ball rightfully gets much of the attention notching 14.7 points, 7.6 assists(1st in NCAA), and 6.1 rebounds per game. Yet some forget the Bruins trot out 6 players who average double figures a game in scoring. They also slot in as the number 1 offense in highly respected KenPom ratings.
Yet another freshman, nimble 6’10 inside-out forward T.J. Leaf leads the Bruins in scoring at 16.2 points per game. Bryce Alford averages 15.6 per with prolific shooting from long range, knocking down 43 percent from 3 on 7.5 attempts a game, not too shabby for the coaches kid. Plus Isaac Hamilton, Ball, Aaron Holiday, and Thomas Welch are all double digit scoring contributors, as well. Point being, they have options.
Just as important in Ball and Alford, UCLA comes to the Sweet 16 trotting out one of the precious few backcourts in the country that can hang with Kentucky’s.
Standing 6’6” much bigger than average point guards, Lonzo Ball takes away the height advantage De’Aaron Fox normally enjoys finishing at the basket, and Fox’s jumper isn’t always reliable. Another challenge for Fox will be maintaining his offensive duties while contending with Ball’s outstanding playmaking and silky jumper that embody UCLA’s Ferrari fast offense. Malik Monk and Bryce Alford are both gunners with faint interest as stoppers but figure to get theirs offensively. It’s probably Monk who has greater game changing potential, but one quick barrage of Alford 3’s can turn a game on its head just as quickly. Ask UCLA’s last victim Cincinnati about that.
Ultimately UCLA’s best chance to win is its ability to undermine the Wildcats most crucial advantage. If their guards can play UK’s backcourt close or to a stalemate, the Bruins depth and versatility will take over. That’s exactly the advantage I expect to carry UCLA past Kentucky and into the Elite 8.