You’ve heard the saying a million times before: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” But for the Kentucky Wildcats that saying takes on a completely different meaning. In tonight’s blue-blooded clash for a spot in the Elite Eight between UK and UCLA, defense, not offense, is going to be the difference maker.
When these two teams met on December 3rd earlier this season, each squad was still trying to figure out their identity. The only thing the country really knew about these two was that they could score… a lot. In the first meeting, the teams combined for a whopping 189 points, with UCLA edging Kentucky 97-92 in Rupp. Needless to say, that first contest was an offensive slugfest, and UCLA was crowned the victor solely because they were able to score the most points by the time the horn sounded. However, this time around, UK hopes to make things a lot different.
Contrary to what many people might think, UCLA’s star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball actually didn’t hurt the Cats as much as you might think. Yes, Ball did hit some incredibly important shots to quiet Kentucky when they were attempting to make a run, but the freshman actually only scored 14 points on 5-12 shooting. When you couple that with his 6 turnovers, one could actually make the argument that he had a pretty poor game considering his usual performances. Perhaps even more surprising to people is the fact that UK guard De’Aaron Fox actually outplayed Ball, as he registered 20 points and dished out 9 assists, two more than Ball, with only two turnovers.
So what does that matter? Well, for starters, it means that as has been the case for nearly every team that Kentucky has played this season, UCLA didn’t prove that they had anyone on their roster that was fast or quick enough to keep up with De’Aaron Fox. Fox’s speed allowed him to slice through the lane virtually whenever he wanted, and in order to defeat the Bruins tonight, he’s going to have to continue that “drive first” mentality. Not only does it allow him to score close buckets in the lane, but it also puts pressure on UCLA guards Lonzo Ball and perhaps Aaron Holiday to stay out of foul trouble. What will also be interesting to watch is the way Kentucky defends Ball tonight. In December’s matchup, Lonzo got into the lane essentially whenever he wanted with little to no resistance. With UK’s drastic defensive improvement, look for the Cats to cut off driving lanes to force Ball to beat the Cats from the outside.
What fans will remember very well is TJ Leaf’s dominance in the first meeting, as the Bruins freshman scored 17 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out 5 assists, along with a steal and a block. Leaf was all over the floor, and gave severe problems to the Cats’ “4 spot”, an issue that Calipari had to deal with almost all season long. However, over the past two months, senior Derek Willis has come into his own, and has become a very formidable defender. The matchup between Willis and Leaf could very well be the difference maker tonight, so Willis must be sure to force Leaf into tough shots, rather than let him get easy baskets around the rim like what he got in December.
On the offensive side of things, look for Calipari to try to get Monk going early. With Malik’s recent “shooting slump” that has haunted him over the last few games, this kind of fast-tempo game could very well be where we see him break out of that slump. If Monk can get off to a quick start with some layups or mid-range jumpers early, the Bruins could very well have a problem on their hands. Also keep an eye on Bam Adebayo. With the recent offensive surge that he’s displayed in the SEC and now NCAA Tournament, if the Cats can get some easy points off lobs or dunks from Bam and draw some fouls on the UCLA big men, it could drastically ease some of the pressure off Kentucky’s three guards.
Overall, though, this game is going to come down to UK’s ability to defend. UCLA has struggled in games this season where their opponent made it difficult for them to score. In the Bruins’ four losses, they’ve averaged 80.75 points a game. While that number is still pretty high, it’s ten points fewer than their average points per game throughout the entire season, which is 90.2, good for first in the country. This UCLA team can absolutely fly up and down the floor. Because of that, it is going to be imperative that UK’s guards take care of the ball like they did in the first matchup where they only turned the ball over 9 times. It’s also worth noting that UCLA out-rebounded Kentucky in the first meeting by 3. UK is rebounding the ball much better these days, so it will be important to keep the Bruins off the offensive glass to limit their ability to score.
Should Kentucky continue playing the defense that they’ve been playing over the past two months, they should be in good shape to get past UCLA. And if the Cats can keep them cold from the field, then they should be able to give them a nice, cold dish of revenge.