Let’s be honest here. Almost no one expects UCLA to upset Kentucky on Saturday at the United Center, the toughest challenge yet for a Bruin squad that has yet to gel into a team with a strong identity.
Last week, No. 8 Gonzaga already showed how just how far UCLA is from being one of the country’s elite teams, controlling the game the entire night at Pauley Pavilion and easily snuffing every semblance of a Bruin run. So what’s going to happen when Steve Alford’s squad takes on the top-ranked Wildcats, whose rotation consists almost entirely of former McDonald’s All-Americans? A UCLA win would require a number of things to break right. (An act of God wouldn’t hurt either.)
Here are a few things to keep an eye on today.
1. Can UCLA handle Kentucky’s assembly line of big men? The Bruins have outrebounded nearly every team they’ve faced this season, but their loss against Gonzaga finally pitted them against an opponent that could toss superior size their way. Against 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski and 6-foot-10 Domantas Sabonis, UCLA gave up a 34-30 edge on the glass and struggled to convert second-chance opportunities. It also allowed 65 percent shooting inside the arc, with Sabonis missing just one of his five field goal attempts.
The Wildcats have the biggest rotation in the country, starting with seven-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Cauley-Stein in particular has come into his own over the past month, playing his way into top-ten draft conversation with a 21-point game against Texas. Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns complements them as one of the country’s best shot blockers — ranking fourth with a 16.4 block percentage. The size trickles down too: guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison both stand 6-foot-6, two inches taller than UCLA’s Norman Powell. (The Harrison twins’ decision to stay at UK also likely played a role in Jordan Adams’ decision to leave UCLA, taking advantage of a slightly thinner guard class.)
UCLA freshman Kevon Looney has made an impact regardless of competition, logging seven double-doubles through 11 games. He can be a bit vulnerable on defense at times and is inconsistent on his jumper, but he’s remained a monster on the offensive boards night in and night and night out.
The same can’t sort of mechanical reliability can’t be said about junior Tony Parker, from whom the Bruins will need a strong performance. A bit undersized for a true center at 6-foot-9, Parker has feasted against smaller teams: he scored a season-high 20 points against Nicholls State, and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds against UC Riverside. But he has also picked up at least four fouls in all but four games this season. If he can keep himself on the floor against Kentucky and produce, it will be a good sign moving forward.
2. Will the Bruins’ starting backcourt get hot? John Calipari spoke glowingly of both Norman Powell and Bryce Alford this week, calling the former an all-around “scoring machine” and the latter a rare player who could “change the complexion of a game” in 90 seconds. Some of that is coachspeak hyperbole, but both of UCLA’s backcourt starters have had moments of offensive explosiveness.
UCLA is ranked 69th in the country in 3-point shooting (37.3), and that’s mostly due to Powell smoothing out his release and bumping his percentage from 29.4 last season to 46.7 (21 of 45). It doesn’t serve UCLA’s offense well if he’s settling for threes instead of driving to the rim, but if he makes a few early ones, that will spread the floor a bit for . Powell will also likely match up against 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles in certain lineups, and could be disruptive if Lyles can’t keep up with a smaller guy who can really attack the rim.
Alford runs a bit hot and cold from long range, capable of a 1-of-5 night or a 4-of-6. He and Isaac Hamilton sit at 37.5 and 39.6 percent on the season. Those numbers need to clear 40 or 50 to really threaten Kentucky. The Wildcats allow opponents to take more than a third of their field goal attempts from deep, so UCLA will get tries there.
3. Does UCLA’s zone defense look like it’s improving? The Bruins have also not guarded the 3-point line very well since Steve Alford, partly because they’ve relied on a lot of zone, and partly because the coaching staff seems to place more emphasis on defending the paint. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem against Kentucky, which is not a team with great range. UK ranks 285th nationally at 29.3 percent from beyond the arc, dragged down by the Harrison twins and Lyles combining for an abysmal 22-of-94. Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are well above 40 percent, but Ulis has only taken 18 3-pointers this season.
So, the test will be to see if UCLA can effectively defend the key against a squad that has four players who are 6-foot-10 or taller. UK is top-30 nationally in 2-point percentage (54.3) and is the best offensive rebounding team in the country. Alford admitted that although the Bruins have improved at help defense, they’re still struggling with recovery after helping a teammate.
UCLA has also shown already that it is incapable of playing a significant amount of man defense. Calipari expects the Bruins to throw a lot of zone, and should have the Wildcats ready to adjust after a full week of practice.