Two of the most storied college basketball programs face off Thursday night as the UCLA Bruins host the Kentucky Wildcats.
The Cats are once again back atop the polls as they hold the No. 1 ranking for the second week in a row. It's a familiar feeling for both programs, though not one the Bruins have felt in quite some time.
After making three straight Final Fours from 2006-08, UCLA has failed to make it past the Sweet 16 every year since. Both of those Sweet 16 appearances came in the past two seasons under head coach Steve Alford, who replaced Ben Howland following the 2012-13 season.
Though Alford has helped guide UCLA to two Sweet 16 appearances, it's been a tumultuous tenure for him in L.A. to say the least. UCLA has suffered a host of bad defeats under Alford's watch, including losses to Monmouth, Wake Forest and a 19-point beatdown at the hands of No. 5 Kansas this season. Last year, the Bruins lost to Alabama, Colorado, Oregon State, Cal and Arizona State, none of which even made it to the NCAA Tournament.
But winning cures all ills, and beating a top-ranked Kentucky team would certainly smooth things over for Alford. Last week, the Bruins went 2-2 with a fourth-place finish at the Maui Invitational. UCLA defeated UNLV before losing to No. 5-ranked Kansas and Wake Forest.
UCLA returned home on Friday evening and defeated CSUN 77-45 on Sunday. Isaac Hamilton and Tony Parker each scored a team-leading 14 points against the Matadors, while Bryce Alford logged a season-high 10 assists.
Speaking of, Bryce, Steve's son, has notched a team-leading 15.3 points per game and scored in double figures in five of UCLA’s seven games. He leads the Bruins with 5.6 assists per game, compiling a 2.3 assist-turnover ratio. He's easily the Bruins' best player, and his ability to knock down a flurry of three-pointers can keep UCLA in the game with UK if the Cats don't cover down on him.
He's not the only Bruin UK must worry about. UCLA may end up having the best frontcourt that UK faces before opening conference play in January. Tony Parker, a 6-foot-9 senior forward, has recorded five double-doubles in seven games. Parker has averaged 14.1 points and a Pac-12 leading 12.1 boards per game, scoring in double figures in all but one game. He opened the season with three double-doubles in the team’s first three games, becoming UCLA’s first player to accomplish that feat since Bill Walton opened the Bruins’ 1973-74 campaign with nine straight double-doubles.
Sophomore center Thomas Welsh, at 7-feet and 245 pounds, has averaged 12.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Welsh, who scored in double figures just twice last season, has tallied at least 20 points in two games this year – 22 against Cal Poly and 20 vs UNLV.
The Bruin who is having the biggest breakout season is freshman guard Aaron Holiday, who ranks third on the team in scoring (13.0 ppg) and first in 3-point percentage (45.5). A starter for UCLA through the first seven games, Holiday has averaged 13.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. He scored a season-high 18 points against UNLV and has scored in double figures in five of UCLA’s seven games. Aaron is the younger brother of former UCLA guard Jrue Holiday, who is now in his sixth NBA season now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis.
When we last saw the Cats in action, they were playing without point guard Tyler Ulis against a feisty Illinois State club, the top-ranked Wildcats turned the ball over on their first three possessions and allowed Illinois State to hold the lead for 9:41 of the first half. The teams entered halftime tied at 31-all as the Redbird gave the Cats all they could handle.
But UK took control in the second half and used a 10-0 run to open up a 16-point lead en route to the 75-63 win. Freshman guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray took the load in Ulis’ absence and combined for 34 points, 13 boards and four assists. Briscoe poured in a career-high 18 points to lead the way. At this point, it's unclear if Ulis will play Thursday night as he recovers from his hyperextended elbow.
The Bruins and Wildcats come into this matchup in the first year of a two-year home-and-home series, with UCLA scheduled to play its first-ever game at Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, 2016. UK has a 7-4 all-time record against UCLA, including an 83-44 rout last season in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago. The Cats will be playing in Pauley Pavilion for the first time in school history.
Here is everything you'll need to watch and follow the Cats take on the Bruins.
Kentucky Wildcats (7-0) at UCLA Bruins (4-3)
When: Thursday, December 3rd at 9 p.m. ET
Location: Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California
Game Time: 9:00 pm ET
Rosters: UCLA Roster; Kentucky Roster
Online Stream: Watch ESPN
Radio: UK Radio Network (Tom Leach, Mike Pratt)
Odds: UK is a 5.5-point favorite, per Vegas Insider.
Projected UCLA Starters
G - Bryce Alford, 6-3, 180 lbs
G - Aaron Holiday, 6-1, 185 lbs
G - Isaac Hamilton, 6-5, 185 lbs
F - Tony Parker, 6-9, 260 lbs
C - Thomas Welsh, 7-0, 215 lbs
Projected Kentucky Starters
G - Isaiah Briscoe, 6-3, 202 lbs
G - Jamal Murray, 6-4, 207 lbs
G - Tyler Ulis, 5-9, 160 lbs*
G- Charles Matthews, 6-6, 189 lbs**
F - Marcus Lee, 6-9, 224 lbs
F - Skal Labissiere, 6-11, 225 lbs
**Likely starter if Tyler Ulis is out