Nothing says pure blue blood basketball like a showdown between the Kentucky Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins. It’s always special when the programs that have 19 NCAA title lace it up and this latest game occurs in the city where Kentucky won their last NCAA championship: New Orleans.
Last years meeting was dominated by the unflappable LaVar Ball, unfortunately, and a lot of his drama almost overshadowed what were a couple of good games. This year, there is an interesting story by Mark Story floating around about whether Kentucky has missed their best chance to catch UCLA in overall titles. While there is certainly no hot seat under John Calipari, it does off a good look of what could have been in his time and serves as a good read with UCLA on the schedule.
The Bruins come into the game with an 8-3 record and an RPI rating of #95 per Jerry Palm. This is one of the weaker Bruins teams in the past couple of years and they do not have a win against a team in the top 75. Their best wins were over #77 Wisconsin 72-70 and #98 South Dakota 85-82. The Bruins struggled with South Dakota on Tuesday night.
On the other hand, the Bruins do not have any especially bad losses as their "worst" loss was to #61 Cincinnati by a score of 77-63. The Bruins have feasted on cupcakes with five wins that are ranked over #200.
Thankfully, there will be no LaVar Ball sighting at this game as the Bruins have effectively been rid of that distraction. His influence will still be felt, thanks to the China incident which has left these team a very thin team.
Let's meet the Bruins.
#3 - G AARON HOLIDAY - JR 6'1, 185
17.4 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.5 RPG
#23 - G PRINCE ALI - SO 6'3, 190
10.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.8 APG
#13 - G KRIS WILKES - FR 6'8, 195
11.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.3 APG
#14 - F GYORGY GOLOMAN - SR 6'11, 225
7.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.6 APG
#40 - C THOMAS WELCH - SR 7'0, 255
13.2 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.8 APG
#4 G - JAYLEN HANDS - FR 6'3, 175
12.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.8 APG
#5 G - CHRIS SMITH - FR 6'9, 200
5.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.6 APG
#0 F - OLEG OLESINKI - SO 6'10, 225.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.5 APG
The Bruins only return one starter from last year’s team but they have a talented lineup that been solid bench players over the past couple of years. Aaron Holiday has been a stud this year and can do it all. He hits 45% of his shots and can occasionally hit the three-pointer at 31.7%. He has a 1.64 A/TO ratio and is solid defensively with 1.8 steals a game.
Prince Ali is another talented athlete that can score from anywhere on the court. He hits 48.7% of his shots and 46.7% of his three-pointers. He is a streaky shooter and can take over a game when he is hot or he can disappear at times. Kris Wilkes is inconsistent as a freshman but he is a decent rebounder and averages a block a game. He hits just 43.1% of his shots overall and 27.8 from long range. He tends to get into foul trouble, which can be a red flag with the Bruin's thin bench.
The frontcourt is solid with Gygorgy Golomon and Thomas Welch, Goloman is a solid rebounder that can score around the basket (52.4%). He also has a tendency to get into foul trouble. Kentucky fans remember Thomas Welch well from their past encounters and he is having a solid senior year, averaging better than a double-double. He hits 49.1% of his shots and passes well for a big man. He also averages 1.5 blocks and right at a steal a game.
The bench is thin but Freshman Jaylen Hand has stepped up and played very well. He rebounds well for a guard and actually shoots better from three-point range (45.9%) than overall (45.1%). Fellow Freshman Chris Smith is a streaky scorer and hits 43.1% of his shots. Alex Olesinski is the only other big that plays regularly and he is effective around the rim, hitting 57.9% of his shots. He is also a solid rebounder and can hit the occasional three. He also can be prone to foul trouble and this could be a factor against UK.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
There are a lot of new faces for both teams since the sweet 16 matchup as both teams field almost totally new starting lineups. The Bruins still have some talent hanging around but this is not a big Bruins team and they give up a lot of size.
This is a team that can score and they average 88.2 points a game but they are nothing special on defense and allow 76.2. They have not faced a team with the defensive intensity of Kentucky and this is a team that can get into foul trouble and they are already dangerously thin.
Look for Kentucky to press the tempo and attempt to run the Bruins out of the gym early and wear them out. UCLA lost three players to the NBA last year and two top 100 recruits they expected to rebuild with are still suspended this year. It will be hard to keep up with Kentucky with a three man bench and just one bench player in the frontcourt.
This is a game that Kentucky should win easily and it helps to advance this team with the game on a neutral court that will be heavily tilted towards Kentucky. It will be a good prep for the NCAA tournament and will be similar to a 3 vs 14 type of NCAA pairing.
Look for Kentucky to stifle the Bruins on defense and pull away on offense. I don't think this will be a close game.
Let's call it 83-67 for UK.