The Kentucky Wildcats are headed to New Orleans to take on the UCLA Bruins in the CBS Sports Classic.
The Cats have continued to improve with every game. Their last game against Virginia Tech proved that these young Cats can fight. UCLA is going in the exact opposite direction. They’ve dropped two of their last three, with one of those losses coming at home to 20th-ranked Cincinnati.
Ahead of this matchup, we gathered our staff for predictions on what takes place, and if the Cats can keep their momentum rolling.
Because both teams' schedules have been relatively unremarkable as far as strength (UK's is 149th at KenPom.com and UCLA's is 150th), I'll eschew a deep statistical dive for a look at how they've fared against top 40 KenPom teams, as well as how they're currently trending.
UCLA has been tested more than Kentucky, but has failed those tests: An 11-point loss to Creighton (#29) at a neutral site, a nine-point overtime loss to Michigan (#32) in Ann Arbor, and a 14-point loss to Cincinnati at home.
Their last three contests have been the latter two losses and a narrow victory over South Dakota (#86, by the way) at home. The Bruins needed a stellar double-double performance from off-on UK nemesis Thomas Welsh to pull out the victory.
UK, on the other hand, owns a four-point loss to Kansas (#6) at a neutral site and a decisive seven-point triumph over Virginia Tech (#36). Prior to the VT win, UK blew out 1 sub-.150 KenPom team (Monmouth) and snuck by another (Harvard), who shot 43% from distance on 28 shots during the game.
Also, I trust Coach Cal more than just about any other coach in the nation when it comes to neutral site contests.
If UCLA has a chance, it will come from their backcourt. Aaron Holiday (only a junior now, amazingly) is inconsistent, but dangerous when he gets hot, and five-star freshman Jaylen Hands will be a threat from the perimeter if left alone.
Also, the nation is still waiting for a breakout game from five-star frosh Kris Wilkes, who spent most of the summer and the first month of the college basketball season in first-round mocks for '18, but has dropped precipitously since.
My matchup to watch is Welsh vs. Nick Richards. This will be Richards' toughest defensive test to date. I expect his draft stock to be affected considerably by how he performs on both ends against Welsh.
Prediction: Kentucky 76, UCLA 69
The Cats should have no problem in this game against the Bruins. The guys have continued to grow and get better each time they step on the floor. I don’t expect this game to be too close.
This will be the first game of the year in which everyone looks at each other and realizes that this team is a legitimate championship contender. Kentucky has all the tools to garner this respect, but they haven’t displayed a complete game on both sides of the court thus far.
The player to watch out for in this game is Wenyen Gabriel. Even though he hasn’t had the type of offensive output that we all thought he would to his point in the season, Wenyen can score the ball effectively.
If this team is going to compete at the national level, they’re going to need Wenyen to have more offensive production. He has to be more aggressive on offense if he wants a bigger role with bigger minutes, and this is the game that he’ll prove that.
Last Saturday against Virginia Tech was the first time this season that I’ve thought to myself, “Wow this team can be really, really good.” Hami Diallo looked like a superstar, and Kevin Knox quietly poured in 21 points.
After watching that game, against a very good Virginia Tech team, I think Kentucky seems to be finding their footing. The defense still needs work, there’s no denying that, but the offense looked good, especially with the threes falling.
UCLA seems to be struggling so far this season, but that doesn’t mean this will be a walk in the park. They still have Jalen Hands, Aaron Holiday, and Thomas Welsh, all of who could lead UCLA over Kentucky.
With that being said, Cal likes beating UCLA and I have no doubt he’ll have them ready for the Bruins on Saturday. The only true question(s) that remain are: Can Kentucky play defense and can they keep their foot on the pedal and blow a good team out?
Prediction: Kentucky 79, UCLA 69
Saturday will see the Cats will have their next big test since Kansas when they face off with the UCLA Bruins in the CBS Sports Classic. The last time Kentucky played against UCLA in this classic was in the 2014-15 season, when Kentucky started the game on a 24-0 run and went into the half with a 41-7 lead, and they went on to win the game 83-44.
In matchups since that game, Kentucky went to UCLA in 15-16 and lost 87-77. Then, UCLA came to Rupp last year and beat Kentucky 97-92. Kentucky then beat UCLA in the Sweet 16 last season, 86-75.
This year, UCLA is entering the game 8-3 and not ranked in the top 25. However, this will be a good test to see where the Cats are at this point in the season and should be a close game throughout.
UCLA still has Thomas Welsh, who has been a problem for UK to deal with over the years. If Kentucky executes on offense and has a solid game defensively, I see no reason Kentucky shouldn’t win the game.
Prediction: Kentucky wins 87-79
Both match-ups between Kentucky and UCLA were highly anticipated last season, while this year's game in the CBS Sports Classic is barely a blip on the national radar. In part, this is due to the fact that UCLA lost it's star power in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. It's also important to note that LaVar Ball no longer has a son suiting up for the Bruins.
Kentucky is also flying under the radar a bit, compared to really any other Calipari team in Lexington. Although they were slow out of the gate, the Wildcats have looked strong as of late. Hamidou Diallo looks like a star, Kevin Knox has shown he can take over when needed, and Quade Green is filling a role that this team desperately needed.
UCLA is primarily relying on veterans Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. They sit at 8-3 with losses against Creighton, Michigan, and Cincinnati. They also have no notable victories, with the most recent win being a narrow escape of South Dakota on December 19th.
Given the trajectory of both teams, it seems like this game is set up for the Wildcats to re-establish themselves as a national power. The Bruins have been reeling while Kentucky has been surging, and the combination of those things could lead to a huge victory for the Wildcats on the national stage.
Prediction: Kentucky 74, UCLA 59.
While UCLA does have talent, they’ve struggled at times this season thanks to losing three freshmen due to a scandal over seas.
That being said, they still have the ability to beat a young Kentucky team on a neutral site in New Orleans. Thomas Welsh is still a Bruin and he has the ability to really hurt the Cats down low. Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya Jones will have their hands full.
Kentucky has the overall better team and the better coach, so I expect a victory on Saturday.
This game is intriguing to me for a few reasons. UCLA has provided a strong challenge for the different versions of the 'Cats in the last few years, beating them last year at Rupp before De'Aaron Fox became Lonzo Ball's real father in March.
This matchup definitely favors Kentucky. They're coming off a fantastic win at home against a Virginia Tech team that's going to compete for an ACC title this season and looked so great offensively ... plus a whole week off to practice. If that's the version of the 'Cats we all see in New Orleans, this one shouldn't be too much of a problem for Big Blue.
The tricky matter in this is that UCLA still has some solid pieces in Aaron Holiday, Kentucky killer Thomas Welsh and his baseline jumpers and Kris Wilkes.
Still, from what I've seen from the Bruins defensively this season, I don't think they'll be able to keep the 'Cats off the window and stay in front of them for a full 40 minutes.
Kentucky should win this one with some sense of comfort even with the sense of a "trap game" knowing who is next on their schedule.
Prediction: Kentucky beats UCLA, 81-68.