Very few people saw UCLA becoming a thorn in the side of John Calipari after the Wildcats destroyed the Bruins 83-44 in 2014.
The Cats had a 41-7 lead at the half and outscored the Bruins 42-37 in the second half of that blowout. Since then, the Bruins have been a nightmare for the Wildcats.
The Bruins have knocked the Wildcats from the top spot twice and in the process snapped Kentucky's 42 game home winning streak. The Bruins have won all four halves of basketball and in the process have dominated the Wildcats at times. So while there is cause for concern in the Big Blue Nation, there also are reasons for hope.
One of those is that this is an extremely resilient Wildcat squad. We have heard John Calipari talk about the "will to win" of his teams in the past, but this team has lived that motto.
Twice this year, Kentucky has faced a team that has beaten them previously, and they played a lot better in the rematch. Kentucky lost to Tennessee 82-80 and destroyed them 83-58 in the rematch.
The Wildcats were blown out by Florida 86-66 and won the rematch 76-66. Granted, both of the losses were on the road and the rematches at Rupp Arena. Keep in mind that this game is on a neutral court and the Wildcats are undefeated on neutral courts. Will the Wildcats get their payback?
Let's meet the Bruins.
#2 G - ALONZO BALL (FR-6'6-190) 14.7 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.1 RPG
#20 G - BRYCE ALFORD (SR-6'3-185) 15.6 PPG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG
#10 G - ISAAC HAMILTON (SR-6'5-195) 14.0 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.8 RPG
#22 F - TJ LEAF (FR-6'10-225) 16.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.5 APG
#40 C - THOMAS WELSH (JR-7'0-245) 10.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.4 BPG
Freshman PG Lonzo Ball has been sensational all season and can do it all. Ball has an A/TO ratio above 3.0, and he hits 42.0% of his three-pointers and 55.6% overall. Ball is also very solid on the defensive end as he averages 1.9 steals a game and almost a block a game. He is very composed for a freshman and stays out of foul trouble. Ball had 14 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds at Rupp but shot just 2-8 from long range and had 6 turnovers. He has 12 assists against just 2 turnovers in the tournament.
Having Ball as a solid point has allowed Bryce Alford to move almost full time to the two guard spot and he has been one of the more consistent scorers over the last three seasons. Alford is hitting a career-best three-point shooting percentage of 43.3% and an overall high of 44.8%. Alford takes almost 75% of his shots from long range, and he has an A/TO ratio of 2.6. He had 14 points at Rupp, but Kentucky's defense bothered him and kept him off the boards and he had just one assist against three turnovers.
Isaac Hamilton has more talent around him this year, so his numbers as down a bit, but he is still a very dangerous scorer. He hits 35.5% of his three-pointers and 44.8% overall. Hamilton had a big game at Rupp with 19 points on 3-5 three-pointers. Hamilton can put this team on his back and carry them as he scored 42 points against USC and Arizona in the PAC-12 Tournament.
Freshman TJ Leaf has been fantastic this season, and he is one of the top big men in the nation. He hits 61.6% of his shots and knocks down the three-pointers very well for a big man at 45.6%. He is also a solid passer and is a banger on the boards, and he also adds 1.1 blocks a game. He had a big game at Rupp with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Thomas Welch has developed into a very nice big man and is always a double-double threat. He has a very nice mid-range jumper and hits 58.5% of his shots. He passes well and is solid defensively with 1.4 blocks a game. He can get into foul trouble as he fouled out in just 19 minutes at Rupp. He did his damage in that time, however, with 14 points and 8 rebounds on 5-7 shooting.
#3 G - AARON HOLIDAY (SO-6'1-185) 12.5 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.9 RPG
#13 F - IKE ANIGBOGU (FR-6'10-215) 4.9 PTS, 4.1 RPG, 1.3 BPG
#14 F - GYORGY GOLOMAN (JR-6'11-215) 5.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG
Aaron Holiday is probably one of the best sixth men in the country. Holiday hits 41.4% of his three-pointers and 48.5% overall. He plays starters minutes, however, and there is not a lot of dropoff when Holiday is on the floor. He had 13 points in 20 minutes in the earlier game at Rupp.
Ike Anigbogu is effective when he is in, but tends to get in foul trouble. He plays just 12.9 minutes a game but is effective and hits 57% of his shots. He had 6 points and 6 rebounds in 17 minutes against Kentucky but fouled out. Goloman only plays 11.6 minutes a game but is effective inside, hitting 57.8% of his shots and almost a block per game in that time. He was ineffective at Rupp Arena, playing just 6 minutes and did not score while picking up 2 fouls.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
In the first game at Rupp, the Bruins played one of the best games that an opposing team has played in Rupp in quite a while. They beat the Wildcats on the boards, but in the end, the Bruins hot shooting was the determining factor. The Bruins hit 53% of their shots and tallied 10 three-pointers in shooting 43.5% from long range. By contrast, Kentucky had a cold day, The Wildcats hit 41.2% of their shots and just 33% of their three-pointers.
Kentucky did a lot of things well in that game, however. They forced 18 turnovers by the Bruins and only turned the ball over 9 times themselves. Both teams are scoring machines. If Kentucky has a big advantage in this game, it will come from their defense and their bench.
In the Bruins 31 wins, they have hit 42% of their three-pointers. In their four losses, they have been held to 30.7%. This is an area that Kentucky has improved in dramatically since the first meeting. For the year, Kentucky is 11th in the country, allowing just 30.5% of opponents three-pointers and even stingier over the last 12 games, allowing 25.9%.
According to KenPom.com, Kentucky is #7 in adjusted defense and #13 in adjusted offense. The Bruins are #2 in adjusted offense and #77 in adjusted defense. You get the feeling that if Kentucky's offense plays to their potential, this is a game they should win and they should be able to do that against the Bruins defense.
As I said in my earlier preview of this game, De'Aaron Fix could be highly effective driving right at the Bruins big men and get them in foul trouble. The Bruins have one of the best six men rotations in the country, but they are vulnerable in foul trouble.
I know a lot of Kentucky fans are nervous about this game and rightfully so, but I actually feel pretty good about this team. When they first met, the game was a track meet with little defense by the Wildcats. Since that game. Kentucky has become more of a complete team and have relied on their defense to win games. This game will be another classic battle but look for Kentucky to try to dictate the tempo with their defense.
It will still be a track meet at times, but Kentucky will make enough big plays on defense to win 80-75.