Still in need of a signature win, the UCLA Bruins now head to Chicago to face top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats in the CBS Sports Classic. Remember when No. 1 Kentucky was knocked off by a then-unranked and resurgent Indiana squad in 2011? Maybe the Bruins will find what they’re looking for Saturday when the clock hits zeroes.
OK, so maybe UCLA, who briefly flirted with the rankings this season already, isn’t exactly in the same position the Hoosiers were a few years ago. And this Kentucky team could be one of the most talented the school has ever had before. UCLA has a tough order ahead of them.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s UCLA-Kentucky matchup.
1. The Platoon
John Calipari has quite the problem on his hands. The Kentucky head coach has too much talent. So much so that he’s had to scheme like a baseball manager and implement a platoon system in order to effectively utilize all of the exceptional talents that litter the roster.
"They can wear you down and try to wear you out, and they’ve done a very good job with that," UCLA head coach Steve Alford told reporters on a pre-event conference call. "I think that’s where hopefully our inexperience starts to get a little bit better as we’re 11 games into this thing."
It’s effective, too. The Wildcats are blowing away opponents in every statistical category except one. Kentucky is shooting a very Calipari-esque .663 percent from the free throw line while their opponents are shooting .675. But that doesn’t mean much considering Kentucky’s opponents are getting to line only about half as much as the Wildcats are.
"Well, we’ve never done this before, and again, I didn’t do it to try to be a genius. I did it because we had 10 players and you could not sub 10 players in and out liberally," Calipari said. "You would worry about subbing versus worrying about the game. So that’s why we platooned."
A 10-player rotation would be a luxury for UCLA. Head coach Steve Alford has played only seven players in all 11 games. Not deep enough to press defensively and lacking in true scorers offensively, the Bruins need to play textbook basketball if they want to succeed against the Wildcats.
"They’re the best rebounding team, I think hands down in our country," Alford said. "It’s not just about trying to guard them, you’ve got to finish the possession. That’s what makes it so hard. We’ve got to be awfully good defensively, and we’ve got to be very efficient offensively to give us a chance in those last five minutes to try to win a game."
2. The Bigs
Regardless of how you play the matchups, the Bruins’ front court have tough assignments ahead of them.
There’s freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, a 6-11, 250-pound specimen who’s projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft. There’s 7-footer Willie Caulie-Stein, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, and another 7-footer without a hyphenated name in Dakari Johnson, Kentucky’s most efficient scoring big man.
Kevon Looney and his seven double-doubles is one of the most exciting big men on the west coast right now and there’s no question that the freshman is going to need an eighth.
"Kevon has had a very, very special start to a collegiate career," Alford said. "He’s just been extremely consistent. Usually don’t see that in a lot of freshmen. You’ll see big games here or there, but the consistency part of Kevon has been what’s been very good to see."
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3. The old highlight reels
When two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport square off, you’re going to get grainy footage of Adolph Rupp and John Wooden. The CBS Sports Classic was created to showcase these storied programs and while the Bruins will only face Kentucky, Ohio State and North Carolina are also featured in the event.
That’s a whole lot of banners between those four teams.
"You’re talking more national titles than any four schools in the country, in this building," Calipari said. "You’re talking about storied programs with great histories that are always a player or two away with a chance to win the national title, all the programs."
Nostalgia and history are part of the appeal of tournaments like this, but are the Bruins really in the same class as those three right now? UCLA is still very much a work in progress under Alford, who has only had one full recruiting class and lost most of his top talent from last season to the NBA.
This game will be a measure of how far the program has to go to get back to the levels of the Kentuckys of the world.
Televised: UCLA's game versus No. 1 Kentucky will air nationally on CBS this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (PT). pic.twitter.com/jgJcKlPf6O