No. 1 Kentucky hosts UCLA in unbeaten battle
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Keeneland race course is traditionally Lexington's home to fast thoroughbreds, but the historic landmark will have to take a back seat to Rupp Arena on Saturday for an anticipated epic battle between college basketball titans Kentucky and UCLA.
No. 1 Kentucky is 7-0 and averages 95.6 points per game. The Wildcats topped 100 points in each of their last three games.
No. 11 UCLA is 8-0 and averages 97 points. Coach Steve Alford's Bruins scored more than 100 points in three of their first four games and 98 and 99 on two other occasions.
"Steve has done a great job with this team. He's really playing to their strengths, is what he's doing," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday. "When you watch them play, they play to this team's strengths. They're not trying to do stuff this team can't do. Their bigs can really shoot 15 footers. Their bigs can shoot some 3s, so they play that way."
But for all the mind-boggling offensive statistics, this game could be determined by the defenses, and that is where Kentucky holds an advantage.
UK gives up 65 points per game and holds opponents to 37.6 percent shooting. The Wildcats also force 19 turnovers per game.
UCLA, by contrast, surrenders 73 points and opposing teams shoot 39 percent. The Bruins force 13.4 turnovers.
"I think this is a shot-maker's game and if either team is not making shots, you'll be in trouble," Calipari said. "I doubt both teams are not making shots. So you just hope it's them and not you. Both are good-shooting teams, both have players that are able to go on runs. Score different ways. It's about making baskets. If you're missing baskets, missing shots, missing -- hard to win a game like this."
One fascinating sidebar to this game will be the battle of freshman point guards.
UCLA's Lonzo Ball was the No. 1-rated point guard in the Class of 2016 by 247Sports.com and is heralded by some recruiting analysts as the best passer in a generation. In his last game, a 98-56 win over UC-Riverside, the 6-foot-6 Ball set the school record for freshmen with 13 assists.
Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox was the No. 2-rated point guard. In his last game, a 115-69 rout of Arizona State in the Bahamas, the 6-3 Fox recorded the school's first triple-double since 1988 with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Ball, from Chino, Calif., has passing skills that are drawing comparisons to another California product, Jason Kidd. He has 77 assists to just 18 turnovers.
Fox is beyond heralded, by his coach John Calipari as possibly faster than another former Wildcat, John Wall. His assist-to-turnover numbers are 53-19.
"Ball is really good," Calipari said. "Like, he's big. He sees the court. He's OK to take no shots -- he doesn't care -- or if he needs to score 25 he will. He's smart. You can see on the court -- he's like our guys -- he's got a nimble mind. He'll see something happening before it happens."
Those, of course, are not the only cast of characters who could play a role in determining the outcome of Saturday afternoon's game.
Freshman guard Malik Monk is Kentucky's leading scorer at 19.3 points per game. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe is next at 18.4, followed by Fox at 15.3. Freshman forward Bam Adebayo averages 11.1 points and a team-best 7.6 rebounds.
UCLA has six players averaging in double figures, topped by senior guard Isaac Hamilton at 18 points per game. Next comes freshman forward T.J. Leaf at 17.3, senior guard Bryce Alford, 15.5; Ball, 14.6; sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, 12.9; and junior center Thomas Welsh, who scores 10.8 and grabs a team-best 9.8 rebounds. Leaf checks in at 9.0 rebounds per game.
"This is a great game in early December for us," Calipari said. "They could bash us. They beat us last year. We never had a chance. They got the same team back with Ball. We lost everybody and have a brand new team. It'll be interesting."