Position Preview for UK/UCLA rematch in the Sweet 16

Position Preview for UK/UCLA rematch in the Sweet 16

Anthony Crawford

The story of the game in March is to survive and advance, and UK men’s basketball did just that this past weekend in Indianapolis. The Cats now move on, following wins over Northern Kentucky and Wichita State, to face UCLA in the Sweet 16 Friday night.

This game will be a rematch of the regular season matchup between the two blue-blood programs, in which UCLA left Rupp Arena victorious in the 97-92 result.

Since that game, UK had a tough stretch in the middle of conference play, but has bounced back to become one of the hottest teams in the country, currently riding a 13-game winning streak. UCLA continued to trend upward offensively following the win in Lexington and have since become one of the top teams in the country on that end. The Bruins lead the nation in scoring (90.4 points) and assists (21.5) per game and rode that great offense to a top-3 finish in the PAC-12 and more recently a win over Cincinnati in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s how the two teams matchup:

De’Aaron Fox v. Lonzo Ball

The matchup between these two guards, which highlighted the first meeting between these teams, will likely dictate the outcome of the game the second time around as well. Both are considered top-10 prospects and are big focal points for both teams on offense.

In the first matchup, Fox won the battle but lost the war, with his team ultimately taking the loss at home. Fox contributed 20 points and nine assists, while only turning over the ball twice. Fox missed some games in the middle of the conference slate but has been in great form during the postseason, especially with his outside shot falling a lot more recently.

Lonzo Ball may have been outplayed, but he was able to make key plays down the stretch that led to UCLA getting the win. Fox bothered him a lot defensively, as noted by his six turnovers, but he still had a nice all-around game with 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Ball only got better as the season progressed and will be coming off a 18-point, nine-assist outing against Cincinnati, in which he went 4-for-7 from three.

Malik Monk v. Bryce Alford

For UCLA, senior Bryce Alford has adjusted nicely to playing off the ball after handling point guard responsibilities in year’s past. His scoring is down from last season, but both his three-point percentage and field goal percentage have improved greatly. Because of his size and defensive limitation, he might not draw Malik Monk as a defensive assignment, but if he does he will have his hands full.

Monk has been in a slump lately but that also adds to the idea that he’s due for a big scoring output. Against Wichita State he was able to knock down a couple shots from deep, which UK likes to see. So this might be the game he finally goes off for the first time this post-season.

Isaiah Briscoe v. Isaac Hamilton

With so much focus on Ball and the rest of the Bruins’ offense, Isaac Hamilton can sometimes be lost in the fold. His role can shift to whatever the team really needs of him. He can score more, like in the first matchup against UK, where he led UCLA in scoring with 19 points, or he can do the little things like contributing four rebounds and three assists to go along with 10 points against Cincinnati.

Isaiah Briscoe has already established his ‘glue guy’ role for UK, and he could have an impact in the upcoming game in a variety of ways. With the pace of the game likely being one of the faster ones UK plays, look for Briscoe to be key in pulling downs rebounds and leading the break for UK.

Derek Willis v. TJ Leaf

A lot of credit for UCLA’s offense rightly goes to Ball, but his fellow freshman TJ Leaf has been just as big for the high-scoring Bruins. Leaf’s ability to stretch the floor as a big man sets him apart. He is the Bruins leading scorer (16.2 points per game) and has already torched UK once this year, putting up 17 points and 13 rebounds in the game in early December.

Derek Willis plays the same role for UK on offense, just not to the same volume. Willis has, however, become a big part of UK’s defense thanks to his shot blocking. In UK’s seven games since senior night against Vanderbilt, he has had five multiple-block games.

Bam Adebayo v. Thomas Welsh

On paper, Thomas Welsh’s stats don’t stand out much. He leads the team in rebounding (8.7 rebounds per game) and is the last of six Bruins to average double-digit scoring (10.8 points per game). But Welsh is a guy to watch in the matchup because of how great he’s played against UK these last two years. He is averaging 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, while shooting over 70 percent from the field in the two wins over UK.

Bam Adebayo is finally starting to come into his own, though. After being challenged verbally by some Wichita State player prior to the game, he showed up big-time for UK with 13 points, 10 rebounds and one clutch block to seal the victory for UK.