|UCLA's Lonzo Ball, right, looks for a teammate while guarded by Kentucky's Malik Monk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp, file)|
3-22-2017 | CLAY FOWLER | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin-THE L.A. DAILY NEWS | ARTICLE LINK
Familiar NCAA Tournament opponents are uncommon by design.
Conference foes are strategically disbursed to all corners of the country. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of mid-majors and the chances for a rematch with any team on the regular season schedule are slim.
UCLA and Kentucky are apparently the exception.
The two blue blood programs who have faced each other in nonconference play the past three seasons landed in the same regional semifinal on Friday. It is the only Sweet 16 matchup in the NCAA Tournament that pits two teams who already faced each other this season.
The Bruins snapped Kentucky’s 42-game winning streak in Rupp Arena with a 97-92 victory Dec. 3 that put the rest of college basketball on notice. UCLA’s signature win this season was powerful enough to vault it into the national championship conversation nine games removed from a sub-.500 season.
Three months later, the Final Four isn’t just a talking point. It’s a fast-approaching destination.
UCLA and Kentucky being familiar with each other can be spun a number of ways. UCLA not only won Dec. 3, but did so in Lexington. Of course, a spurned Kentucky team won’t just be dangerous because it’s difficult to beat a team twice in one season. The Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country.
The big question is, how much will the Dec. 3 result affect Friday’s rematch?
“To be honest, I don’t think the first game really means anything now,” UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball said. “Both teams were young. I think they got better. I think we got better.”
Kentucky was the lone spike in a nonconference schedule for UCLA that didn’t pan out otherwise. Not until a late-season run by Michigan gave them another opponent outside the top-heavy Pac-12 that moved the needle on the Bruins’ NCAA Tournament resume.
Historically quality programs Texas A&M and Ohio State struggled to meet their standards this season after falling to UCLA, finishing 10th and 11th, respectively, in the SEC and Big Ten. The Bruins missed the chance to face NCAA Tournament qualifier Dayton in November’s Wooden Legacy, instead drawing a Nebraska team that won just six games in the Big Ten.
Kentucky, however, did just fine for itself. UCLA may have knocked the Wildcats from their perch at No. 1 in the country, but Kentucky went on to finish the regular season 29-5 and win the SEC by two games.
Considering the number of freshman on both the UCLA and Kentucky rosters, it’s believable that each is a considerably different team after running the gauntlet in conferences that landed a combined six teams in the Sweet 16.
“Both of us have been through the grind of an 18- to 20-game conference season and that’s where you really learn a lot about yourself because you’re so scouted,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “You get to play teams twice...and there’s all sorts of scout tapes out there. You’ve just seen them evolve as an offensive-defensive team and they’re much better than they were in December.”
Ball and classmate TJ Leaf have been impressive wire-to-wire this season with a few exceptions, but they are certainly more polished than they were in November.
The UCLA duo may join Kentucky’s freshman trio of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Edrice Adabayo in the NBA draft lottery in a few months.
The abundant youth on both sides may look a little more seasoned now than three months ago, but one thing unchanged since December is the preferred pace of both teams. By all accounts, the tempo on Friday will be quick for two of the nine highest-scoring teams in the country.
“I think this is a game that’s going to be very similar, at least pace-wise. Alford said. “They’re really, really good in transition and I think we’re at our best in transition.”
Of course, Alford allowed that the NCAA Tournament can slow even the fastest of breaks, much like the style in the NBA playoffs can grind the game to a halt.
In other words, the UCLA coach left the door open for Friday’s game to look nothing like the Bruins’ meeting with Kentucky earlier this season.
There is at least one prospective similarity of great concern to UCLA. The result.
“The stakes are a lot higher,” Leaf said. “It’s going to be a completely different game than the first one.”