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Wednesday, March 22, 2017
UCLA, Kentucky don't mind crowded backcourts
mar 21, 2017 Updated March 22, 2017 1:00 a.m. | clay fowler |o.c. register | ARTICLE LINK
LOS ANGELES – It sounded almost revolutionary when Steve Alford said it earlier this season.
None of the four guards in UCLA’s rotation have a defined position. Put another way, they can all play any position in the backcourt.
The versatility is one tool that speeds up the Bruins’ lethal transition game. It doesn’t matter who gets the rebound, even if it’s power forward TJ Leaf. Whoever has the ball is off and running.
“We don’t have to look for anybody,” UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said. “We just play.”
There is at least one other college basketball team that can say the same, and it happens to be UCLA’s opponent in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday.
Kentucky starts a three-guard lineup, two of whom average more than four assists. The third is Malik Monk, who might have played point guard during what figures to be his lone season at Kentucky if De’Aaron Fox wasn’t in his recruiting class.
Fox is to Kentucky what Lonzo Ball is to UCLA. The freshmen are two of the best point guards in the country.
Do they make their teammates look good or is it the other way around? That question is probably easier to answer now than it was when UCLA left Kentucky with a 97-92 win over the then-top-ranked Wildcats on Dec. 3.
Their guards might be capable of playing versatile roles, but both teams now know who their primary distributors are and how much they mean to their teams.
“I think Kentucky’s more about Fox engineering what they do and obviously as this season’s evolved we’ve really liked what ’Zo has been able to do engineering our team,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “And Aaron (Holiday) is somebody we’ve gotten off the ball a little more just because he’s shot the ball so well again this year.”
Holiday, a 6-foot-1 sophomore projects as a point guard at the next level, is shooting 49 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. Ball’s percentages are 56 and 42, respectively. The ability to score is there in spades.
But Ball is the country’s assist leader – he averaged 7.6 per game – and facilitates the highest-scoring offense in the country.
And Holiday has an 11-assist game to his credit in this NCAA Tournament.
Between them, Alford and the third guard in UCLA’s starting lineup, Isaac Hamilton, average more than five assists per game. Holiday averages 4.4 off the bench.
It all adds up to a nation-leading 21.6 assists per game, the highest mark in college basketball since UNLV’s 1991 team averaged 24.7 on its way to the Final Four.
“We don’t have set-in-stone positions,” Bryce Alford said. “That’s the freedom that the coaches give us and I think we’ve earned that with the way we’ve played offensively and just how unselfish we are.”
UCLA’s 90.2 points per game average leads the nation, but Kentucky’s 85.2 isn’t far behind (ninth).
Fox might not be the pure passer that Ball is, but healthy averages of 16.1 points and 4.6 assists suit Kentucky just fine.
Monk’s 20 points per game make him the fourth highest scorer in the country among power five conference players. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, a starter for the second consecutive season, pushes Kentucky’s offensive numbers to another level with 12.4 points and 4.1 assists per game.
To illustrate the depth of Kentucky’s backcourt, there are two other guards who play more than 10 minutes per game.
“Obviously it’s not going to be an easy cover for anybody,” Ball said of Kentucky’s arsenal of guards. “But why would you want to play an easy game in the Sweet 16.”