There’s no reason that South Region No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky should be playing before the Elite Eight of this year’s NCAA Tournament. They are both too good, and UCLA was clearly seeded wrong. Consider that in the most recent USA Today Coaches Poll, the Wildcats were ranked fifth and the Bruins sixth. The two schools have combined for just nine losses this season, or as many as preseason national championship favourite Duke – which was ousted in the Round of 32. However, UCLA and Kentucky do square off in the Sweet 16 on Friday in the most anticipated game of that round.
UCLA Bruins vs. Kentucky Wildcats Spread: UCLA -1 Total: 168.5 Date: Friday, March 24, 9:40 p.m. ET Location: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.
The Bruins (31-4) could be gutted following their next loss, and we don’t just mean emotionally. That’s because head coach Steve Alford is rumoured to be the top choice to replace the fired Tom Crean as Indiana’s head coach. Why would anyone leave one of the best jobs in the nation in sunny Los Angeles for Bloomington, Indiana? Alford is a Hoosier through-and-through, born in the state and a former All-American guard at Indiana, leading the school to the 1987 national championship. Alford has been asked about the opening multiple times during this tournament and hasn’t refuted reports that he has already been offered a huge contract for the job. Keep in mind that Alford was on the hot seat at UCLA entering this season after the Bruins missed the 2016 NCAA Tournament. This might be his only shot at the Indiana job.
Friday also could be the final game for at least three of UCLA’s best players: guards Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford and forward T.J. Leaf. Ball, a freshman, is one of the most talented college point guards in years and is close to breaking Jason Kidd’s Pac-12 season record for assists. Ball is averaging 14.7 points, a national-best 7.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds and is a finalist for the Naismith Trophy as the top player in college basketball. Ball is a lock to declare for the NBA Draft because he will be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick. Leaf, also a freshman, leads the team in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg) and could be a lottery pick this summer and thus also likely to declare. Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, is one of the best three-point shooters in school history and is a senior.
If you like offence, UCLA is the most entertaining team in the country to watch with Ball leading the way. The Bruins are No. 1 nationally in points (90.2 ppg) and assists (21.6 apg) while shooting a remarkable 52.1 percent from the field as a team. Their only losses were to fellow Pac-12 and NCAA Tournament teams Oregon, Arizona (twice) and USC. The Ducks and Wildcats are still standing. No Pac-12 team has made a Final Four since UCLA in 2008.
UCLA has beaten No. 14 Kent State and No. 6 Cincinnati by 17 and 12, respectively, in the Big Dance. No school has won more than UCLA’s 11 national championships. The Bruins are +900 at Sports Interaction for a dozen.
Coach John Calipari isn’t expected to be leaving Lexington anytime soon, but UK teams always change dramatically year-to-year because he lands so many highly-touted freshman, and they are one-and-done in college basketball. That will be the case again in 2017 as this could be the last game at Kentucky for the likes of guard Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox as well as forward Bam Adebayo. The freshmen will all be 2017 first-round picks assuming they declare. Monk is the team’s leading scorer at 20.0 ppg and was named the SEC Player of the Year. Fox averages 16.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds while playing stellar defence, and Adebayo puts up 13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per night.
While UCLA didn’t win the Pac-12 regular-season or tournament title, the Cats (31-5) took both in the SEC. That conference was widely maligned entering the Big Dance but still has three teams standing with Florida and South Carolina joining the Wildcats in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky hasn’t dominated in the Big Dance, beating No. 15 Northern Kentucky just 79-70 and then No. 10 Wichita State 65-62. If you go by opponents’ seeding, no school has had an easier road to the Sweet 16. However, Wichita State is much better than a 10th seed. That marked only the second time in NCAA Tournament history that two 30-win teams played in the first weekend. Monk and Adebayo both blocked key shots in the final seconds against the Shockers to advance.
UK and UCLA both have made 17 Final Fours, tied for second-most to North Carolina (19). The top-seeded Tar Heels likely will be waiting on Sunday for a trip to the national semifinals as UNC is a 7.5-point favourite over No. 4 Xavier in the South Region’s early game in Memphis on Friday. Kentucky is second to UCLA with eight national titles and is +1000 for No. 9.
UCLA vs. Kentucky Predictions
These blue-blood programs played on Dec. 3 in Lexington when UCLA was No. 11 and Kentucky No. 1 in the polls. The Bruins prevailed 97-92 in ending UK’s 42-game home winning streak. Ball had 14 points and seven assists, and Leaf 17 points and 13 rebounds as UCLA shot 53 percent from the field. Monk had 24 points and Fox 20 for Kentucky, which shot 41.2 percent and missed nine of 27 free throws.
Kentucky will have a sizable fan advantage in Memphis, but the Bruins are the better overall team. Give that point and go over the total. UCLA faces North Carolina in the Elite Eight in another spectacular matchup.