The Bruins are looking for their second win over the Wildcats this season
Nineteen national titles. A combined 35 Final Four appearances. Countless March Madness memories. UCLA and Kentucky are the two programs that reign over the rest of college basketball from a historical perspective and truly put the blue into blue bloods.
Luckily for all of us, they meet again.
While it might be a little earlier than many would have liked in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, this year’s Sweet 16 delightfully gives us a meeting of the two most successful programs in the country. This will be just the third time ever that the Wildcats and Bruins hook up on the sport’s grandest stage but the second time this season after the pair staged an absolute classic back in December.
With two of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, numerous freshmen phenoms, NBA lottery picks galore and two head coaches who have been there and done that in the tourney, we should be in for a real treat come tip-off of this one. It’s hard to dream up a better matchup than this one and, even beyond the historical implications, this one figures to be about as entertaining as a college basketball game can get and may make the winner the favorite to win it all the next weekend.
South Region: No. 3 UCLA Bruins (31-4) vs. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (31-5)
When: 9:39 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)
Line: UCLA -1
Keys for Kentucky
It’s so rare to have teams meet in the NCAA Tournament for a second time in the same season but it seems even rarer when it’s two programs of this stature. The Wildcats will no doubt be extra motivated from that first meeting considering it was one of the very few times under head coach John Calipari that the team faltered at home. While the team did play well in that loss, they didn’t control the game like we’re used to seeing and will next a bit extra from their star players.
That starts with Malik Monk, who has shown he’s one of the best players in all of college basketball but was not quite himself during the first two rounds of the Tournament. If Monk is shooting well, UK has more than a good chance to advance into the Elite Eight. If his shot isn’t falling, that puts even more pressure on De”Aaron Fox and will stress the defense even more to get stops. Having guys like Derek Wills and Wenyen Gabriel being more active on loose balls will help too as there’s a premium on every possession in a game like this.
Keys for UCLA
The Bruins wouldn’t mind following a similar blueprint to that first meeting and running up and down the court at will while knocking down big shots. Whether it’s Lonzo Ball or Bryce Alford, this is a squad loaded with shooters and they typically don’t miss if left open. That will mean ball movement is going to play a key role and it wouldn’t be that surprising to see TJ Leaf become the pivotal man on the block like he was back in December.
As always though, UCLA coming out with a win depends pretty much on just two things: defense and rebounding. Through the first two rounds, there were moments where the Bruins flipped the switch and tried hard on the defensive side, leading to some big runs on the other half of the court. There also were times where they looked disinterested and saw the game get closer than expected on the scoreboard. Grabbing boards plays a role in that as well and things might be a bit tougher on the glass this time around.
The first meeting between these two teams was one of the best games of the regular season. It’s probably not asking too much for a similar outcome on Friday night and these two are plenty capable of delivering too. Whether you’re a die-hard follower of either program, a casual fan, an NBA scout or just an interested outside observer, there’s a little something for everybody in a matchup like this.
The Wildcats remain one of the most talented teams left in the field and what they lack in experience, they more than make up for it when it comes to scoring in droves and locking down on defense. While there were some early struggles, Kentucky has managed to evolve into a cohesive unit that is playing as well as anybody in the country this March. They’ve won more than anybody coming into this game and it’s downright bizarre to see them as the slight underdog.
The big reason for that lies in the dynamic playmaker running the Bruins’ offense in Lonzo Ball. The young freshman is not only a good player because of his offense, but also his ability to elevate his teammates’ games is what truly makes him special. UCLA has been on another level when the Bruins have been interested on both ends of the floor and given the significance of this one, it should probably be expected that they’ll be up for this one throughout. With that in mind, the Bruins should sneak out of the Sweet 16 in a high-scoring thriller on Friday night.
Prediction: UCLA 91, Kentucky 88
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of UCLA Men's Basketball Facebook page)