Thursday, May 23

NCAA Tournament predictions: UCLA vs. Kentucky

T.J. Leaf was a big part of UCLA's December win over Kentucky with Wildcats coach John Calipari saying the freshman forward dominated the game. Now Leaf and the Bruins will have a rematch against the Wildcats for a spot in the Elite Eight.

T.J. Leaf was a big part of UCLA's December win over Kentucky with Wildcats coach John Calipari saying the freshman forward dominated the game. Now Leaf and the Bruins will have a rematch against the Wildcats for a spot in the Elite Eight.

UCLA men’s basketball will take on its rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, on Friday night with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.

The teams met back in December with that game going to the Bruins, but there’s more on the line this time. One will move on in the NCAA Tournament to face the winner of the North Carolina–Butler game, the other will go home.

Here’s how the Daily Bruin beat writers – Derrek Li, Matt Cummings and TuAnh Dam – think the Bruins will fare this weekend.

UCLA win
Matt Cummings, Daily Bruin senior staff

In Lonzo Ball, UCLA has the best player in this game, and that means something, especially in a matchup that caters so heavily to Ball’s up-tempo style of play.

Kentucky doesn’t play quite as fast as it did in December, but the Wildcats still want to run. Combine that with UCLA’s hyper-paced offense, and you’re looking at a game that very well might feature 80-plus possessions on each end of the floor.

Give that many opportunities to a team with as many capable scorers as the Bruins, and at least a few guys are bound to find a rhythm.

If one of those guys is Bryce Alford, look out. He can blow a game wide open in the span of a couple minutes. A big performance from him would make UCLA very tough to beat.

But even if Alford doesn’t get it going, the Bruins have the pieces to put up 80 or 90 points anyway.

Kentucky will be hard-pressed to do that without a strong showing from Malik Monk, who’s struggled lately, shooting just 37.5 percent during the Wildcats’ 13-game win streak.

Could Monk get hot and carry the Wildcats to a win with a performance like his 47-point outing in December against North Carolina?

Sure, but it’s safer to bet on the Bruins’ more well-rounded attack. They’ve simply got more options, not to mention the fact that the man running the show is perhaps the nation’s best player.

I’ll take Ball and the Bruins to pull out the win in a high-scoring affair.

UCLA win
TuAnh Dam, Sports editor

If I passed my finals – fingers crossed – UCLA should be able to win their third straight over Kentucky.

In all seriousness, the Bruins haven’t put together a complete game in the postseason thus far, not at the Pac-12 tournament nor in their first two games in the NCAA tournament.

But it’s the Sweet 16 now, and with more on the line, no one steps it up like Lonzo Ball. He turned on the jets in their Round of 32 win over Cincinnati and doesn’t look like he’s ready to stop anytime soon.

With him powering the offense, expect other players like Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf to get those shots they’re looking for.

Kentucky will be ready for revenge – the team doesn’t lose often and three times in a row seems like asking a lot from a UCLA squad. But the Bruins have arguably the best player in the country running their offense and that should be enough to keep them dancing.

UCLA win
Derrek Li, Daily Bruin senior staff

This is going to be a race to 90 or even 100 points, isn’t it? If that’s the case, it’s hard to see Kentucky outpacing UCLA.

The Bruin offense jolted awake in the second half against Cincinnati last round. As long as that surge carries over, there is no team in the country that can keep up with the pace, ball movement, speed and explosiveness for a full 40 minutes.

Lonzo Ball is the best player still standing and running in the tournament, and it’s hard to bet against his complete control on the offensive end. We’re probably going to be treated to another signature Lonzo Ball step-back 3 from Steph Curry range that sparks a UCLA run. Before that, he’ll do his best to get his teammates going offensively.

Both Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf showed signs of explosiveness in the last 20 minutes less than a week ago. It’s a welcome sight especially for Alford, who’s been struggling to shoot himself out a slump that’s been plaguing his game since the end of the Pac-12 conference season.

If the Wildcats’ game plan is to hunker down, drag it out and dirty it up, then the Bruins might be staring down at their third Sweet 16 exit in four. UCLA hasn’t been able to prove all season that it can consistently stay engaged and active on defense.

But in a battle between the No. 1 and No. 9 highest scoring teams – UCLA at 90.2 and Kentucky at 85.2 points per game – in the nation, both teams will probably be trying to play to their strengths. And that plays perfectly into UCLA’s hands, a willing dance partner to trade shots with all game.

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