No. 7 Kentucky, UCLA meet in Sports Classic
Although CBS Sports Classic opponents Kentucky and UCLA are two of college basketball's most history-rich programs, even the most recent past has little bearing on their matchup Saturday at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
The No. 7 Wildcats (9-1) and Bruins (8-3) face for the third time in a little more than 12 months, but two very different teams take the floor than those that met last December in Lexington, Kentucky, or in March at the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA head coach Steve Alford was apt to note differences between this season's Bruins and last following another NCAA Tournament rematch, UCLA's 77-63 loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 16.
"You can't compare last year. Last year probably didn't get enough credit for how special that team was," Alford said. "They won 31 games. We had many more veterans on that group, who knew what they were doing and could play with poise. The fastest paced offense in the country and turned the ball over 11 times a game.
"This team's a lot younger," Alford added.
Gone are UCLA's 2016-17 stars Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Isaac Hamilton, as well as role player Ike Anigbogu. Coupled with the suspension of three freshmen before the season -- Jalen Hill, Cody Riley and the now-gone from the program LiAngelo Ball -- the Bruins are playing with a thin roster.
That has forced veteran guard Aaron Holiday to play an average of 36.7 minutes in the last three games.
Year-to-year roster turnover is nothing new for Kentucky under coach John Calipari. Gone from last season's team are key contributors Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox, who scored 39 points in the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament over UCLA.
In their place are four freshmen all averaging in double figures scoring: forward Kevin Knox (15.8 points), guard Hamidou Diallo (15.2), guard Quade Green (11) and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10).
Green is coming off a 17-point performance in Kentucky's 93-86 win over Virginia Tech on Dec. 16. He debuted a pair of reflective glasses after being poked in the eye earlier in the week.
"He's practiced the last couple of days with them on," Knox said in the postgame press conference. "He was knocking down shots, so I guess he can see with them on."
With new faces comes new strategy for Kentucky -- or, at least, new compared to recent seasons.
Calipari is known for an adjusted scheme based on personnel, and for the first time in almost a decade, his team is showing opponents more full-court pressure in an effort to pick up tempo.
"A zone normally is going to get a team to make eight, 10 passes," Calipari said in his press conference following the Virginia Tech win. "If you want to speed up a game, how do you do that and be disruptive? You either trap out of a zone or trap out of a man or press."
UCLA struggled with full-court pressure the last two times out. Cincinnati's press forced 15 first-half turnovers in a decisive stretch last week.
"When they started pressuring us, we just played fast-tempo, and we turned it over a couple of times from that," guard Kris Wilkes said following the Cincinnati loss.
UCLA needs to avoid a similarly rushed style of play against Kentucky, but was unsuccessful in its attempt to last time out.
On Dec. 19 against South Dakota, the Bruins nearly squandered a 24-point, second-half lead when the Coyotes forced three turnovers in 26 seconds playing a full-court press.
Updated December 23, 2017