(Note: This article was written before UCLA announced that forward Jalen Hill and Cody Riley would be suspended the rest of the season)
It isn’t an exaggeration to call Saturday’s game between Kentucky and UCLA “one of the marquee matchups of the college basketball season.” Take two of the most successful programs in college basketball history, two that have combined to win 19 national championships and produce roughly 11 billionty All-American’s, All-Conference performers and players of the year, and this one just feels big. Like seeing Notre Dame and USC get together in college football or the Dodgers and Cubs in baseball.
But the crazy thing is that in addition to all the ancient history between the two schools, there is also a lot of modern history too, in what is budding into a fun rivalry. In total, Saturday will mark the fifth time in four seasons the two schools have gotten together, with the teams splitting the previous four matchups. Last year was especially epic, with UCLA notching a shocking win at Rupp Arena, only to see Kentucky come back and knock the Bruins off in the tournament.
Still a lot has changed since last March’s matchup (including, two Balls coming and going from the UCLA program — yes, I realize the terrible double-meaning there but just roll with it) and Kentucky fans might not be totally caught up with the new Bruins. Thankfully that’s what I’m here for: I live on the West Coast and have seen UCLA a number of times in person this year. I’d venture to guess I know more about this program that just about any national media member out there.
So what do you need to know about these Bruins heading into Saturday’s matchup? Here are five things:
Their best player is point guard Aaron Holiday
Holiday is an interesting story, and ultimately a pretty cool one, if you’re simply a fan of college basketball and seeing good kids work hard and be rewarded.
Holiday is the youngest of three basketball playing brothers, with his two older brothers, Justin and Jrue Holiday both currently play in the NBA. To those of you thinking “Wow, I didn’t know that” as it turns out, not all parents with three basketball playing sons have parents who crave the spotlight. Not that I’m talking about any parent specifically, of course.
Anyway, speaking of unnamed players and parents, Holiday was also the guy who largely had to take a back seat last season with the arrival of Lonzo Ball at UCLA. After starting a bunch of games and averaging 31 minutes a game as a freshman, he actually saw his numbers dip last season to just 26 minutes per game, with Ball getting the brunt of the minutes at the point guard position. To Holiday’s credit he largely took the role in stride (both publicly, and as best I can tell privately as well) and instead provided a nice lift off the bench. Steve Alford liked to call Holiday his “sixth starter” as he averaged 12 points in a reserve role last season. There were games where he was actually the best player on the court.
Yet for the huge backseat he took last year, Holiday has stepped to the forefront in 2017-2018. He is averaging a team-high 17 points per game this season, and has also hit the biggest shot of the year for the Bruins, a near buzzer-beater to knock off Wisconsin in November.
And ultimately that’s again what makes Holiday’s story so cool. In a world where there is so much turmoil and turnover in college basketball — with players transferring the second they don’t start — it’s nice to see a kid be patient, adjust as the coaching staff needs him to, and ultimately be rewarded the way Holiday has been this year.
Big man Thomas Welsh is still at UCLA
Any Kentucky fan should know exactly who I’m talking about, since Welsh has basically killed the Wildcats in the last two regular season games the teams have played. Welsh was an absolute monster two seasons ago when the teams played at Pauley Pavilion, tallying 21 points and essentially single-handedly beating the Wildcats that night by hitting one pick-and-pop mid-range jumper after another. He followed that up with a similar performance last year at Rupp Arena where he tallied 14 points and eight boards. T.J. Leaf was the star that night. But Welsh had a hell of a performance in his own right.
Well this year Welsh is back for his final season on campus, and is having his best statistical year yet. As things stand, Welsh is averaging 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds per game, and has also extended that mid-range game to the three-point line. He is shooting 45 percent from the three-point arc, making 9 of 20 this season.
Outside of Welsh, suspensions have killed UCLA’s front court
Hey, remember that time three UCLA players got arrested for shoplifting in China? And remember when it became an international incident that eventually led to LaVar Ball throwing verbal jabs at the President on CNN? Remember that? Well, while it was obviously a huge issue off the court, on the court it has also had a major impact on the Bruins season — and not in the way you’d expect.
That’s because while all of the focus was on the middle Ball brother, LiAngelo, getting caught up in the mix, in actuality, Ball was the least important of the three suspended players. Even if Ball had never been suspended, he would have struggled to get on the court this season for the Bruins.
Ironically, it’s actually the other two suspended players — Cody Riley and Jalen Hill — whose absences have been felt much more severely. Both were Top 50 recruits and both were expected to provide some much needed size in the paint. Riley is a 6’8 bruiser (who is best known as Marvin Bagley’s teammate last year at Sierra Canyon High School) and was expected to start in the low block alongside Welsh. He would have brought the toughness and physicality that the team is lacking right now. Hill is a lanky 6’10 kid who would have provided some much needed shot blocking.
And honestly, the Bruins are lost without the two. With all due respect to Welsh (who is a solid player), he does his best work playing on the perimeter, and even on defense doesn’t have the quickness or athleticism to protect the rim. The other two big guys that UCLA regularly plays are GG Goloman and Alex Olesinski, a pair which would have barely seen the floor this year without the suspensions, but now are being forced into roles they weren’t expected to play. It’s especially tough for Olesinski, who actually sat out last season with an injury.
Point being, if there’s one place Kentucky can exploit the Bruins, it’s in the paint.
The rest of UCLA’s freshman class is loaded
It’s common knowledge that Kentucky and Duke finished with the top two recruiting classes in college basketball last year, but what few people realize is that the Bruins were right behind them. This was a loaded, eight-player class, although it has admittedly taken a bit of a dip without Hill and Riley in the lineup.
The two most notable names in the class (and the two players Kentucky fans should fear the most) are point guard Jaylen Hands and wing Kris Wilkes. Hands had the unfortunate distinction of coming in as a highly-rated point guard tasked to replace Lonzo Ball, an impossible request since, well, no one is Lonzo Ball (kind of like Brandon Knight having to be the guy to replace John Wall at Kentucky years ago). Still, even though he’s not Ball (who is?) Hands has had a nice start to the season, averaging 12 points and nearly three assists a game.
Wilkes is even more of an interesting backstory. He actually won Indiana Mr. Basketball last season, but ultimately chose the Bruins over Indiana (just another death knell for Tom Crean at Indiana) and for the most part has lived up to the hype this season. He’s averaging a respectable 11 points per game, but has had some of his best games in UCLA’s biggest games (including 18 in their opener against Georgia Tech).
This just isn’t the same Bruins’ team from last season:
It’s funny, whenever I watch these 2017-2018 UCLA Bruins, I can’t help but think back to their team last year. I was at their first exhibition game of the season, and it was incredible to see how effortlessly that team jelled since Day 1. Lonzo Ball got all the credit, but what people forget is that he walked into a near perfect team to highlight his unique skill-set. In addition to Lonzo, the Bruins had two of the best shooters in school history on the perimeter (Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford) and two big guys who could hit open jumpers (Welsh and T.J. Leaf). Ball set them up, and those guys knocked down shots every time.
(In a lot of ways, that 2017 UCLA team reminded me a lot of the 2010 Kentucky team that I wrote a book about. Everyone remembers John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins on that team, but so much of their success was because of the returning players like Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins).
But seeing UCLA open things up last season also set up the jarring reality when I saw the Bruins debut in their first exhibition this year: They looked like just another lost college team trying to figure things out. If the Bruins were a well-oiled machine from the beginning last year, they were very much a work in progress coming into 2017-2018, and that was only made worse by the suspensions of Hill and Riley. It’s also clear how far the Bruins have to go every time they take the court; they’ve lost to the three best teams they’ve played this season, Creighton, Michigan and Cincinnati.
Point being that while the front of their jerseys say “UCLA” the Bruins are far from the team that they put on the floor last year. They lost too much off last year’s club, and the suspensions have — in large part — depleted what’s left.
On a neutral court, in New Orleans, I actually expect the Wildcats to win Saturday pretty easily.
Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”