Before the season started, you could’ve circled this the first game between these teams as one of the better games on the college basketball schedule, but getting this match up a second time is a treat for the college basketball world . Steve Alford and company have put together an extremely talented roster, and a terrific season leading to a 31-4 record overall.
The Bruins have one of the most talented starting fives in the country, led by freshman phenom Lonzo Ball. Stating it now: I will not feed into the attention craving father that Ball has, so let’s just focus on basketball. While Ball may impact the game in so many ways, UCLA has a second freshman that averages more in the stat sheet than Ball. TJ Leaf is the guy that causes such a match up problem for almost any team that the Bruins face, including Kentucky in the first game back in December.
This game is a match up of two elite talent level teams that have the ability to run and gun; however, Kentucky’s recent defensive improvement have lent to a slower style of play than the first time these two teams played. Here’s another look at the starting five for the Bruins.
#2 Lonzo Ball, Freshman Guard, 6’6″
As probably one of the toughest, if not the toughest player to guard in the country, Lonzo Ball has taken the college basketball world by storm throughout this season. It is very well known what Kentucky’s freshman have done this season, but out on the West Coast, they have a gem of their own.
Ball is already averaging 14.7 points, a best in the country 7.6 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game. He’s a solid defender, blocking just below one shot and getting 1.9 steals per game. I think even more impressive than those stats is the fact that he’s accumulating all of those assists while still shooting so well with a god awful stroke. Ball is 42% from three-point land and that’s only good for third best on the team.
At 6’6″, Lonzo Ball is a matchup nightmare. He is already drawing comparisons to Jason Kidd, except with a better jump shot, which is high praise for a guy who is just finishing his first collegiate season. John Calipari will put his highly touted freshman guard, De’Aaron Fox on Ball tonight. This matchup lived up to the hype in the first game, as Fox finished with 20 points and 9 assists, while helping to force Ball into 6 turnovers. However, Ball had a big game of his own, finishing with 14 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds.
#22 TJ Leaf, Freshman Forward, 6’10”
TJ Leaf has been overshadowed by Lonzo Ball for UCLA, but his numbers have been almost as impressive, if not more. The freshman forward was rated as the 13th best player in his class coming out of high school, and has lived up to his heralded ranking.
Leaf is first on the team in points and second in rebounds, putting up 16.2 and 8.2 per game. He’s also blocking 1.1 shots per game and dishing out 2.5 assists. We mentioned the three-point shooting of this team earlier, but here it is again, as Leaf has made 45.6% of his 3-point attempts this season, good for best on the team. On top of that, he’s shooting almost 69% from the field overall. Leaf finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists back in December.
Measuring at 6’10” and 225 pounds, Leaf will be one the biggest and most talented forwards that the Cats have faced this season, and he’s not even the biggest starter for UCLA. Despite what everyone else is thinking, the TJ Leaf – Derek Willis match up is not the one to look at tonight. The reason being, is that I am under the impression that Bam Adebayo will be guarding Leaf, not Willis. Bam is a better overall match up for Leaf, and it takes Willis away from guarding one of the best players in the country.
#10 Isaac Hamilton, Senior Guard, 6’5″
Isaac Hamilton is one of two extremely experienced starting guards for Steve Alford. Over the past two seasons, Hamilton has started all 68 games for the Bruins, plus starting all this season. He put up 15 points and 3 rebounds in UCLA’s 10-point victory over UK last season in Pauley Pavilion.
This year, Hamilton’s role on this team started out much more impactful than it is now. Through the first 8 games, he was leading the team with 18 points per game, to go along with 3.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and a 44.1% clip from downtown. As of now, Hamilton is averaging 14 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and is shooting 35.5% from three point land. Hamilton was the leading scorer against UK the first time, finishing with 19 points and 4 rebounds.
I think Isaac Hamilton will likely be guarded by Malik Monk, but may be guarded by Briscoe due to the higher defensive ability from Briscoe. Monk and Hamilton have similar games and body types to make for a very interesting matchup at the two-guard position. While the Cats do have to find out how to stop him from scoring in bunches, I’m more interested in seeing how he guards the UK backcourt. Last match up, Malik Monk scored a game high 24 points on 10/19 shooting. Monk has been struggling lately, but I’m seeing a break out game for the freshman from Lepanto, Arkansas.
#20 Bryce Alford, Senior Guard, 6’3″
Bryce Alford, son of head coach Steve Alford, has been lighting up defenses from downtown since his freshman year at UCLA. He has led the Bruins in three-point shooting for every year he’s been in college. Alford holds the UCLA record for most threes made in a season and is now second all-time in career three-pointers made for the Bruins.
Alford is scoring 15.6 points, finding teammates for 2.6 assists, and pulling down 2.5 rebounds per game this season. Despite being known as a dead-eye shooter, he’s one of four players for UCLA shooting over 40% from deep. Alford is shooting 43.3% from behind the arc this season, good for second on the team. For reference, Kentucky does not have one player shooting over 40% from deep.
The senior is UCLA’s smallest starter. He likes to move a lot off of the ball to come around screens for catch and shoot opportunities. He could be guarded by either Malik Monk or Isaiah Briscoe. I think Briscoe’s defensive abilities can run Alford off the 3-point line because the Cats definitely don’t want him to catch fire, but Monk’s speed may be best for chasing Alford all over the court.
#40 Thomas Welsh, Junior Center, 7’0″
Thomas Welsh, along with fellow starting big man TJ Leaf, will be a rough matchup for UK’s talented front line. Welsh ripped apart the Wildcats last season in the pick-and-pop, shooting 8-11 on mostly elbow jumpers for 21 points and pulled down 11 boards. Skal Labissiere, Alex Poythress, and Derek Willis struggled attempted to guard Welsh on the perimeter, and combined for 14 fouls, after Marcus Lee went down with an injury 4 minutes into the game.
Welsh is almost averaging a double-double this season, scoring 10.8 points and grabbing 8.7 rebounds, alongside his 1.4 blocked shots per game. I haven’t included Welsh in my 3-point shooting stats, as he’s only attempted one this season, but he did make that one attempt. Welsh has made 88.6% of the free throws he’s attempted this season.
The big man will be an interesting matchup for the Cats, as Bam Adebayo can handle him in the post, but Bam will be guarding TJ Leaf. Derek Willis matching up with Welsh is better for Kentucky in that Willis shouldn’t get exposed a ton, but if Welsh moves to the block, Willis will be undersized. The junior finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds in the first game, but was only able to play 19 minutes due to his inability to handle Bam on the other end of the floor and eventually fouling out.
No more explanation necessary. Let’s get to business.
Survive and Advance.
Go Cats. Beat Bruins.