UCLA vs Kentucky (in New Orleans)

While the names on the jerseys may be different, the spirit of UK is still the same — length and athleticism 1-5, which generally makes it difficult to find good looks from the perimeter and at the rim. That means the middle of the floor is where you beat the Wildcats, and that’s precisely what UCLA did last year at Rupp with one of the most efficient two-point jump shooting teams of all time, hitting 46 percent of those opportunities, per hoop-math.com. This year, with TJ Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, and of course Lonzo Ball all gone, the Bruins are down to 40 percent shooting on two-point jump shots, although lethal mid-range specialist Thomas Welsh remains, and could prove to be a challenge for Nick Richards outside of the paint.

Offensively, UCLA is far less of a “space and pace” offense, and actually closer to a typical Kentucky dribble-drive offense with Aaron Holiday, Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, and Kris Wilkes looking to attack the rim in transition as the primary source of points. Last year the Bruins were 342nd nationally in free throw attempt rate and 6th in assist rate. Those numbers have flip-flopped this year, with the Bruins sitting at 70th nationally in free-throw attempt rate and 165th in assist rate. Obviously losing a generational point guard will totally restructure your offense, but this iteration of Steve Alford’s Bruins is far less equipped to take advantage of the few soft spots in Kentucky’s defense.

Speaking of the UK defense, they’re actually completely restructured as well, as Coach Cal has shown more 3-2 zone early this year when his young athletes were struggling to guard in man to man, and thus UK’s 3PT attempt rate sits at 43 percent (300th nationally), which would be by far the highest volume of 3-point shots a Coach Cal defense has ever allowed. With UK’s athleticism, the zone hasn’t had much of an impact on their always outstanding block rate, but it has dramatically lowered UK’s foul rate, which is I mentioned earlier, is a key to containing this year’s Bruin squad. Virginia Tech’s penetrate and kick offense did post 1.13 points per possession in the Hokies’ loss at Rupp, which means there is hope of the UCLA offense via Holiday penetration and kick outs to Hands and Ali. That said, the most inefficient aspect of UK’s defense has been in the post, and Welsh has been scoring at 1.02 points per possession on post-ups this year, per Synergy.

Offensively, Kentucky should be able to do what they want. Cal has shown more two-point-guard lineups with Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, which has made the Wildcats more efficient in the halfcourt, which was an early-season concern for this team. The general consensus is that you zone UK, but the Wildcats have actually been more efficient vs zone than man to man this year (albeit in a much smaller sample size), which would prove problematic for UCLA’s own 3-2, and it would weaken the Bruins’ ability to keep UK off the offensive glass — always a major concern. UK’s primary scorers, Kevin Knox and Hamadou Diallo, are trending up after a rough start to their UK careers. Diallo has strung together several efficient offense games, while Knox rebounded against Virginia Tech after his worst game of the year vs Monmouth. That leaves Alford with quite the conundrum defensively. In man defense, he likes to hedge with his bigs on ball screens, but both Welsh and Wilkes have been extremely slow to recover, a recipe for disaster against UK. In the 3-2, he likes to gamble for steals up top, but as I mentioned earlier, playing Green and Gilgeous-Alexander together has reduced the UK turnover rate.

Bullet Points:

  • Injuries to Bryce Aiken and Robert Baker sound minor, and they very well could be back for Harvard against George Washington, but the Crimson posted their best offensive game of the year vs Boston U without Aiken dominating the ball, scoring at 1.13 points per possession. It’s probably more telling of BU’s zone defense and the fact that the Crimson actually hit some jump shots. George Washington’s Yuta Watanabe is a matchup nightmare for Harvard, and you know Patrick Steeves would love to have a big game against his old team after leaving with an injury last year against the Crimson. Harvard’s a team that I have pegged for a “resurgence” of sorts, as the 3-point variance monster has worked against them on both ends to start the year. Those numbers are slowly, but surely, starting to level out.
  • Tennessee is perhaps the most “active” team in the country around the rim on both ends of the floor. The Vols aren’t overwhelmingly big in the frontcourt, but they run post offense at the 5th highest rate nationally (per Synergy), and they hold opponents to the 16th lowest FG percent at the rim nationally (per hoop-math.com). Wake Forest meanwhile runs PnR at the third highest rate nationally. There’s good news for both defenses though, as Wake has been excellent in post defense thanks to Doral Moore, while Tennessee grades out in the 95th percentile in PnR ball handler defense, per Synergy.
  • Chattanooga is a very poor defensively in PnR, and Georgia State runs D’Marcus Simonds off ball screens as their primary offense. The Mocs’ zone offense has been a plus though under Lamont Paris, and that’s essential against Ron Hunter’s extremely active 1-3-1. Turnovers, however, have been a huge issue for this UTC team, and that can be a death wish against the Panthers, and the Mocs are still likely shorthanded in the frontcourt with Josh Phillips doubtful. Phillips has been an under-the-radar addition since joining the Mocs’ basketball team after football season.
  • Cornell is arguably the worst PnR defense in the country (although that title likely lies with UNCW), and few teams in the country are as prolific or efficient in ball screen offense as Niagara, as Matt Scott is lethal off-side ball screens and Khalil Dukes is even more efficient from the top of the key. Can the Niagara defense successfully shut down Cornell’s Princeton motion? Probably not.
  • Evansville predictably got waxed at Cameron Indoor, and that will happen when you’re down your three best players. Leading scorer Ryan Taylor and PG Boo Gibson are game-time decisions today for the Aces’ MVC opener, while Illinois State is actually getting healthier with 7 foot rim protector David N’Diaye potentially returning today. The Redbirds completely shut down Evansville’s constantly screening motion offense three times last year, and Milik Yarbrough’s length on the perimeter figures to be a challenge for an unathletic Evansville defense.
  • Judging from Jim Les’ postgame comments, it sounds like Chima Moneke will suit up for UC Davis in Vegas tonight. The Aggies will face another full-court pressure team in Radford on no rest, and they’ve had their issues vs pressure all year, but TJ Shorts eventually calmed down and dominated Lamar in the second half. I’m not sure where Radford finds points in the halfcourt against an outstanding UCD defense.
  • Braggin’ Rights should be interesting, with two new coaches at the helm, and both significant upgrades over their predecessors. Illinois will deny everything on the perimeter and pressure ball handlers, as Brad Underwood wants to mask his weakness in the post against Missouri’s Jeremiah Tilmon. Interestingly, Mizzou has actually been ok vs ball pressure this year despite not having a true PG on the roster (well, except for Terrence Phillips, who has fallen out of favor apparently in the Cuonzo regime). Mizzou had quite the “tune-up” game for this one, as they faced Underwood’s protege Kyle Keller and SFA’s spread motion offense. The rub: Mizzou allowed 1.16 points per possession to the Jacks, and looked lost defensively for large stretches. I’m also still waiting on that Mizzou 3-point shooting regression.
  • A fantastic matchup with Princeton vs Akron in Diamond Head, but the loss of Amir Bell will be felt on the defensive end (Bell suffered a gruesome dislocated shoulder, and I would be shocked if he plays today). Per hooplens, Princeton allows 1.30 points per possession when Bell is off the floor. Any loss to the Princeton Big 3 is significant.
  • MTSU’s morphing zone defense hasn’t been as potent as the last few years, as the loss of Reggie Upshaw has proven too much on that end. That said, the Blue Raiders are an excellent PnR defense in man to man, while USC is atrocious. That could be the turning point of this game.
  • New Mexico State’s rim reliant offense likely runs into a lot of trouble against one of the country’s best PnR and rim protection defenses in Miami. The Canes completely annihilated a similarly constructed Hawaii offense last night, and Dewan Huell should have another big game in the post against a NMSU defense that allows nearly 1 ppp on post attempts. That said, I mentioned yesterday that Chris Jans is an excellent game planner, and he prepped Wichita State for Jim Larranaga’s schemes back in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
  • Hawaii runs a lot of flex motion with a lot of big to big passing, and that’s going to be successful against Davidson. As a Randy Bennett disciple, Eron Ganot’s Hawaii defenses are solely focused on disrupting perimeter ball movement, also key against Bob McKillop’s also potent motion offense.

Saturday’s Top Picks (YTD: 147-147-3): 

Harvard +4

Tennessee/Wake Forest under 147

Niagara/Cornell over 162

UC Davis -3

Illinois +4

Illinois State -2

Duquesne +4

Idaho State -1.5

MTSU +3

Princeton/Akron over 142

Hawaii +5.5

*all lines via 5Dimes at time of publication

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