UCLA announced its return to prominence early last season with a shocking win at then-undefeated Kentucky, only to watch its most successful campaign in nearly 10 years ended by the Wildcats four months later. Only four players who saw action in either game remain from last year’s entertaining battles between the college basketball bluebloods, who will face either other for the fifth time in four seasons Saturday at the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans.
Led by future first-round NBA Draft picks Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, the Bruins served notice they were a force to be reckoned with early last December when they ended the Wildcats’ 42-game winning streak at Rupp Arena en route to a 13-0 start. Kentucky got the last laugh in the Sweet 16, however, as De’Aaron Fox - one of Kentucky’s three first-round selections last season - set an NCAA Tournament single-game scoring record for a freshman with 39 points in an 86-75 victory. Both teams have struggled to realize last year’s early dominance, although the sixth-ranked Wildcats passed their first major test since a Nov. 14 loss to Kansas with a 93-86 win over Virginia Tech last Saturday. UCLA is already two losses shy of matching last year’s 31-5 team and enters this weekend coming off a shaky 85-82 victory over South Dakota on Tuesday after nearly blowing a 24-point lead with just over five minutes remaining.
TV: 4 p.m. ET, CBS
ABOUT KENTUCKY (9-1): After averaging 11.8 points on 40.9-percent shooting over the first six games of his career, SEC Freshman of the Week Hamidou Diallo (15.2 points) has caught fire over his last four, scoring 20.3 points per game while converting 53.6 percent of his field-goal attempts. Fellow rookie Kevin Knox (15.8) rebounded nicely from his worst offensive effort of the season in a Dec. 9 win over Monmouth (four points on 1-of-9 from the field) to finish with 21 points, and he has posted three of his four 20-point performances over the last four contests. Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10 points per game) paces the team in assists (4.1) while also leading the SEC in steals (2.3), recording at least one theft in every contest.
ABOUT UCLA (8-3): Junior guard Aaron Holiday (team-high marks of 17.4 points, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals) and senior center Thomas Welsh (13.2 points, 10.6 rebounds) - two of the three Bruins to play versus the Wildcats last year - are also two of five UCLA players averaging at least 10 points. Holiday has scored at least 14 points in each of his last eight outings and is 37 points away from becoming the 13th Bruin to amass 1,000 points and 300 assists in his career. Welsh, who has already compiled seven double-doubles and pulled down at least eight boards in every game, is 24 points and six rebounds shy of becoming the 12th UCLA player with 1,000 points and 800 boards in his career.
1. Kentucky is averaging 91.6 points over its last five contests after scoring 71 points per game over its first five.
2. Holiday and Welsh are vying to become the 55th and 56th Bruins to reach the 1,000-point plateau.
3. The Wildcats, who buried a season-high 11 triples against the Hokies, rank 342nd in the nation in made 3-pointers (52) and 348th in attempts (140).
PREDICTION: Kentucky 89, UCLA 77