Last Updated: 2017-03-20
Star power, talent, points, intrigue, and athleticism are just some of the selling points for Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup in the South Region in Memphis, Tennessee. The teams involved are a pretty good selling point as well. The UCLA Bruins make the long trek from Los Angeles to Memphis and the Kentucky Wildcats make the much shorter trip from Lexington to Memphis, so we’ll have to see if that travel or the fact that it is a much shorter voyage for the Lexington-based fan base will have any impact with the 9:39 p.m. ET tip-off, depending on what time North Carolina and Butler finish up. Interestingly, initial leans in the betting market look to be on UCLA, who is a one-point favorite.
UCLA was fortunate to play its first two games of the NCAA Tournament up in Sacramento. The Bruins beat Kent State by 17 but failed to cover and won by 12 over Cincinnati and covered easily. UCLA is now 31-4 straight up and 17-18 against the spread. Surprisingly, despite scoring over 90 points per game this season, the under is 18-16 in UCLA games. The Bruins haven’t played outside of the Pacific Time Zone since they played Kentucky at Rupp Arena on December 3 and won 97-92. The only other rematch in this tournament so far was USC’s one-point win over SMU.
One of Kentucky’s five losses came against UCLA. The Wildcats are 31-5 heading into this game with a 16-18 ATS record on the season. Like UCLA, despite scoring over 85 points per game, the under is 19-16 in UK games this season. Kentucky came nowhere close to covering against Northern Kentucky in the first round and pushed the consensus closing number against Wichita State in the second round. Depending on your numbers, Kentucky could very well be 1-4 against the spread over the last five games. UCLA is only 1-4 in its last five. The line movement on this game will be interesting. Kentucky is more of a household name over the last several years, but UCLA is arguably the best offensive team in the country and the public loves offense.
It is hard to fathom that a storied program like UCLA, with 11 national championships, hasn’t been to the Elite Eight since 2008. The Bruins only have three Sweet 16 appearances this decade and they’ve come in the last four NCAA Tournaments. That’s what makes this game so intriguing. Betting action is going to be pretty spread out between the sharp guys and the public guys, but Kentucky is the more trustworthy name given the successes that they have had recently. UCLA hasn’t been to the title game since 2006 and hasn’t won the NCAA Tournament since 1995. Steve Alford had a good record of success at New Mexico from 2007-13, but he never made the Sweet 16 with the Lobos. There are so many considerations in this game before we even take into account the fact that the X’s and O’s of this game are ultimately going to dictate what happens.
The Bruins have issues defensively. We know that. However, they make up for it on the offensive end. UCLA has six players that average double figures, led by TJ Leaf with 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 61.6 percent from the field. Bryce Alford has taken 261 three-pointers and has connected on 43.3 percent of them. He scores 15.6 points per game. Everybody knows about Lonzo Ball. He’s on the verge of breaking the Pac-12 record for assists in a season and needs just seven in a game projected to have nearly 170 points. Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday, and Thomas Welsh are the others filling up the stat sheet for UCLA. The Bruins shoot 52 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from three. Kentucky has a top-10 defense per the Ken Pomeroy metrics, but it will be tested here in a big way. Furthermore, playing in the SEC, Kentucky hasn’t seen an offense like this in months.
UCLA has been tested more recently by teams like Arizona and Oregon. While those teams aren’t carbon copies of Kentucky or anything, they have definitely seems teams with some athleticism and balance. Kentucky is one of four teams with a top-15 defense and a top-15 offense per the adjusted Ken Pomeroy metrics. The others are Gonzaga, Villanova, and Wichita State. As you know, only two are left standing and Kentucky knocked out one of them last game. Wichita State is a quality offensive team and the Shockers shot just 38.7 percent against Kentucky in the second round. The path for UCLA has been fairly easy in that they haven’t really played a team that could beat them. Kentucky played one that could and they survived. It will be a much different type of game on Friday, though. The Shockers wanted to make it physical and play inside. UCLA loves to be active on the perimeter. It will be a great chess match and John Calipari should have the upper hand.
Kentucky can also fill it up offensively, but they don’t rely on long jumpers like UCLA. Malik Monk can make those long jumpers and did by shooting 39.3 percent from deep up to this point. He’s scored 20 points per game. De’Aaron Fox leads the team in assists and is a 47.5 percent shooter from the floor. He’s not much of a deep threat, but the freshman from Houston has a nice mid-range game and can get to the rack. Edrice Adebayo will be a big key to this one. With UCLA’s reliance on jumpers and transition, the interior game will be big on the offensive and defensive glass. Adebayo pulls down over eight rebounds per game and has 115 offensive boards heading into this one. He’s a 61 percent shooter from the field with a lot of high-percentage looks. Isaiah Briscoe might as well be an upperclassman on this freshmen-laden team. Briscoe is a sophomore and is second on the team in assists per game.
College Basketball Free Pick: UCLA Bruins -1
This is one of the hardest handicaps of the entire tournament. Both of these teams have supreme upside and the ability to keep their runs going in the NCAA Tournament. With how whistle-happy the officials have been, UCLA’s free throw shooting edge could come into play a little bit in this game. It will be interesting to see how both teams utilize their benches in this game, especially because Kentucky runs deeper than UCLA as a general rule. The Bruins are going to chuck from wherever. Will Kentucky commit to defense? Will UCLA be able to defend on the interior? From a watchability standpoint, it doesn’t get better than this. From a betting standpoint, it does, so this is just a small lean with a suggestion to just watch the game and seek out live betting opportunities.