MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Unlike his carnival barker of a father, Lonzo Ball seems to prefer turning down the hype. “It’s Kentucky versus UCLA, not me against (De’Aaron) Fox,” Ball said Thursday, on the eve of his rematch with the Wildcats’ prized point guard.
Ball is right, of course, that other players will help decide whether it’s the third-seeded Bruins (31-4) or second-seeded UK advancing out of Friday night’s Sweet 16 game and onward in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. However, Ball vs. Fox makes this meeting must-see TV.
CBS Sports columnist Gary Parrish called it the best individual matchup of the tournament, “the one that NBA scouts are most interested in,” comparing it to pro showdowns like John Wall vs. Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry vs. James Harden. “In terms of individual matchups, from a great college perspective and an NBA draft perspective, this is the one I want to watch.”
Ball and Fox are both almost certainly one-and-done players, projected to be picked No. 2 and No. 6 overall, respectively, by Draft Express. The 6-foot-6 Ball is averaging 14.7 points, 7.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds this season, while the 6-3 Fox is averaging 16.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds.
“It’s a team sport, obviously, but those are fun things to look at,” UCLA guard Bryce Alford said. “Those two will be on each other a lot, two of the best players in the country at their position. They had a pretty even matchup the first time and I think it’ll be pretty even again.”
Fox had 20 points, 9 assists and 2 turnovers against the Bruins on Dec. 3, while Ball delivered almost exactly his season averages: 14 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds, but also a half-dozen turnovers. Fox thoroughly outplayed Ball in the first half, but those roles reversed in the second and UCLA left Rupp Arena with a 97-92 victory.
“De’Aaron is a great player, one of the best guards in the country, hands down. It’s a tough match-up,” Ball said. “Gotta come ready to play, because I know he is.”
Fox lobbed a similar collection of platitudes back from the Kentucky locker room.
“(Ball) is a fantastic player, extremely good playmaker,” he said. “He can shoot the ball from deep. He does everything you want in a point guard. With a player as good as him, you just try to limit what he’s able to do.”
But that’s the thing that makes Ball so dangerous: his value isn’t just in what he does, but what he sets up others to do. To Ball’s initial point, then, Friday night’s game really is more about Kentucky vs. UCLA than him vs. Fox.
“Is it a coincidence that basically every important piece of UCLA’s roster is having the best year of their career?” Parrish said. “We always say about point guards, ‘He makes everybody on the court better!’ It’s not always true. It is absolutely true with Lonzo Ball. I think you can argue that he has been the most important player for any program in America by a pretty significant margin.”
Bruins coach Steve Alford has rarely in a 26-year career paused within a game to ask the point guard — yet alone a freshman point guard — what he thinks the team should run offensively. But he does with Ball, “because I trust him that much; he has such an unbelievable feel to the game.”
And what of Fox? He’s a better defender but not the same kind of facilitator as Ball these days, averaging just 2.2 assists the last six games. He’s become a much more assertive scorer and sharper shooter down the stretch — 19.7 points per game in the last six — although he can also dish it out. He averaged 6.7 assists through his first 15 games.
“Fox can break down just about any defense that he’s gone against,” Steve Alford said.
His son, Bryce, who faced projected No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz in conference play this season, called Fox perhaps the fastest guard he’s seen.
“You don’t even see him coming,” the younger Alford said. “For us to control him, we need to keep him out of the paint. That’s where he likes to get, and if he can get in there, he does a great job at finding shooters and creating for himself.”
Both sides have a tall order Friday night at FedEx Forum, and the rematch of Fox vs. Ball seems too close to call. The only prediction Parrish will make for that individual battle is fun.
“I don’t think either one is going to shut the other down,” he said. “They’re both terrific. I expect them both to play well. They’re both comfortable on this stage and they’re both playing very well right now.”
In other words, get your popcorn ready. LaVar Ball will surely provide the pregame entertainment.