MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kentucky and UCLA got this question a lot on Thursday, on the eve of their Sweet 16 rematch: What has changed for your team since the 97-92 shootout in Lexington on Dec. 3? To a man, both sides had the same answer.
“Our defense is way better than it was back then,” Bruins star Lonzo Ball said. “And if we want to win, we can’t give up 92.”
“We’ve had to learn to grind it out,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “We had to tighten our defense.”
Back then, neither team seemed interested in anything but its next basket. Who needed defense when both Kentucky and UCLA had scored 100-plus points five times by Jan. 3?
“It was hard for us to buy into the defensive end,” admits Bruins senior Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, “when we were just winning games by outscoring people. But we lost a couple games in a row in conference and that woke us up a little bit and we started to guard after that.”
Same thing happened for Kentucky when it lost three of four in late January and early February. Tennessee, Kansas, Georgia, Florida and even a truly terrible LSU team averaged 83 points against the Cats in a five-game stretch.
Since then, “the effort has changed,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “We’re all just picking up the intensity and our effort, and when that’s at a high, we play well.”
Kentucky has won 13 consecutive games, and in the last 12 of those, opponents have averaged just 65.2 points per game — compared to 74.3 in the first 24 games — and 11 of those teams have shot 33 percent or worse from 3-point range.
Likewise, UCLA has won 12 of 13 games, and in the last dozen, opponents have averaged just 71.9 points per game — compared to 77 in the first 23 games — half of those scoring less than 70.
“That’s really the main aspect we’ve tried to focus on,” Bruins guard Aaron Holiday said. “The offense is always going to be there.”
Indeed, UCLA ranks No. 2 nationally in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in effective field-goal percentage (a ridiculous 59.8 percent). But the Bruins have not exactly transformed into a defensive juggernaut. Eight of their last dozen opponents have had an effective field-goal percentage of 48 percent or better.
They’ve still only climbed to No. 79 nationally in defensive efficiency. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are the more balanced team: No. 12 offense, No. 7 defense. And Kentucky has gotten much more comfortable winning ugly, bogged-down battles.
“We had a lot of close games,” guard Isaiah Briscoe said, “so we’ve grown from that kind of experience, winning tight games, and I think we’re ready. If it’s a track meet, I think we can play with them. And if it’s a grind-it-out game, we can play with them. We got both.”
Fox is less interested in another shootout. Kentucky couldn’t quite keep up in the first one.
“Any team that’s been able to keep UCLA in the 70s has been able to beat them,” he said. That’s not exactly true, but the last two teams to defeat the Bruins kept them in the 70s. “If they start scoring 90 and we have to get up there, it’s more difficult, just because I think they’re leading the country in scoring. I mean, we want to play up-tempo too, but we know we’re going to have to come out and play defensively.”