BOZICH | Calipari sly as a Fox as Kentucky drives UCLA into NCAA exit ramp
John Calipari had a superb plan to slow UCLA -- and his Kentucky team followed it as the Wildcats defeat the Bruins, 86-75, Friday night.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WDRB) – John Calipari has plenty of smudges on his NCAA Tournament coaching resume. Every coach does. Ask the 60 coaches on the NCAA sidelines today.
There was the West Virginia game when the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins team looked as if they had never seen a 1-3-1 zone. There was the 2015 Wisconsin game when Calipari rode the Harrison Twins instead of empowering Devin “I Just Scored 70” Booker. I could find others.
This is not the time for that.
This is a time to credit Calipari with coaching a marvelous game as the Wildcats bounced UCLA out of the NCAA Tournament South Regional at the FedEx Forum Friday night.
The final score was 86-75, but the Wildcats led by as many as 14.
Headlines from Hazard to Hollywood will celebrate the dazzling play of De’Aaron Fox, the freshman point guard who scored 39 for the Wildcats. They should.
Fox showed Magic Johnson and the rest of the basketball world that he can deliver everything that UCLA all-American Lonzo Ball can deliver – and more. Lavar Ball, the freshman's outspoken father, saw the 2017 NBA Draft Board tilt.
Fox did much more, this time, outscoring Ball by 29, making three fewer turnovers and grabbing two more steals.
“Honestly, since the post-season started, I’ve been in attack mode,” Fox said.
“He’s learned to be physical,” Calipari said. “He’s learned to take bumps.”
But this Kentucky victory was more than simply a case of Fox turning Ball upside/down as well as over and out.
It seemed as if Kentucky won by more because the Wildcats controlled the tempo and played defense with so much persistence and determination that they limited the Bruins to 15 points less than their season average and UK never trailed in the second half.
Remember that UCLA team that had only thrown the ball away nine times in the Bruins’ first two NCAA Tournament games?
UCLA kicked it away 13 times against Kentucky. The most one-sided statistic of the game was Kentucky outscoring UCLA in points off turnovers, 14-2.
Kentucky will play North Carolina here on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. The winner proceeds to the Final Four in Phoenix. Calipari will have to find the proper tempo to stop a North Carolina team that is deeper and more physical.
Calipari certainly had the proper formula to beat the Bruins.
UCLA loves to play fast.
Kentucky also loves to play fast.
Be honest. Any elite college basketball player wants to go, go, go. The game is more entertaining and fulfilling when played that way.
Playing defense is not entertaining. Playing slower is not fulfilling.
But it was the surest way for Kentucky to defeat the Bruins so that is the way that Calipari scripted it.
Forget the home run plays. Make the smart ones.
Take the openings if you are certain they are there. Don’t force anything.
Use your talent and creativity. But avoid doing anything silly.
Defend, rebound and make everything a struggle on the offensive end for the Bruins.
Remember UCLA beat Kentucky, 97-92, on the first Saturday in December at Rupp Arena.
Yes, I know the Bruins shots nearly 53 percent in defeat. Their turnovers were high and their tempo was low. The 75 points the Bruins scored Friday were the second-fewest they have scored this season.
Calipari also understood that UCLA had no plan to keep Fox out of the lane. When was the last time a guy scored 39 points in a college basketball game without making a three-point shot?
“It’s tough to stop a guy who has as good of a mid-range game as he does,” UCLA guard Bryce Alford said. “That’s a lost art in college basketball, and it’s very hard to stop.
“The way he used pick-and-rolls, and he could get to the spot the that he went to just about every time. He didn’t miss a whole lot of shots tonight (13 for 20).”
Calipari told his guys to get out Fox’s way – and let him keep dominating Ball. Fox scored Kentucky's first eight points. UCLA never figured out a way to keep him out of the lane. Calipari told his guys to trust Fox on every possession.
“I think I scored like the first eight points of the game, and after that, I was like, you know, ‘It’s going to be a good night for me,’ “ Fox said.
This was part of the coach’s speech at halftime, when the Wildcats led the Bruins, 36-33.
“Today, all I did at halftime is say, ‘Guys are you watching this game?’ “ Calipari said. “Good, then you know we’re playing through De’Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a backseat, play off of him, but everything we’re doing good is through him the whole half.”
Calipari empowered Fox.
But he did other things, too.
The Wildcats swallowed Alford with their length. Yes, Alford finished with 13 points, but he labored from distance, making only three of nine. Normally, he’s a 43 percent three-point shooter.
They gave up a pocket of points to freshman forward T. J. Leaf in the first half but made him disappear in the second half when he scored only four of his 17 points.
As he has throughout the tournament, Calipari tightened his bench, essential relying on his starters – Fox, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Malik Monk and Derek Willis – plus Dominique Hawkins.
On a night when Adebayo was surprisingly unproductive (just two points and four boards), Fox and Monk carried Kentucky with 60.
And the Wildcats controlled tempo. They played fast enough, but never as fast as UCLA wanted to play.
“They’re getting better,” Calipari said. “They knew whose hands the ball was going to be in. Now, next game it may Bam or it may be Malik and they’ll be fine with it.”
Copyright 2017 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved