This could be the end for Lonzo Ball as a college basketball star. Obviously, in a one-and-done tournament any game could be UCLA’s last, but now is when it gets serious.
Ball is battling minor injuries, the offense is beginning to slow down, and two great defensive teams are looming with Kentucky in the Bruins’ half of the bracket. The deeper we go into the NCAA Tournament, the more emphasis there is on defense.
Strong point guard play is critical, too, and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin spent some time Saturday comparing Ball, a 6-foot-6 freshman, to Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd. Those are fair comparisons, yet coaches always tend to overhype the opponent.
Mayhem might be brewing in the South Region on Sunday. There are two live underdogs, one being the Bearcats, who are 3½-point ‘dogs to UCLA in Sacramento. The line remains 4 at a few Las Vegas sports books, but sharp action has surfaced on Cincinnati.
As for Ball, he has a bruised hip and sore left thumb. Still, he was typically efficient Friday in a 97-80 victory over Kent State. He will get a real test in the second round.
Cronin is a feisty little guy, and his teams are always tough. The Bearcats battle on every possession, which is why they rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense at 60.5 points per game and held Kansas State to 61 in a first-round blowout. The Bruins will not be running a layup drill or staging a dunk contest.
Six players score in double figures, led by TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Ball. UCLA entered the tournament with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense (90.6), but it averaged only 76 points in the previous three games.
At some point this season, the Bruins figured to get exposed by their weaknesses on the defensive end, and they are nearing that point. Cincinnati is improved offensively, and 6-4 senior Troy Caupain is the type of tough point guard who can give Ball problems.
I took 4 points with the Bearcats. The UCLA-Cincinnati winner will face either Kentucky or Wichita State. The two favorites are on upset alert. And here are two more plays for Sunday:
North Carolina (-11) over Arkansas: Point guard Joel Berry II is recovering from a right ankle injury, but the Tar Heels’ big advantage will be inside where Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks should dominate. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin, and the Razorbacks are weak on the defensive glass.
Wichita State (plus-3½) over Kentucky: No doubt, the Wildcats are more talented, and freshman guard Malik Monk is an explosive scorer who could take over the game. However, the Shockers are much better on the defensive end and they fight harder on each possession. In a classic second-round game three years ago, John Calipari prevailed. This is Gregg Marshall's shot to get revenge.
Saturday: 1-3 against the spread