If he’s got a trick up his sleeve, John Calipari is not about to tip his hand. Calipari is shrewd, so the guess is he’s not going to play this one straight.
Without a doubt, the most intriguing NCAA Sweet 16 matchup is Kentucky-UCLA on Friday night. The line has pinballed from Bruins minus-1 to pick’em this week. The South Point sports book’s posted total has dipped from 168½ to 165½, and that might be telling.
It’s not a wise idea to try to beat Lonzo Ball and the fast-breaking Bruins on their terms. Slow the pace, use the shot clock and force UCLA to defend.
Calipari has NBA athletes and a team that can run, too, but in this case the other team does it better. Why play into the Bruins’ hands? Dictate a pace that makes them uncomfortable. I suspect that will be Calipari’s plan.
Ball is a freshman point guard who plays with the savvy of a senior. He’s surrounded by shooters and athletic wings who sprint the floor and stretch the defense. Quick shots by Kentucky will lead to runouts on the other end, and the Wildcats probably cannot keep up in that type of game.
UCLA, with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense at 90.2 points per game, is 24-2 when scoring 80 points or more but 7-2 when scoring in the 70s. When the teams met Dec. 3 in Lexington, the Bruins raced to a 97-92 win as 11-point underdogs. It was a convincing victory that surely convinced the Kentucky coach to try a different plan of attack this time.
The Wildcats, 22-0 when limiting opponents to 72 points or fewer, can succeed in games requiring blue-collar toughness. Last weekend, they were in one of those battles and beat Wichita State 65-62.
Obviously, slowing the Bruins is much easier said than done. Cincinnati accomplished it for a half before falling apart. Kentucky has far better talent than the Bearcats.
Bam Adebayo, a 6-foot-10 freshman, is more physical than UCLA’s forwards. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are freshman guards who play with no fear.
Calipari probably wants to keep the score in the 70s, but he must keep it in the low 80s. The game is in Memphis, where the Wildcats will get incredible fan support. I’ll take the 1-point underdog that defends better and has a location advantage.
When the smoke clears, Ball will head for the NBA, and Steve Alford might ditch Hollywood to coach the Indiana Hoosiers.
More plays for Thursday’s games:
Michigan (-1) over Oregon:
The Wolverines might be the square side, but I’ll keep riding a hot team. Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin can break down the defense with no need to worry about injured Chris Boucher protecting the rim for Oregon. Boucher’s absence is a big factor in this play. Mo Wagner and D.J. Wilson are long wings who shoot it from the perimeter and pose matchup problems. The Ducks were wobbly last weekend, but Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks bailed them out. The coaching matchup is a great one with no edge either way. Still, John Beilein has Michigan playing with more confidence.
Purdue (plus-5½) over Kansas: It’s difficult to envision the Jayhawks losing this game in Kansas City. The location advantage is likely too much for the underdog to overcome. But Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan and the Boilermakers will put up a fight. Swanigan totaled 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists to beat an Iowa State team that’s similar to Kansas. Swanigan will see double-teams, and he needs to pass out to the shooters. Purdue’s ability to hit 3s will be the most important factor in its success or lack of it. Jayhawks guards Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham are too fast, and freshman wing Josh Jackson will win his matchup. I did bet Kansas at minus-200 on the moneyline, but the favorite is the overwhelmingly popular public side, and I expect this to be tight in the last two minutes. That’s when Mason will make the difference.
Xavier (plus-7½) over Arizona: In the past two weeks, the Musketeers defeated Butler, Maryland and Florida State, thoroughly embarrassing the Seminoles by 25 points. The two coaches know each other well, and Chris Mack does not give an inch to the Wildcats’ Sean Miller. Xavier has enough size to match up, and 6-6 junior guard Trevon Bluiett is capable of outplaying Allonzo Trier. This is another one that should go to the wire.
South Carolina (plus-3½) over Baylor:
Frank Martin gets the coaching edge over Scott Drew, who can recruit but is no Xs and Os wizard in Waco. The Gamecocks defend, and 6-5 senior guard Sindarius Thornwell is a big-time scorer who averages 21.4 and dropped 24 on Duke. I look for spots to bet against the Bears, and this looks like a good one. I’ll take the points.
Butler (plus-7½) over North Carolina: Maybe the Tar Heels are too athletic and too big for the Bulldogs, and there’s no question Justin Jackson will be the best player on the floor. But Butler finds ways to stay in games and give itself a shot to win down the stretch. Andrew Chrabascz, a 6-7 senior, leads another experienced, tough team that thrives in the ‘dog role.
Sunday: 1-2 against the spread