UCLA’s 2016 season was a disaster as the team went 15-17, leading to calls for Steve Alford’s job. But what a difference a year makes since the Bruins (31-4) are now in the Sweet 16, with a chance to make their first Elite Eight appearance since 2008.
They got here with solid victories over 14-seed Kent State (97-80) and 6-seed Cincinnati (79-67). The latter proved a good challenge before UCLA faces Kentucky, a team just as talented as itself.
As for John Calipari’s squad, they’re in familiar territory, having made the Sweet Sixteen in six of the past eight seasons. But given the quality of their opponent, this is one of the few times the Wildcats haven’t been favored in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.
Who will move on and face the winner of UNC/Gonzaga? Find out as we discuss both teams’ chances and offer some betting advice.
UCLA (31-4) vs. Kentucky (31-5); Friday (Mar 24 @ 9:35pm)
GTBets.eu Betting Line: UCLA 0 (-110); Kentucky 0 (-110)
Why the Bruins will Cover the Spread
With apologies to Baylor and Oregon, UCLA is the best and most-talented #3 seed in the tournament. You could easily argue that they’re under-seeded, but a third-place conference finish in the Pac 12 relegated them to this position.
If you look at the Bruins’ schedule, they got revenge for all four of their losses, which included Oregon, USC, and Arizona (twice). This is a squad that faced a number of quality opponents during the year, and they’re as prepared for a deep tournament run as anybody.
The Bruins feature a nice mix of youth and experience in their lineup. They’re led by Pac 12 Freshman of the Year Lonzo Ball (14.7 PPG, 7.6 APG) and fellow freshman T.J. Leaf (16.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG). Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday (12.5 PPG) also chips in plenty of points. Leadership is provided by senior G Bryce Alford (15.6 PPG), senior G Isaac Hamilton (14.0 PPG), and junior C Thomas Welsh (10.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG).
With six double-digit scorers, it’s not hard to see how UCLA led the nation in scoring at 90.2 PPG. This is a big reason why we at GTBets.eu have the over/under set at 165.5.
Kentucky can also score (85.2 PPG), but we like the Bruins if this turns into a shootout. In fact, this is exactly what happened when the teams met in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, with UCLA prevailing 97-92.
The one concern if you’re thinking of betting on the Bruins is that they’re just 1-4 against the spread (ATS) in their last five contests. They either win or lose this game, but it’s hard to put lots of faith in them judging from the ATS performance.
Why the Wildcats will cover the Spread
Outside of a mid-season 82-80 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers (16-16), Kentucky beat everybody they were supposed to. They also notched significant victories over North Carolina and Florida. Currently on a 13-game win streak, the Wildcats have played their best basketball when it matters most.
You almost have to like that Kentucky lost to UCLA earlier this season because they have the revenge factor going for them. Of course, this team has a lot more to bank their hopes on than just revenge.
For starters, they’re led by three potential NBA lottery picks in De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG), Malik Monk (20.0 PPG), and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo (13.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG).
UCLA has their own lottery hopefuls as well in Ball and Leaf. But three trumps two in this case, and we really like Kentucky from an overall talent perspective.
Senior forward Derek Willis (7.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG) is also crucial to the Wildcats since he’s been through tournament runs before and provides a veteran influence.
From a betting perspective, Kentucky hasn’t been any better than UCLA, going 1-4 ATS in their last five contests. They failed to cover in victories against Northern Kentucky (79-70) in the first round, and Wichita State (65-62) in the second round.
Final Thoughts on Kentucky vs UCLA
With lottery picks on both squads and an even betting line, you could flip a coin to decide this one. But we slightly favor the Bruins to win again because they have the best player on the floor in Ball, and they’ve performed better against elite competition. Kentucky, on the other hand, topped a weaker conference and lost marquee games to both Kansas and Louisville.
Final Score Prediction: UCLA wins 90-88