Editor’s note: During the 2017-18 season, Kentucky will play five non-conference games against Power 5 teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season — Kansas ( Nov. 14 in Chicago), Virginia Tech ( Dec. 16 at home), UCLA ( Dec. 23 in New Orleans), Louisville ( Dec. 29 at home) and West Virginia ( Jan. 27 in Morgantown) — meaning five opportunities to impress the selection committee come March.
In our Quality Wins series, we’ll be breaking down those matchups and making an early prediction on the outcome. Today, it’s Cats vs. Bruins.
Tale of the tape
Kentucky has zero returning starters and only 7 percent of last season’s points and 15 percent of its 2016-17 rebounds back. The top six scorers from last year’s Elite Eight squad — Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins — are gone. The Wildcats have eight freshmen, three sophomores and no juniors or seniors among their scholarship players.
If any team can come close to matching Kentucky’s roster attrition, it might be UCLA. Point guard Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, is gone, as is forward T.J. Leaf, guard Bryce Alford and guard Isaac Hamilton. Leaf joined Ball in leaving early to go pro as did one-and-done big man Ike Anigbogu.
Ball, Leaf, Alford and Hamilton were UCLA’s top-four scorers. Add in Anigbogu’s production and 71 percent of UCLA’s scoring output is gone.
Junior guard Aaron Holiday and senior center Thomas Welsh are UCLA’s top-two returners.
UCLA’s collective losses don’t quite match Kentucky’s departures, but the Wildcats and Bruins will both be sporting new teams this season.
Kentucky signed Scout.com’s No. 2 recruiting class, a class that included 5-stars Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington and Nick Richards. Four-star guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jemarl Baker were top-100 players, as well.
UCLA signed Scout.com’s No. 5 recruiting class. Coach Steve Alford signed a pair of 5-star prospects: small forward Kris Wilkes and point guard Jaylen Hands. Four-star power forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were also part of the class. Three-star small forward Chris Smith and three-star shooting guard LiAngelo Ball rounded out the class of six signees.
Kentucky and UCLA met twice last season. The Bruins left Rupp Arena with a December win, but the Wildcats got revenge in March with an 86-75 Sweet 16 win.
The meeting in New Orleans will be the 15th between the two esteemed programs. Kentucky leads the all-time series 8-6. The schools first met on Dec. 26, 1951. Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country at the time, cruised to an 84-53 win in that inaugural matchup.
Our (way-too-early) prediction
Kyle Tucker: Kentucky 82, UCLA 74
Joe Mussatto: Kentucky 77, UCLA 67
Kentucky has less experience than UCLA does, but the army of 5-star reinforcements John Calipari brought in is stronger. Kentucky will have more than a month to gel by the time this matchup rolls around. The Bruins will be a good gauge to see where the Cats stand, but for now, Kentucky has the advantage.
Next in the series: Louisville comes to Rupp Arena (publishing Sept. 13)
Previously in the series:
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