They turned the Las Vegas Strip into a blue blob for one chilly night three months ago, fans from UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina commingling in jerseys and T-shirts bearing the famous hues of their schools.
The banter was friendly and the jabs mostly good-natured, the powerhouse teams having gathered along with Ohio State in the same city for the CBS Sports Classic, a high-profile but relatively low-stakes one-day event.
UCLA defeated the Buckeyes with ease in the first game. Then Kentucky’s Malik Monk became a showstopping solo act, the freshman guard scoring 47 points and making a late three-pointer that edged North Carolina during a wild 103-100 victory on Dec. 17 that left fans wanting more.
They will get their wish this week, college basketball’s Blue Man Group reuniting on a far larger stage. Third-seeded UCLA (31-4) will play second-seeded Kentucky (31-5) on Friday evening in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn., a rematch of a game won by the Bruins in December. Top-seeded North Carolina will face fourth-seeded Butler in the preceding regional semifinal.
“That’s a demanding bracket,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said Sunday after his team overran Cincinnati in the second half of a second-round triumph over the Bearcats.
The Bruins and Wildcats might be as well-acquainted as any nonconference foes. Two weeks before they gathered in Las Vegas, UCLA knocked off then-top-ranked Kentucky, 97-92, at Rupp Arena to end the Wildcats’ 42-game home-court winning streak.
“At least we know them pretty well as far as prep goes,” Alford said. “I think they’re better now in March than they were when we played them in December, and I think we’re better than what we were in December as well. Makes for a great matchup.”
For UCLA, a team already featuring a once-in-a-generation offense, most of the improvement has come on defense. The Bruins rank No. 77 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to analytics expert Ken Pomeroy, up from No. 126 in late January after they surrendered 96 points during a home-court loss to Arizona.
“That’s a big part of it,” UCLA power forward TJ Leaf said of the Bruins’ becoming more dynamic because of better defense. “When we get stops, it’s easier to get out and run and with our pace, it’s really tough to guard that in transition.”
Kentucky also showed it could get gritty Sunday, holding Wichita State to 62 points. Monk and Wildcats big man Bam Adebayo each came up with a block in the final seconds to preserve the victory.
“They’re very tough to play against,” UCLA center Thomas Welsh said. “It’s going to be a battle for sure because it’s a Sweet 16 game and it’s going to be a rematch.”
UCLA and Kentucky have split two previous meetings in the NCAA tournament, the Bruins prevailing in the 1975 national championship that also happened to be legendary Coach John Wooden’s farewell game. Kentucky defeated UCLA in a regional semifinal in 1998 on the way to winning the national title.
The last time these teams met on a neutral court didn’t go well for the Bruins, Kentucky scoring the game’s first 24 points in December 2014 during a romp at the United Center in Chicago. UCLA avenged that defeat last season at Pauley Pavilion before beating the Wildcats a second consecutive time in December.
Welsh suggested that matching Kentucky’s intensity shouldn’t be an issue, even though the Wildcats figure to play with an edge.
“I think just knowing it’s March and knowing that we’re playing for a chance to play in the Elite Eight, I think that’s all you really need,” Welsh said. “We’re working as hard as we can to keep playing with our guys and we’re just really excited for the opportunity.”