We all went into Friday night fixated on Lonzo Ball, but it was De’Aaron Fox who played like the nation’s premier point guard.
The meeting between the Kentucky Wildcats and UCLA Bruins was easily the most anticipated Sweet 16 matchup. A plethora of NBA talent was involved, and two of the country’s best teams were meeting in a contest that felt more like a Final Four game than a Sweet 16. On one side, there’s Ball. The other is Fox.
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It was the second time this year that the Burins and Wildcats met, and UCLA took home the victory back in early December 97-92. Ball and Fox had good showings, but neither looked their best. Lonzo had 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds but also had six turnovers and was 5-of-12 from the field. Fox threw up a 20-piece and handed out nine dimes while complementing Malik Monk, but he too shot poorly from the field and was just 8-of-20.
From the jump, you could tell that Fox wanted his revenge against Ball and the Bruins, and he also wanted to put himself back in the top prospects conversation. Everyone in the nation knew that Kentucky would have to slow the game down if they wanted a chance to beat the Bruins and Fox would have to clamp down on Ball and not allow him to dictate the pace of the game. And that’s exactly what he did.
Fox was picking up full court on the second possession — it wasn’t a full-on press, but just enough to disrupt Ball and not allow him to get comfortable. For the most part, it worked. On offense, Calipari wanted Fox to initiate the offense, something that’s not a surprise given how Kentucky’s played all season long. He came out and scored the Wildcats first three buckets: a floater coming off of a high screen, a one-dribble pull up and another floater off a high pick-and-roll.
As great a player as Ball is, he’s not an outstanding defender. Between the two, Fox has the edge in that department and it was a big reason why this game was must-see. Because of all the buzz that Ball was generating, many expected the Kentucky freshman to come out and play with a chip on his shoulder, and he did just that. If this was the only game you watched for the entire season you’d wholeheartedly believe that De’Aaron Fox was the nation’s best point guard.
The jumper that Fox shot early on was the only time he settled for a long shot. Kentucky ran a healthy dose of high screens, and Fox manipulated them however he wanted. Whether it was Ball, Bryce Alford or anyone else, not a single Bruin was able to keep Fox out of the lane. And the reason why is intriguing.
Every single time Fox scored off a screen, the defender went over. Why aren’t you going under the screen and forcing him to take jump shots?!?!
He’s at his best when going downhill, is far from a knockdown shooter and has only connected on 15 of his 65 three-point attempts this year. That’s 23.1 percent. Had UCLA made the adjustment at some point of the course of the 40-minute game, they would’ve forced someone else to beat them and, outside of Malik Monk, Kentucky doesn’t have someone who could carry the load.
Then again, the Bruins play no defense at all and were probably shocked Kentucky slowed the game down as much as they did. Because of their inability to get stops, I didn’t think they’d have a shot at a national championship. Great point guards like Fox, like Joel Berry II, like Lonzo Ball, control the game and force their opponents to play their way. UCLA makes other teams play fast and most other teams are unable to slow them down because they don’t have a premier floor general. Fox did exactly that, and he took what the defense gave him and ended up with a thunderous 39-point showing.
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