Making a case for Kentucky to win the NCAA tournament

Thanks to the play of De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky is poised to win its ninth championship in program history.

Assistant sports editor David Bradford.

De’Aaron Fox and the Kentucky Wildcats accomplished what even the most brilliant minds couldn’t: They shut LaVar Ball up.

At least, temporarily.

Fox scored 39 cold-blooded points — an NCAA tournament record for a freshman — and heavily assisted in holding Lonzo Ball to a pedestrian stat-line — 10 points, 4-of-10 shooting, 8 assists, 4 turnovers — and has Kentucky heading to familiar territory after taking care of business over UCLA.

Since 2009, the Elite Eight has featured Wildcat blue six times, an impressive feat considering John Calipari coaches a different team every year. Now, all that stands between the Wildcats and their 18th Final Four in program history are the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.

Two of the powerhouses of college basketball engaged in an instant classic back in December, a game which Kentucky won, 103-100. That was largely due to Malik Monk’s outside-shooting tour de force. Monk finished with 47 points, which is about 153 NBA points under the current conversion rate.

But December was so 2016, and because 2016 was a bad year, that game and its implications are irrelevant. There’s a new sheriff in Lexington. Monk might’ve rediscovered his stroke in the Sweet 16 (he scored 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting), but Fox is the head honcho now.

It’s inevitable. Kentucky is hanging its ninth banner in the rafters at Rupp Arena. If they don’t, I’ll set myself on fire.

De’Aaron Fox is going Michael Jordan mode

Fox isn’t the top NBA prospect, but there isn’t a player remaining in the tournament executing at a higher level. More than his 39 points on Friday night, Fox managed Friday’s highly-anticipated matchup to perfection.

Instead of pushing the pace and trying to outrun UCLA, the Wildcats often slung the ball around in order to drain clock before eventually finding Fox. The true freshman then forced the Bruins to pick their poison. Either trust that Ball and maybe another help defender is enough to slow down Fox’s mesmerizing drives to the basket, or watch him make the correct basketball play when one of his teammates is open for a split second.

Fox’s performance on Friday was Jordanesque. In fact, one of his late-game layups was actually reminiscent of a layup Jordan made in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals.

Fox is showcasing a Jordan-level killer instinct, unlike Ball, who performed more like LeBron James circa the 2011 NBA Finals. Even though I never personally witnessed Jordan play, brand recognition and all the get-off-my-lawn folks of yesteryear have convinced me that Jordan > any collection of basketball talent.

These freshmen aren’t babies anymore

Every season is the same old song and dance for Calipari. Due to the influx of one-and-done freshmen, Kentucky experiences early bumps in the road due to a lack of chemistry. Last season, Kentucky never clicked the way it should have. This season, the opposite has taken place.

The Wildcats suffered a midseason lull after losing three of four games in late January and early February. Since then, they’ve reeled off 14 consecutive victories. And they’re doing so by playing disciplined and unselfish basketball.

There are so many layers to this play I thought I was cutting an onion while watching it. It also gives me an excuse for crying, which is what I usually do anyway on Friday evenings.

Fox made the obvious basketball play: Lob it up to your big man waiting alone by the baseline.

Edrice Adebayo, who goes by Bam, was about to deliver the bam, but due to his underwhelming launch, realized his alley-oop attempt was futile. Instead of panicking, he composed himself on the landing and slammed it home.

This also happened to be Bam’s first basket of the game. We’re talking about a player who averages 13 points per game making his first basket with three minutes remaining in a Sweet 16 games. And Kentucky was still winning by 11 points.

The ‘Cats care about defense

In a basketball world where 19-year-olds are handed millions of dollars before ever taking an NBA dribble, it’s a miracle Calipari has convinced a bunch of tweeners who talk in emojis that defense and rebounding matter. Say what you want about Calipari’s attitude. Accuse him of any NCAA violation you want. They’re probably all happening right now. He knows how to recruit and convince his players to play on both ends of the court.

What makes the Wildcats such a nightmare for opposing offenses is their athleticism at point guard. With basketball living on the perimeter nowadays, dexterous play defensively at guard is paramount. Kentucky’s defensive aptitude reached its plateau on Friday.

Although UCLA did shoot 52 percent from the floor, its offense wasn’t the same whirlwind of mastery we’re accustomed to witnessing.

That stems from Fox’s defensive performance on Ball. While it’s true that Ball is a pass-first point guard by nature, Fox clearly affected his rhythm. Even when Ball delivered beautiful, on-target passes, the Bruins rarely resembled the offense that led the nation in points per game during the regular season.

Although Kentucky is a lock to win it all, the Wildcats must square off against the Tar Heels, per an NCAA source. The game is slated for a 5:05 p.m. ET start and will be televised on CBS.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

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Follow me @DavidJBradford1 on Twitter, email me at dbradfo2@vols.utk.edu for any questions.