MEMPHIS — De’Aaron Fox stood in a hallway, smiled, and said he wished he could play for Kentucky again in an hour. Lonzo Ball sat on a chair and said, in a monotone, that he will never play for UCLA again. The difference between them was just as stark as it had been during the game, when Fox and Kentucky dismantled UCLA’s Showtime Jr. attack.
Fox scored 39 points. Ball scored 10. Fox is so fast that the Bruins had a good excuse for not guarding him: they couldn’t see him. He is also a natural leader who said, quite believably, that he walked into the Kentucky locker room at halftime feeling “like I was shooting too much.” Never mind that they were going in.
Kentucky won the most anticipated game of the NCAA tournament, 86–75, to earn an Elite Eight matchup against North Carolina. These Wildcats are not the deep, overwhelming groups that won a title in 2012 and nearly went undefeated in 2015, but they have the best backcourt in the country in Fox and Malik Monk, and that gives them a shot at a championship.
Fox and Monk played like they knew they would beat UCLA. Ball played like it was November. He failed to dive for a loose ball that was calling his name. He settled for three-pointers instead of driving to the basket. Ball had a brilliant year. He just had a lousy night.
The theme song for this tournament is “One Shining Moment,” not “Small Sample Sizes Are Misleading.” So it’s easy to make too much of Fox completely outplaying Ball. It was one game, and Fox outplays most people. If he refines his outside shot, he could become an All-NBA player.
Still, there is a compelling argument that Fox should get drafted ahead of Ball this summer. And that should be a bucket of cold water on the head of Ball’s father, LaVar, who should stop telling every media outlet on the planet that his oldest son is better than Steph Curry and his family will redefine the game and Lonzo could have saved the President’s health-care bill.
Lonzo Ball is a magnificent player with court vision that is so good, it almost seems like he is cheating. Even on Friday, when he did not play well, he threw some perfect alley-oop passes that very few players in the world would even try. But his father is doing him a disservice. There is a growing contingent of fans who want to see Lonzo fail, just to shut his father up.
Only Lonzo knows whether his father’s trash talk has taken any joy out of the game for him. Maybe he really isn’t bothered by it. But it has made it very easy to look for flaws, and to wonder why, after his team’s national championship hopes disappeared, he spoke in flat platitudes: “You can always take something from a game, winning or losing.” … “If we lose, I had a bad game. I didn’t make enough plays to help my team win.” … “I got outplayed tonight. I can’t take nothing back. I can’t go back in time and change it. Credit to Kentucky.” It was easy to forget: He is like this when his team wins and he plays great, which was usually the case this season.
Fox, meanwhile, has a chance to do what John Wall and Derrick Rose could not: win a national championship for John Calipari. Fox entered the game as the third-most celebrated guard on the floor, behind Ball and Monk, but that only tells you how much talent was out there. All three will be top-10 picks, and any could go in the top five.
UCLA had no answers for Fox. The Bruins didn’t even seem to understand the questions. Give Fox a decent screen, and he is gone: into the lane, where the defense just has to hope his floaters don’t fall.
UCLA senior Bryce Alford said afterward: “If we had to do it all over again, I don’t know if we’d change our game plan. He was just phenomenal tonight.”
Alford had another reason to say that—his father drew up the game plan. It was not Steve Alford’s best night, either—Kentucky exploited UCLA’s season-long defensive deficiencies, and the Wildcats’ intense defense flustered the Bruins. And Alford found himself in a strange position afterward: coaching one of the sport’s platinum programs, with another one potentially courting him, and fans of both teams questioning how good he really is.
Alford told ESPN he will stay at UCLA rather than go to Indiana, his alma mater. He threw roses at Westwood, talking about how his two sons graduated from UCLA, and his family “has fallen in love with” Los Angeles, and “I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA. This is a pretty special place.” He even said he has “a tremendous recruiting class coming.”
If Alford really isn’t interested in Indiana—or if Indiana isn’t interested in him—then Alford will have more chances to win a title at UCLA. Lonzo Ball will not. His professional life begins today. De’Aaron Fox has at least two more days as a college player, maybe another week. Life moves pretty fast. Kentucky beat UCLA because its point guard does, too.