UCLA and Kentucky are a pair of elite programs, but both are looking for a quality, big-time win, and both teams have an opportunity to get one this weekend. The Bruins face a highly-ranked Missouri team on Friday night in Westwood, and the Wildcats battle in-state rival Louisville on Saturday.
Kentucky opened the season with a win over a very good Maryland squad which has not lost since then. That looks like a big-time W since the Terrapins appear to be headed to the upper echelon of the ACC. Other than the victory over Maryland, what high-quality victories to they have? Marshall may be the next-best opponent to fall to the Wildcats, so John Calipari would love to boost his resume by knocking off the Cardinals.
Anybody who loves the sport of college hoops would tell you that you to beat quality opponents to be considered among the elites this season. Kentucky faced Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor and left with Ls, baby. The home win streak went bye-bye too. You get the picture. This game with Louisville is big, especially if Gorgui Dieng is not a force in the lineup. Rick Pitino said Dieng will be back for this game, but we have to see how effective he will be. Nerlens Noel would have the opportunity to do some damage inside if Dieng struggles coming off his wrist injury back in November.
The game will come down to point guard play. Can Ryan Harrow battle with Peyton Siva, one of the best in America. The combination of Siva and Russ Smith in the backcourt has been outstanding at times for Pitino. Louisville has gotten off to a terrific start, with the lone loss coming in the Battle 4 Atlantis against Duke when Dieng was on the sidelines.
This is a big game for Calipari and his young squad. SEC play is right around the corner and the 'Cats would like to build some momentum. Calipari will tell you how super the Cardinals are, but deep down he knows this is a game where his team, searching for confidence, wants to feel good about itself. You know Big Blue Nation wants this one badly as well.
Then there is UCLA. The Bruins are 9-3 and riding a five-game win streak, but how many quality wins have they posted? They lost to Georgetown in Brooklyn and San Diego State in Anaheim, very good, ranked opponents. Both of those losses were by single figures, not blowout city by any means. The list of victories doesn't have many standouts. Long Beach State, Texas, Georgia, Fresno State... come on. They have beaten teams they were supposed to defeat.
Beating Missouri would give the fans out in Westwood something to talk about. This is the kind of game Ben Howland's kids really need. Shabazz Muhammad has worked out, lost some weight and rounded into form. He is starting to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived on campus. The diaper dandies -- Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson -- are so vital to the success of the Bruins.
A key in this game will be Larry Drew II at the point. Can he neutralize the penetration and passing ability of Phil Pressey? Missouri's big men played an important role in the win over previously-unbeaten Illinois as Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi combined for 36 points and 24 rebounds. UCLA will have to battle inside against this solid duo.
Any way you cut it, this is a big game for the Bruins. The fan interest has not been there at Pauley for many games. They have not been packing the place and if you want to fill the seats, you have to get Ws against quality foes. In Los Angeles, there is a lot of competition for the attention of hoop fans since the Lakers are warming up with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol back, while the Clippers are red hot. You have all kinds of entertainment going on with the Hollywood scene. You have to post W after W to fill Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA would like to post a big victory Friday night versus the ranked Tigers.