RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox have spent the season putting up big numbers and highlight-reel plays to power two blueblood programs.
Come Friday night, one of those talented freshman point guards will move their teams within a win of the Final Four, too — at the expense of the other.
The Wildcats and Bruins meet in the South Region semifinals in Memphis, Tennessee, the headliner of Friday’s four-game slate in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. And part of the buzz comes from the matchup of potential one-and-done floor leaders who have already met this season.
Fox won the individual matchup with a better statistical day in December, but Ball helped his team win 97-92 to upset the then-No. 1 Wildcats and snap their 42-game winning streak at Rupp Arena.
Fox finished with 20 points — though he needed 20 shots to get there — and nine assists with two turnovers in 34 minutes.
“He’s just such an elite skill set as a ball handler, and his speed and quickness to get by people, you just don’t see very often,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Thursday. “He’s like a lot of them that are elite like he is. As they get older, it seems like they just get better.
“He’s one of those guys that he looks a lot better now than what he did in December, and we had an awful lot of respect for him in December.”
Ball finished with 14 points and seven assists in 38 minutes, but committed six turnovers in the win. Ball leads the country in assists (7.6 per game) for third-seeded UCLA (31-4), which boasts an offense ranked second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency (124.1 points per 100 possessions).
The second-seeded Wildcats (31-5) are ranked 12th (119.0) entering a game that marks the return of Kentucky coach John Calipari to Memphis — where he coached the Tigers for nine years before leaving in 2009.
“This is about two unbelievably talented teams,” Calipari said. “That’s what this is, and people are going to watch this game, not because I’m coaching and not because I came back to Memphis and not because Steve is coaching. They’re going to watch it because this is a talented two teams. Both teams. And it should be a lot of fun.”
Here are things to know about Friday’s games in the Sweet 16:
THE SCHEDULE: It’s not often that the top seed takes a backseat, but South top seed North Carolina (29-7) meets No. 4 seed Butler (25-8) in the undercard to the UCLA-Kentucky throwdown. The East Region features No. 3 seed Baylor (27-7) against No. 7 seed South Carolina (24-10), and No. 4 seed Florida (26-8) against No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9) in New York.
THE INJURY: The health of Tar Heels point guard Joel Berry II is in question. Berry rolled his right ankle when he landed awkwardly on a 3-point attempt in the first-round rout of Texas Southern, then struggled throughout UNC’s second-round escape against Arkansas. Berry pronounced himself “almost close to 100 percent” Thursday.
THE TRANSFER: Butler guard Tyler Lewis has familiarity with the Tar Heels after playing two seasons for rival North Carolina State before transferring. The pass-first point guard — a Statesville, North Carolina native — lost three of four meetings and shot 2 for 13 in those games, but he’s settled in at Butler by averaging 6.5 points and starting 24 games while posting a 4:1 assist-to-turnover margin as a senior.
THE UPSTARTS: The East looks nothing like expected after the Badgers took out No. 1 seed Villanova and the Gamecocks beat No. 2 seed Duke. Wisconsin’s appearance in the Sweet 16 is nothing new; the Badgers have been here for four straight and six of seven years. Friday marks the Gamecocks’ first appearance since the tournament’s expansion to 64 teams in 1985.
THE REST: No. 3 seed Baylor reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for a week in January for the first time in program history and stands as the favorite (by seed, anyway) in the shaken-up East bracket. As for No. 4 seed Florida, the Gators went from unranked in the preseason to No. 12 in mid-February before losing three of four entering the NCAA Tournament.
TIP-INS: Top seeds Gonzaga and Kansas moved within a win of the Final Four on Thursday night, with the Jayhawks blowing out Purdue and the Bulldogs holding off West Virginia to reach their second Elite Eight under Mark Few. … Arizona became the third No. 2 seed to lose when it fell to No. 11 seed Xavier. … Four of the top eight seeds are now gone. … Oregon is headed to a second straight regional final.
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