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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Saturday / June 23.
  • Weekend Shootaround: UCLA-Arizona, Florida-Kentucky, and Gonzaga’s Quest for a Perfect Regular Season

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    By: Mike McCURRY

    The Weekend Shootaround dives deeper into UCLA’s recent defensive improvements (Hint: Create takeaways, limit the freebies!), provides the latest injury updates on two of college basketball’s most valuable ligaments—De’Aaron Fox’s left knee and Lonzo Ball’s right ankle—and lays out Gonzaga’s sheer dominance.

    Before getting started, we at ZAGSBLOG would like to use this space to issue a warning directed at ranked road teams this weekend (there are 14 of you visiting unranked foes).

    No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky—Saturday, 2:00 p.m., CBS

    First place in the SEC is on the line here, as both teams are 13-2 in league play—at least three games up on the rest of the conference.

    When the Kentucky Wildcats awake on Saturday morning, they will be three weeks removed from a 22-point loss at Florida, when Malik Monk was seen laughing on the bench upon being serenaded in a Happy Birthday chorus by the Gators’ student section.

    Monk, who scored just 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting while celebrating 19 years of life, won’t be in as high of spirits for the rematch if Fox, who injured his right knee on Tuesday against Missouri, is unable to go. Fox is extremely questionable, though he did practice on a limited basis on Friday.

    If Fox can’t play, expect another big day out of Kasey Hill, who dropped a career-high tying 21 points on Kentucky in that 88-66 drubbing back on February 4th.

    Perhaps a Florida win would lead to Mike White’s men finally getting the respect they deserve. The Gators are ranked 4th in America according to KenPom, are coming off a 15-point win over South Carolina on Tuesday, and have reeled off nine straight victories.

    Yet they’re the runaway favorite for this year’s highest NCAA Tournament seed that you’ll know the least about, which will ensue in many office pool participants impulsively taking that 13-seed or 14-seed to upset Florida.

    Many wrote the Gators off after center John Egbunu went down with a torn ACL. In two games without their 6-foot-11 rim protector, Florida has allowed just 118 points in 140 possessions, holding Mississippi State and South Carolina to a combined 5-of-37 on threes.

    Stat to Know: Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo had his best game as a collegian on Tuesday, going for 22 points and 15 boards in a too-close-for-comfort 10-point win at Missouri. The Wildcats will need Bam plenty on Saturday against the likes of Devin Robinson, Kevarrius Hayes, and Justin Leon up front.

    No. 5 UCLA at No. 4 Arizona—Saturday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN

    ESPN’s College Gameday heads to Tucson, where Arizona almost never loses, for a highly-anticipated Top-5 Pac-12 showdown.

    The Wildcats, sitting at 15-1 in conference action, can win the Pac-12 regular season title outright with victories this Saturday and next, when they visit Arizona State. UCLA, meantime, is looking to wrap up the program’s first undefeated month of February since the 1994-95 campaign, which culminated in a national title for the Bruins.

    Lonzo Ball tweaked his right ankle in Thursday’s win at Arizona State, but the stud freshman being in a walking boot appears to be merely a precautionary measure.

    With Ball at less than 100 percent against ASU, T.J. Leaf took over, pouring in 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting. Leaf, who originally committed to Sean Miller and Arizona, is averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds on 65 percent shooting over his last six contests.

    Leaf and fellow probable one-and-done Lauri Markkanen will be a fascinating matchup to monitor. Markannen got the better of the head-to-head battle back on January 21st in Pauley Pavilion in a 96-85 Wildcats’ win.

    Then again, seemingly every Arizona player got the best of its UCLA adversary in the first meeting between these two teams. Four days later, it was USC that hardly broke a sweat offensively against the Bruins.

    In those two games, UCLA allowed 180 points in 148 possessions (1.22 points per possession), a stretch that prompted some to dismiss Steve Alford and company as a legitimate national title contender.

    In six games since, the Bruins have stepped it up defensively, as Washington State, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, and Arizona State managed a combined 0.98 points per possession.

    While that number won’t draw jealousy from defensive mavens like Rick Pitino and Tony Bennett, it’s a major step in the right direction for UCLA. The Bruins’ defensive surge is largely a product of two things: forcing more turnovers (opponents are turning the ball over on 16.1 percent of their possessions over the last six games, compared to just 10.8 percent of the time in that two-game Arizona/USC sample) and keeping opponents off the charity stripe (UCLA’s last six foes’ free throws attempted/field goals attempted ratio is 24 percent, significantly down from the 30.9 percent mark that Arizona/UCLA totaled).

    Stat to Know: Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and others better pay close attention to Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright out on the perimeter. Trier has hit 8-of-11 triples in his last two games, whereas PJC has knocked down 10-of-14 looks from behind the arc over his last three contests.

    BYU at No. 1 Gonzaga—Saturday, 10:15 p.m.

     The first step in Gonzaga becoming only the third team in the last 26 seasons to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated—joining the 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats and 2013-2014 Wichita State Shockers—is to finish the regular season unscathed, which the Bulldogs have a chance to do Saturday night at home versus BYU.

    Remember, BYU pulled off a win at McCarthey Athletic Center last year, but let’s just say that this edition of Gonzaga is slightly better than that January 14th, 2016 version.

    For starters, 7-foot-1, 300-pound giant Przemek Karnowski was unavailable that day, having undergone lower back surgery two weeks earlier. Johnathan Williams and Nigel Williams-Goss, the latter of which is a National Player of the Year candidate, were sitting out as redshirts. Jordan Mathews was still playing at Cal. And eventual McDonald’s All-American and bonafide sixth man Zach Collins was lighting it up at Bishop Gorman High School.

    Gonzaga beat BYU by 10 in a hostile Provo environment earlier this month, matching the Bulldogs’ thinnest margin of victory in West Coast Conference play this year. The nation’s top-ranked squad has won WCC games by 58, 47, 46, and 39 points.

    Assuming Gonzaga improves to 30-0 by handling the Cougars, Mark Few’s guys will next take the floor a week from Saturday in the WCC Tournament quarterfinals.

    Photo: @GatorsMBK

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