De’Aaron Fox turned in a performance for the ages on Friday night. In one of the most hyped individual showdowns in the recent history of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky’s freshman point guard completely dominated Lonzo Ball, his more highly touted UCLA counterpart. If this was a boxing match, it would have been called before the final bell. Fox racked up 39 points, the most ever by a freshman in the tourney, and the most by a Kentucky player in March Madness since Tayshaun Prince dropped 41 against Tulsa in 2002. Ball, by comparison, finished with 10 points. The game itself wasn’t much more competitive, with Kentucky pulling away to win 86–75, setting up a showdown with top-seeded North Carolina in the Elite Eight, a rematch of their classic game from December 17.
Fox wasted little time making a statement, scoring Kentucky’s first eight points, all on jumpers or floaters off the dribble. The biggest knock on his game — and the reason he isn’t considered in the same class of NBA prospects as fellow point guards Ball and Markelle Fultz — is because he’s such a poor shooter. He is shooting 23.4 percent from beyond the arc on the season, averaging only 1.9 attempts per game, and is in the 13th percentile of jump shooters in the entire country. Fox missed the only 3-pointer he attempted against UCLA, but it was one of the few shots he didn’t connect on: He went 13-of-20 from the field and 13-of-15 from the free throw line.
Fox got to the rim whenever he wanted against Ball, who could not stay in front of him on defense. At 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, Fox boasts a combination of size and speed that makes him a matchup nightmare. He’s one of the fastest players in the country, a blur who can slide his feet and give opposing ball handlers fits when he’s on defense; he can blow past defenders as if they aren’t even there when Kentucky is on offense. Ball is a good athlete who regularly plays above the rim, and Fox made him look like he had cement in his shoes. His play forced Bruins head coach Steve Alford to move Ball off Fox defensively, but none of UCLA’s other perimeter players had the size to bother Fox from shooting over the top of them in the lane. No matter what the Bruins tried Friday, Fox had an answer.
He was just as impressive on defense. He virtually took Ball out of the game, attacking his dribble and preventing him from getting many clean looks at the basket. There’s a thin line between being a pass-first point guard and passing up open looks, and Ball crossed it against Kentucky. He seemed to hear footsteps any time he got into the lane, and with his 3-point shot off (he was 1-of-6 from deep), he failed to manufacture other ways to score against an aggressive defense that swarmed him with NBA-caliber athletes. Cut the head off a snake and it dies — that’s exactly what happened to UCLA with its floor general struggling to create much offense.
The Bruins have the second-rated adjusted offense in the nation according to KenPom, and there were stretches against Kentucky when they couldn’t get a good look. That’s a testament to the Wildcats, who have won 13 in a row largely thanks to the strength of their defense. With the exception of freshman forward TJ Leaf, who had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, everyone else on UCLA’s roster depended on Ball to spoon-feed them open shots. And while the Bruins normally take care of the ball well for a team that plays as fast as they do, they had 16 assists to 13 turnovers on Friday. The passing windows were tighter than usual, the driving lanes were nonexistent, and UCLA’s free-flowing offense was stuck in the mud for most of the night.
Were it not for Fox and his backcourt partner Malik Monk, Kentucky’s offense wouldn’t have been much better. Head coach John Calipari’s team didn’t have a very balanced scoring effort: Fox and Monk combined to score 60 of the 86 points. They shot 21-of-37 from the field; the rest of the team was 10-for-26. Stars shine brightest on the biggest stages, and the two future lottery picks looked the part, with Fox collapsing UCLA’s defense and Monk knocking down shots when the ball swung back out. They complement each other extremely well, and the Bruins had no counter to their combination of size and athleticism. Few teams do.
It will now be up to North Carolina to stop them, and Fox and Monk had their way with the Tar Heels in their first matchup, a 103–100 Wildcats’ win. UNC, which is more experienced and plays better defense than UCLA, will likely try to keep the ball out of the duo’s hands as much as possible. Kentucky will need more strong shooting performances from seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, who went a combined 5-of-11 from 3 against UCLA and did just enough to prevent the Bruins from completely overloading to stop Fox and Monk.
No matter what happens on Sunday, the way Fox played against Ball is going to raise a lot of questions for the NBA teams drafting at the top of the lottery. While UCLA won the December game between these teams, Fox got the better of that individual matchup as well, and Ball’s issues when facing a player with his Fox’s athleticism raise concerns about how his unique skill set will translate to the next level. Fox, on the other hand, could see his stock skyrocket: If he can keep shooting like he did on Friday, there’s no telling how good he can be.