UCLA head basketball coach Steve Alford and players Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf talk about Kentucky in their official press conference yesterday in Memphis.
STEVE ALFORD: Well, excited to be back in Memphis. We were here three years ago, played a very good Florida team, and now obviously going to play an outstanding Kentucky team. But it’s great to be back here, and our guys have done a tremendous job getting themselves back to here. We’ve had a phenomenal year, and it’s a busy time of year for us. We’re in finals, so we’ve got the better part of 60 percent of our team finishing finals today at 3:30. So we hope the media portion goes fairly quickly because we do have academics that we have to take care of before we get back into team meetings. But we’re very excited about being here.
Q. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to upstage your players on a court like that? Just kidding.
STEVE ALFORD: I told them we have to step it up. Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.
Q. Lonzo looked like he had the tape off of his thumb. Can you give us an update on him as well as Ike?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, he and Ike are great. I think Lonzo is as close to 100 percent as he’s been in a long, long time and Ike is nearing that. They’ve both practiced all week. Lonzo practiced all last week, too. But Ike has made every practice this week and has been full go. Last week obviously was day-to-day and we were monitoring what he did, but I think he’s going to be near 100 percent, as well. We at least come into this weekend being as close to 100 percent as we can.
Q. Can you hit that shot any time you want still?
STEVE ALFORD: No, no, and it hurts a lot more. It hurts a lot more.
Q. I was going to ask you to compare I guess the growth of De’Aaron Fox from when you played them in December. How has his game matured?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, we thought he was awfully good when we were in Lexington in December, and I think he’s just continued to get better. He obviously is like a lot of freshmen, they look one way in December and by the time they get to March, it’s not just their skill set, but now you combine their skill set with some experience. And so now that’s what you’re doing. He’s got experience now. He knows what this is about now. He knows what road games are about. He knows what tournament play is about. But 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. 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 a awful lot of respect for him in December. He had a really good game against us in December.
Q. How much different is your team from that first match-up?
STEVE ALFORD: That’s a good question. You know, I think both of our teams are better. I think when you look at the December game, we had 18 turnovers. I’m sure Cal was probably disappointed with some things that his team did in that game, as well. I just think we’re better. They’ve won 13 straight. I think we’ve won 12 out of 13 or 13 out of 14, if I’m not mistaken. So you’ve got two teams that have really settled into their identity of being up-tempo, fast-paced, very skilled players that are playing the game at a fast pace and making decisions.
I’ve always said it, it’s one thing to play up-tempo, it’s another thing to play up-tempo and yet under control. We had nine turnovers in the first two rounds in the NCAA Tournament. That’s unheard of playing as fast as we want to play. And that’s going to be a big key in tomorrow’s game, as well.
I don’t think we’re going to feel very good if we’ve turned it over 18 times like we did in December. So I think we’ve gotten better at taking care of the ball. We’ve gotten better defensively, and I’m sure Cal thinks, and at least on film it looks that way to us, they’ve improved in a lot of areas, as well.
Very similar, though, in that both teams love transition. I think first game was 25-21 us in transition. That’s a lot of transition points. I think both coaches feel pretty good about their transition offense. They probably feel better about their transition defense than what we did in December.
Q. When you look at that match-up or when the bracket was released and you saw that you could play Kentucky in this round, what were your thoughts, and also looking forward you’ve got North Carolina here, too. What’s that say about the strength of this regional?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, I think more than — initially you only look at that first bracket, and because I’ve been doing this long enough, you start looking ahead at different brackets and what region you’re in and those type of things, you end up not even getting to that point. We really focused on that bracket. Now, obviously as coaches you start looking ahead, and okay, what region are we in? And we saw that we’re in the South, but if we were fortunate enough to get to the Regional round, there was a good opportunity we were going to be seeing Kentucky and the likes of North Carolina. And then obviously Butler has a tremendous culture.
So when you look at this region, I think it’s the only region that went chalk in 1, 2, 3, 4. Obviously there’s opinions and arguments, but we feel like this is obviously the toughest region, and you’re probably going to have to play not just good basketball, but you’re going to have to play very good basketball because all four of these teams are capable of advancing to the Final Four.
Q. You talked about De’Aaron Fox being a great player and a freshman. You’ve got one yourself that everybody is looking at. What is it like as a coach to coach a guy like that, and how do you guys kind of mind-meld to try to get what you want done on the court?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve had a lot of special players, a lot of great players that I’ve been able to coach and be around. Zo is just one of those elite guys that, not only does he have a phenomenal skill set, but he said it after our game against Cincinnati, that he felt like he had a good feel. And I interrupted him in the press conference, and I said, no, no, no, you have a great feel. It’s one of those — I’ve had very few times in a 26-year career where I’ve actually taken a pause in games and said, what do you think? Because I trust him that much, that he has such an unbelievable feel to the game. It’s like, what do you want? What do you want to do defensively here? What do you want to do offensively?
So that trust factor from coach to your point guard is at a really high level, and he’s just — he’s a teammate — it goes all the way back to like a McDonald’s All-American game. You had guys, Josh Jackson, you had several guys after that that were interviewed saying, who wouldn’t way to play with that guy? And our guys top to bottom would tell you the same thing. He’s just a tremendous teammate to play with because he thinks teammate first. And there’s a lot of point guards out there that think teammate first, but they can’t think teammate first and then make that teammate look really good next. He can do that. His passes are on point. His passes are timely. And then his shots that he takes, he’s got a really good feel on when to go to his 3 ball and when to go to the rim, and he’s really improved defensively with his activity as the season has gone along.
They don’t come around very often, especially at 6’6″, long, athletic, running the point. I think he’s just a very special talent, and a lot of that goes not just because of his skill set but because of how smart he is. He’s a very smart basketball player.
Q. There aren’t a lot of Regionals ever where North Carolina-Butler would be kind of the opening game of the night, but as someone who grew up in Indiana, played at Indiana, played Kentucky on a regular basis and now works where you work, something about the UCLA-Kentucky thing has kind of a special sizzle to it. Is that the way you see it, or are we seeing too much into it?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, the neat thing is you’ve got the two programs that have the most National Titles in UCLA and Kentucky. And I give Cal that credit. He reached out to me, it had to be three years ago when we got into the Champions Classic with Carolina, with Ohio State, Kentucky and ourselves. And we’ve kind of been doing a round-robin for three years, and that’ll start up again next year in three different cities than what we’ve had the previous three so we continue that. And when he called me about that, he also talked about a home-and-home, and obviously a lot of our talk as we started talking about that was what that meant for our fan bases. The Kentucky fan base to have a UCLA coming into Rupp, and for our fan base at UCLA in Westwood to have a team like Kentucky coming into Pauley Pavillion. So it just seemed like a great match-up of two bluebloods that have had tradition like no other, long before I was at UCLA or even Cal was at Kentucky.
I appreciate him reaching out and agreeing to do it because I think it’s been a really good series, if anything, for our fans, and now here we are in a another neutral sitting. We’ve done the neutral setting in Chicago, which I’d just as soon forget, and then we’ve done the home-and-home, and here we are in a another neutral sitting in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve done the home-and-home, we’ve done the preseason stuff, and now here it is in the postseason.
Q. When you think of Adebayo, Fox and Monk, what are the first things that come to mind?
STEVE ALFORD: Elite. They’re top of the food chain. We’ve got great respect. It obviously starts there. It doesn’t finish there because they’ve got other components to their team that make them very, very special. But with Bam you’ve got an elite center, great athletic ability that can beat you in a lot of ways. He’s averaging 14-14 in the tournament. You’ve got Fox, who can break down just about any defense that he’s gone against, and Monk is one of the most prolific scorers in our game today.
Those three are very special. They’re very elite. And those are three of the reasons — there’s many more reasons, but those are three very good reasons why they’re in the position they’re in.
Q. On top of the chance to make it to the Elite 8, knowing that your son and Isaac are graduating and Lonzo and maybe others are leaving, how does that affect the importance of a game like tomorrow to you?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, it’s one of those things where you almost don’t want to think about it just because I’ve said it all along, I love this team. The character of this team has been phenomenal. The blending of the vets with the new guys has been a lot of fun to see that happen, all the way back from the summer months where we were getting ready. It’s just been a fun team, and we’ve just had so much fun not just in games and winning games but our practices, shoot-arounds like this, bus rides with Zo playing his music, trying to get Tommy Welsh’s one country music in, having conversations like that on the bus, TJ Leaf trying to get a date with Taylor Swift. It’s just been a fun team.
So when you’re a part of that, you don’t ever want it to end, so there’s an urgency, one, as coaches in preparation, but then as a team you want to relax them, too, so they don’t feel it. But we were here three years ago with a great team and Bryce was a freshman. We were talking about that today before our shootaround. He’s the only one from that team because Isaac was ineligible to travel with us that year. Bryce and Isaac have been a part of a lot of things for us, and we appreciate everything that they’ve built, so you want them as seniors as well as this team to try to continue to play and do this as much as we can because we have so much fun.
Q. Lonzo, do you put any pressure on yourself any more than what it seems like the whole world is putting on you? How do you feel about that?
LONZO BALL: I just go out there and play basketball. I enjoy playing the game, and I try not to listen to the distractions.
Q. Is there anything like the coach says, he sometimes asks you what do you think on a play, and because he respects your basketball IQ. A little bit about how you developed that and your relationship with Coach Alford and getting things done on the court?
LONZO BALL: I think it’s just playing point guard my whole life. I see things before they happen and I kind of have a good feel for the game. As far as Coach Alford goes, he’s a players’ coach, and I’ll do anything for him.
Q. How are you different than when you played Kentucky in December, and how much more sophisticated is your game maybe than it was then?
LONZO BALL: I think we picked up a lot on defense. Our defense was way better than it was back then, and if we want to win, we can’t give up 92.
Q. Lonzo, I know you’re focused on this game, but you have to play with a real special guy named Nnamdi Okongwu. What was your relationship with him like, and have you thought about him at all during this run, and if you have, what comes to mind about the special times that you did have with him?
LONZO BALL: Yeah, Nnamdi was one of my best friends, and when he passed, it kind of hit me kind of hard. I pray to God every day and talk to him. I just know he’s in a better place right now.
Q. How special is this time? You know he would have played at this level, too, and I’m sure you guys spent some awesome times together on the basketball court. Does part of you feel like you’re playing for not only him but yourself throughout this tournament?
LONZO BALL: Yeah, man, and he has a little brother, so I talk to him all the time. He plays in Chino Hills, so we stay in touch. He’s like a brother to me too. Like I said, I know he’s in a better place, and I know he’s looking over me.
Q. Do you ever think about you’re in a blueblood program as a lot of people like to call it, Kentucky is a blueblood program and you guys are carrying on a tradition that’s been at the top of basketball? How does that feel playing on a team like UCLA and playing in a game like this against another program that’s storied like yourself?
TJ LEAF: I mean, it’s huge. You look at the history for both programs. Just us, we have 11 National Championships, that in itself, makes it so much more fun of a match-up because of the history behind both programs and how successful they’ve both been.
LONZO BALL: Same thing. Obviously they’re rich in tradition. We are, too. It’s always going to be fun when the two match up.
Q. Knowing Coach has never been past the Sweet 16 and knowing Bryce and Isaac aren’t going to be here next year, who knows who else won’t be here next year, how much does that add to the importance for you guys to do it for Coach?
LONZO BALL: It’s very important. We always go out there trying to win, and I don’t think we’ve beat another team like that in while. It’s a very good team, so I think it’s our opportunity, and we’ve got to take it.
TJ LEAF: Yeah, it’s very important. I don’t know if it’s just for those guys, but we all want to win every time we set up on the court, especially a big match-up like this. We’re all very competitive and we don’t even think about losing, we just want to win. So we’re just going to go out there and give it our all.
Q. Lonzo, do you really pick your spots out there because it seems like you take over games in the second half, kind of play how you see it in the first half? Is that playing or are you just playing how you go?
LONZO BALL: That’s how I take what the game gives me. I know when I can get going and I try to get my teammates going first because I know I can pick it up when I need to, and it definitely helps when they’re on.
Q. Lonzo, a year ago before you two guys came in, the team was 15-17. Did you know that you two when you came in were going to have this kind of impact on the Bruins’ results?
LONZO BALL: Well, I know what I can do on the court and quickly found out what TJ can do on the court. We played in high school, I think he averaged like 40 and 20. I knew he would be a big help and Ike as well, and when you mix the young guys with the old guys and make something great, and that’s what we have.
Q. Lonzo, you’ve got big guys who can shoot that tend to spread the floor and open up things for you. How important is that going to be in Friday’s game?
LONZO BALL: That helps a lot. With Kentucky, they block shots with the best in the country. So it helps when you’ve got a 5 man and a 4 man that can stretch him out a little bit. Yeah, it helps my game tremendously, just they always spread out of the court. TJ can hit threes, Tom 17 foot. It helps a lot?
Q. You guys mentioned this season it was a mix of young and old guys coming together. At what point in the season do you guys think that you really clicked, that it all came together, the adjustment period was over and you guys really felt good?
TJ LEAF: I don’t know if there’s just one specific point. I think our foreign trip in the summer helped quite a bit on that. We got to know each other really well off the court and got some well-played games on the court against grown men, so I think that helped a lot. But just as the season went on and we got — we have almost 100 practices under our belt with the 30-plus games, I think just as time went on we just got to know how to play with each other, and off the court we all became really close, and I think that helps, as well.
Q. Lonzo, can you talk a little bit about the difference in De’Aaron Fox from the first time you played, talk about his game and how it’s changed from when you look at him on film?
LONZO BALL: De’Aaron is a great player, one of the best guards in the country hands down. It’s a tough match-up, got to come ready to play because I know he is.
Q. Lonzo, your father has made a lot of statements about your ability, and I just wonder, is it a challenge for you to keep focused on the game at hand when your father makes as many headlines as he has?
LONZO BALL: No, not at all. It’s pretty normal for me. He’s been talking like this since I’ve been born, so it’s nothing new for me, y’all get to see it for the first time, and he’s always on TV. That’s the only difference?
Q. Steve talked about how much he enjoys your team here, and just moments ago he hit a half-court shot, all net. I saw the reaction of the players. What’s your feeling about having him as a players’ coach if that’s how you would describe him, and also the fact that he can still shoot the basketball?
TJ LEAF: I mean, just last maybe two weeks ago, I was shooting free throws and he was just behind me shooting threes. He made literally like 50 out of 52. So he can still — I mean, he can probably beat most of us in horse. But other than that, he can’t do a whole lot. But it’s great playing for him. We have a lot of fun with him. He’s definitely a players’ coach. He asks what we see on the court. He asks our opinions on things. And he’s just a joy to play for.
LONZO BALL: And we’ve been shooting half-court shots all year. That’s like his first make.
TJ LEAF: Don’t let it fool you.