The Midwest region has been different than any other region in the NCAA Tournament. They had the lowest seed to win in the first round (Winthrop), the lowest seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen (UNLV), and the lowest seed in the Elite Eight (Oregon). Can the “Cinderella” Ducks knock off the defending champion Florida Gators?
Florida, the #1 seed, has not played to their potential thus far in the NCAA Tournament. However, it seems that the Gators have a switch that they turn on down the stretch to pull away. They dominated the second half against Jackson State in the opening round after trailing for most of the first half. In the second round, the Gators were down again to Purdue, but the experienced players made plays late in the game to get the victory. Against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, Florida had an athleticism and talent advantage again, but they needed more clutch performances to advance. They can’t afford a slow start against Oregon.
Oregon is one of the hottest teams in the country, dating back to the Pac-10 Tournament that they dominated. They have shed the “underachiever” label people have placed on them the past few years, and are now in line for a trip to Atlanta. They opened the Tournament with a hard-fought win over Miami (Ohio) in a game that went down to the wire. In the second round, the Ducks killed any Cinderella run Winthrop had in mind with a dominant second-half. Against UNLV in the Sweet Sixteen, Oregon controlled most of the game, but the Rebels made a late-game run that nearly brought them back in it. The Ducks need to keep their hot streak alive.
Florida came into the season as one of the favorites to win the National Championship, and, aside from a late-season slump, the Gators have been up to the task. Will the Gators be the first team since Duke to repeat, though? That remains to be seen. Florida can play multiple styles, and is never out of a game due to their talent and experience. They are one of the most complete teams in the country. Joakim Noah and Al Horford lead the way for the best frontcourt in the country. Noah is athletic and can do a variety of things. Horford is a very good rebounder and scorer in the post, while Corey Brewer is one of the best two-way players in the country. Taurean Green is an underappreciated point guard, while Lee Humphrey is one of the best three-point shooters around. Chris Richard is a banger off the bench that would start for most teams. Walter Hodge is quick on the perimeter. The Gators have all the ingredients for a title.
Oregon was projected to be a middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 team despite their high talent level, mostly because of the disappointing seasons they have had in the past few years. However, they have played to their potential this season. Oregon is a perimeter-oriented team that has a multitude of guys that can shoot the three. If they are hitting their threes, they are nearly impossible to beat. As mentioned previously, they are led by their terrific perimeter group. Aaron Brooks was a Player of the Year candidate for most of the season, and freshman Tajuan Porter can really stretch the defense. He had 33 points in the Sweet Sixteen Bryce Taylor is a good scorer, and Malik Hairston is extremely talented and has plenty of potential. Maarty Leunen gives them a good option down low. He can do a variety of things up front. The starters play most of the minutes, but Joevan Catron is a banger down low. The Ducks have the personnel to beat anyone.
This is going to be a very entertaining match-up between two teams that like to score. Expect plenty of points. Florida is better in a half-court setting than Oregon, but when the Ducks are knocking down their three-pointers, look out. Both teams have plenty of options offensively. If Florida is to make the repeat trip to the Final Four, they are going to need to take advantage of their post advantage. Oregon doesn’t have the big men to handle Joakim Noah and Al Horford down low, and the Gators have a huge edge there. Taurean Green needs to handle the ball pressure that Oregon is sure to provide. He can’t turn the ball over, which will give Oregon transition opportunities. Defensively, they need to get out on the Ducks’ shooters, and not allow them to get hot from deep. On the other side, Oregon has to find a way to defend the Florida post players. Oregon has a quickness advantage, but Florida is simply bigger and strong down low. Offensively, they need to take advantage of their perimeter players. Malik Hairston could be a key player, with his athleticism and versatility up front. Moreover, Aaron Brooks needs to be the catalyst for Oregon. He has to control the tempo, and outplay Taurean Green at the point of attack. In the end, I think that Florida has too much size down low. Oregon won’t have an answer for Noah and Horford. If the Ducks continue their hot shooting, though, expect a close game.
Prediction: Florida 74, Oregon 69
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