Friday, March 30, 2007

Florida vs. UCLA Preview

For a complete preview of the Final Four, click here.

It’s not often that college basketball gets a Final Four game matching last season’s national finalists. However, that’s exactly what the country will have Saturday night. Florida, the defending champion, will take on UCLA, who rode the #2 seed in the West to the Final Four—just like last season. Can Florida keep their dreams for a repeat title alive? Moreover, can UCLA overcome last year’s loss to the Gators and make it back to the title game? It seems fitting that the greatest dynasty of all-time (UCLA) is facing off against the new “dynasty.”

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 faced a very hot team in the Elite Eight in Oregon. However, the Ducks got in foul trouble and essentially ran out of bullets down the stretch, enabling Florida to advance.

UCLA didn’t come into the Tournament with momentum, losing two in a row, which dropped them from a likely top seed to the #2 slot. However, it hasn’t mattered—as UCLA ended up in the Final Four for the second straight year. They dominated Weber State in the first round, but didn’t have as easy of a team with Indiana in the second round. They looked well on their way to an easy win, but they allowed the Hoosiers back in the game before pulling out the W. Against Pittsburgh in the Sweet Sixteen, the teacher vs. protégé angle was hyped up with Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, but Howland and the Bruins used their defense to control the entire game for the victory. In the Elite Eight, the Bruins faced a more talented and more athletic team in Kansas, but UCLA’s defense frustrated the Jayhawks all day, and a dominant second half allowed UCLA to advance.

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.

UCLA has been a threat to repeat their trip to the Final Four since the preseason. Like most Ben Howland teams, they play terrific defense, and will never be out of a game due to that side of the floor. Moreover, the Bruins have several weapons on the offensive end. UCLA has arguably the best backcourt in the country, at both ends of the floor. Darren Collison has developed into a terrific point guard, due to his speed and quickness. Arron Afflalo is an All-American candidate, but he has struggled somewhat in the Tournament. Throw in Josh Shipp, and the Bruins are loaded on the perimeter. Inside, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can do a variety of things, and Lorenzo Mata provides rebounding and defense. Mbah a Moute made a name for himself last year in the Dance, but he hasn’t played well lately. Michael Roll provides shooting off the bench, and Russell Westbrook is a good combo guard. Alfred Aboya is a solid performer inside.

This rematch of last year’s national title game should be a lot closer than the previous meeting. Two of the best coaches in America will go against each other—with Billy Donovan potentially heading to Kentucky after the season an underlying story for the weekend. Will Ben Howland get back to the title game, after essentially bringing the UCLA program back to prominence? This should be a terrific contest. Both teams are outstanding half-court defensive groups, with the Bruins being arguably the best defensive team in the country. They have plenty of quick perimeter defenders that can disrupt dribble penetration. Florida dominates the backboards and makes it tough for opponents to get points in the paint.

In terms of personnel, the big key is going to be UCLA’s ability to defend Florida’s post players. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is not overly physical and Lorenzo Mata is not very athletic. Joakim Noah and Al Horford could have huge games. If that’s the case, Florida should come out on top. If the Gators are going to keep their repeat hopes alives, they will need to take advantage of their edge inside. Noah is too versatile for Mata, and Horford is far too athletic and strong for either of them. On the perimeter, Lee Humphrey needs to knock down his shots. He was terrific last year in the Final Four and last week against Oregon, and he needs to give them perimeter production again. Taurean Green also needs to take care of the ball against the quickness of UCLA’s Darren Collison. Corey Brewer has to play within the offense, and not try to force things like he did against Butler. Defensively, they can’t allow Arron Afflalo or Josh Shipp to get hot from the wing, and they have to contain Darren Collison. For UCLA to pull off the upset, they have to control Horford and Noah down low, as mention above. They can’t allow those two to dominate. Furthermore, they have to cut off the perimeter shots for Florida. If the Gators become one-dimensional, they are easier to beat. Offensively, Darren Collison needs to set the tone immediately and outplay Green. Arron Afflalo has to be the go-to-guy that he is, and Josh Shipp has to give the Bruins the third option they desperately need offensively. Production inside from Mbah a Moute would be huge. In the end, I think that Florida has too much balance at both ends and too many options offensively. I think that UCLA could have a lot of trouble scoring unless Afflalo or Shipp has a huge game. The Gators advance.

Prediction: Florida 68, UCLA 62

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