UCLA-Florida Final Four Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 03/30/2007
I'm certain there's been at least a dozen times over the past 358 days that Ben Howland has woken up screaming and howling in the middle of the night. Covered in sweat and fear, the UCLA coach most likely snapped out of a shallow sleep, confused, wondering how it all went so horribly wrong on that fateful night last April.
Over that same period of time, there's certainly been more than one moment where Aaron Afflalo has caught himself staring blankly into the mirror. There he stood, ashamed, frightened, and puzzled at how he could have been dominated and humiliated like that in front of several million onlookers. He's had to reason with his reflection while searching for an answer as to why he isn't cashing an NBA paycheck right now - and had to deal with the fact that it all had to do with that humbling night last April.
But Howland and Afflalo will get the one thing that so many people, in all walks of life, never receive. They'll get a second chance and a shot at redemption.
UCLA will engage Florida at 8:45 p.m. EST on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for an NCAA men's basketball national semifinal. The game will be the rematch of last year's National Championship Game, in which the Gators dismantled the Bruins en-route to a 73-57 victory in Indianapolis. Florida has been instilled as a three-point favorite.
Florida head coach Billy Donovan completely outmaneuvered Howland in last year's meeting. The Bruins looked frightened and hesitant, and appeared to be totally unprepared to deal with the Gators' size and offensive scheme while falling behind by 11 points in the first half.
Afflalo suffered through a nightmare of a game as well. He went 3-for-10 from the field, notching just 10 points while committing three turnovers all the while being harassed by Florida's Corey Brewer. Afflalo, then a sophomore guard, had intentions of leaving early to the NBA after a triumphant tournament. But that embarrassing performance forced him back for his junior year and set the stage for this rematch.
The Gators brought back seven of the eight players that logged minutes in that title game, while the Bruins returned six of nine. Because so many of the principal performers are back, this game has all the makings of an emotionally gripping thriller. Past, present and future judgments will all come to a spectacular crescendo in the Georgia Dome, and onlookers should be prepared for a feisty 40 minutes of blood ball.
Strategically, I will say that UCLA was hurt more by the defections from last year's club. Center Ryan Hollins, forward Cedric Bozeman and current Laker Jordan Farmar were the three that have moved on. The loss of Hollins and Bozeman is particularly troubling because Florida so dominated the interior in last year's contest.
However, there are many observers that think this year's version of the Bruins is better equipped to handle the powerful Gators. UCLA is 11-1 SU against Top 25 teams this season, by far the best record of any team in the country. Their three frontcourt players - Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and Luc Mbah a Moute - each faced Florida last year but are clearly more polished players now. Also, versatile swingman Josh Shipp adds another perimeter imposing scorer for UCLA. Finally, point guard Darren Collison is much more of a scoring threat and a better defender this year than Farmar was last year.
The Bruins possess the nation's No. 16 scoring defense and have held their four tournament opponents to an average of 50 points per game. One of those teams that they shut down was Kansas in the West Regional Final. Kansas entered their match-up with UCLA with the No. 20 scoring offense at 78.4 points per but were stifled by the Bruins. They forced 21 turnovers and managed to hold the Jayhawks to just 41-percent shooting, including a rotten 13-for-37 on dunks and layups.
But that last statistic begs the question of whether or not it was the swarming Bruins defense or a putrid effort from the Kansas offense that was really the reason for UCLA's victory. Further, all five Florida starters are averaging double digits. There aren't many more versatile offenses in the country and I don't know if the Bruins have faced anything so multifaceted.
I also think that this game will be much less a question of whether UCLA can slow down Florida's offense as it will be whether or not the Bruins can score enough points to advance. In four of the five games that Florida lost this season the team that beat them managed 70 or more points. The Bruins have hit that mark just seven times in their past 21 games.
Florida may have a slight home court edge over UCLA in this one as well. The Gators have won back-to-back SEC Championships on the floor of the Georgia Dome. They'll also be playing a much shorter distance from home, and in the heart of SEC country. I imagine that the Gators will be well represented. Conversely, this will be UCLA's first game outside the state of California in nearly a month.
Howland only had one day to prepare for the Gators last year, as opposed to the week he's been working on them this season. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles he'll have devised to take advantage of any perceived weaknesses in Florida's armor. UCLA is 7-2 against the spread against teams from the SEC, and that includes a 59-45 victory over LSU last year in this round with time to organize.
In addition, I believe that the Afflalo-Brewer matchup - as well as who plays better between Taureen Green and Darren Collison - will likely go a long way in determining which team will move one step closer to claiming this year's banner. Also, Florida has gotten off the slow starts over the past month while UCLA plays outstanding with a lead. But no matter what, one thing is for certain: it will take a truly flawless performance to derail the Gators.
Florida's five starters all spurned the clarion call of the NBA last year in order to return and claim another title, thus cementing their legacy among college basketball's all-time great teams. They've been preparing and focused on this moment for over 358 days. But they're not the only ones. UCLA will have one last shot to alter history and change the landscape of college basketball.
History beckons; who will answer?
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