There are a number of previews out there already and there will be countless more previews on the UCLA v. Florida game. As I read them I often laugh at what is written about UCLA. For example, the great athletes of UCLA (ah the best one is on the bench and only one "great athlete" in the starting lineup), "the Bruins consistency" (because we have not lost two games in a row except for the suspension game but did they see some of the "one-in-a-rows?"), the post up games of the Wears, etc. In fairness though, I realize I might be a lot like the guys writing these previews talking about Florida. I have not seen them this year. Not once; just like most of the "experts" writing about UCLA. Maybe I have an aversion to watching them because of past history.
So let me do this "preview" differently.
While I can't be truly dispassionate about this game, there are a lot of interesting neutral story lines in this game.
I. Talent v. Experience
First off most agree that UCLA has the "better athletes" which I think is ridiculous but it seems the better way to look at it is NBA prospects. UCLA has more NBA prospects than Florida. While I think this is ludicrous, nbadraft.net has three Bruins going in the first round to zero for Florida. I think all are a bit overrated in this service but the point is made. UCLA has some serious potential NBA talent on its roster and Florida has maybe one prospect. This is not a game where UCLA is going to have no possible answer to a Florida Star like the infamous title game and Joakim Noah.
Much is made about the one and done. Florida starts four seniors and one sophomore. They are led by a senior Scottie Wilbekin who was only a 2 star in high school. (By contrast UCLA has four McDonald All Americans in addition to highly rated guys like Zach LaVine.)
However, UCLA is relatively a veteran team with a caveat. UCLA starts 2 fifth year seniors, a junior, and two sophomores who have started almost every game of their careers. The experience edge is not that big, except in the tournament. Florida has been to the elite eight the last three seasons. All UCLA players combined have played in less tournament games than Wilbekin or any of the other three Senior Florida starters have played in individually.
My guess as to what this means is Florida will not panic if UCLA goes on a run at some point in the game. They know what is like to be on this stage. Further Florida's two losses have come against fellow sweet 16 teams. Florida is not going to lose this game; UCLA is going to have to win it. Further, UCLA is going to have play with the intensity they showed at Haas and against Arizona to win. The "consistent" UCLA will need to play 40 minutes and have players diving and leaving it all on the court.
II. It is not the same Florida v. UCLA
First off, Florida Coach Billy Donovan has in a sense already beaten "good" Ben Howland this tournament. Donovan beat Howland protégé Jamie Dixon and Pittsburgh in their last game. Donovan legitimately owns Howland. Despite what fans like most of the readers here think, Donovan does not "own" UCLA. At least not yet. He owned Howland.
This is important because with the exception of the Wears who were around as redshirts, none of the current players have experienced Florida before. They do not have the fans dread/fear/hatred of Florida. This is not Arizona who they hear about all the time and have to play. This is not quite the same as talking about the Big E but it is closer to a history lesson like that to the players than the relatively recent wound of Joakim Noah to the "old-timers."
The one thing that is constant is Donovan. Donovan has won championships, made the elite eight three times in a row, etc. while Alford has never been further than the sweet 16. I don't care about that. Donovan is a great coach period. That is the same. What is Alford going to do about it?
Instead of talking about the Florida 28 game win streak, let's talk about UCLA five game win streak. The UCLA win streak has all been over tournament teams, two of which are still playing (Arizona and Stanford). Teams that have a combined tournament record of 6-3. What has Alford done during that streak? Three things in three different games that he needs to do, or at least be prepared to do, against Florida.
1. Play the bench less. Bryce is in over his head as a freshman point guard against a great defense like Florida. Zach is not playing well right now. Tony is an x-factor but the starting unit is passing amazingly and Tony, generally speaking, does not pass. Playing the bench less was a key to the win over the most similar to Florida team UCLA has played, Arizona. In that game, each member of the bench only played 13 minutes.
2. Adjust on offense. Before the season I thought Oregon's Altman was a very good coach. Oregon was supposed to be the hottest team in the PAC 12 tournament and UCLA destroyed them. In part because of a shocking offensive gimmick against their presses and changing defenses: Travis Wear as the high post in a sort of triangle offense. Travis went 6-8 and had 5 assists. UCLA has some strange offensive versatility (how many teams have a situation where the 1-3 are better posting up then the 4 and 5 and the 4 and 5 are better jump shooters than the 2?). They need to take full advantage of it and the game plan needs to reflect it.
3. Mix up the defenses. Putting aside Washington State for a moment, the worst loss to me of the season was to Oregon State. In that game, UCLA inexplicable played zone the entire game. I am not questioning the use of zone but rather the use of one defense for an entire game. Stephen F. Austin hit four of their first five shots and was destroying our man to man to open the game. We switched to a zone and they did not do anything the rest of the game. We switched to a press and then promptly turned the ball over multiple times. All year Alford has been predictable on when he is going to go zone (the Bryce-Zach platoon) and it was great to see that change. Against a team as good as Florida and a coach as smart as Donovan, he better be ready to use every tool in his arsenal and not wait for a platoon.
III. The Classic Match Up of Offense v. Defense
UCLA's low score in their last five games is 75 points against Arizona, a game in which they outscored Arizona's previous opponents for a game in the first half. In tournament play (SEC and NCAA), Florida has not scored more than 72 points and is averaging 63 a game. This is a classic matchup of offense v. defense.
The Gators feature the country's No. 2 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com. They get turnovers on 21.8 percent of possessions, and allow just a 44.9-percent effective field goal percentage. UCLA, however, counteracts Florida's greatest strength. The Bruins have the 11th-lowest turnover percentage, and while they rely on the three, they shoot it well, knocking down 38.6 percent of their attempts. Few teams are built to attack the Gators, but UCLA is one of them.
This is not your older brother's Florida v. UCLA. UCLA won the last game against a great defensive team. UCLA's offense is playing at a very high level. Let's keep it going.
Go Bruins, beat the Gators.