National Championship Preview: A Team's Time

By going the distance and reaching the Monday night lights--just as Mike Miller and Company did in Indianapolis six years ago--the 2006 Florida Gator hoopsters have, by all accounts, stamped themselves as the best UF basketball team of all time.

It's only fitting, then, that as Billy Donovan's boys make the short turnaround and prepare to face UCLA, this special team will need to play its very best team game of the year if it wants to knock off college basketball royalty and win the first national title in over 90 years of Gator basketball.

In the process of analyzing any sporting event, there are your obvious keys and your not-so-obvious keys. Let's get beyond the obvious points (shooting, the point guard battle, Florida's ballhandling, and Corey Brewer coming up big) and deal with the kinds of issues that aren't so easy to identify as tip-of f time approaches on April 3, six years to the day when Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State denied Florida in the Gators' first title game inside the RCA Dome.

Let's take three overarching keys to the game and address them in complete detail.

The first key concerns the way the Gators play defense... and I'm talking not so much about effort or personal performance as I'm referring to the strategy Billy Donovan will use. Joakim Noah can do so much by himself that he enables his teammates to stay on their man assignments. This reality always makes man-to-man defense a viable and legitimate option for Florida. But as a Seattle resident and someone who's gotten a lot of chances to view UCLA this year, I can say with clarity that the Bruins are lethal against man defenses--the way they clinically dissected LSU Saturday night was not aberrational or rare in any way. (I thought LSU would win not because of its defense, but because I thought Big Baby and Tyrus Thomas would destroy UCLA at the offensive end as low-post scorers and rebounders.)

West Virginia used its quirky 1-3-1 zone defense to confuse the Bruins in a game UCLA lost at Pauley Pavilion earlier this season, but when Pac-10 teams went to a man look on defense, Ben Howland's boys carved up their in-league opposition. This pattern continued in the NCAA Tournament. Whenever Alabama (second round) and Gonzaga (regional semifinals) got UCLA to hoist an excessive amount of perimeter shots, the Bruins labored mightily. But when Jordan Farmer beat his man off the dribble and the Bruins ran their sets against man defenses, they thrived. Donovan--like any elite coach--will surely mix defenses and give UCLA a lot of looks early on (Howland will do the same right back at Billy D). But if Florida wants to rely on one defense more than another, zone is the percentage choice. Taking away UCLA's halfcourt sets and making them hit from deep is the most sensible course. George Mason and Jim Larranaga were smart to make Florida beat them behind the arc; fortunately for the Gators, Lee Humphrey was nails. Monday night, it's Billy D who should take away the paint and make the Bruins knock down the long ball. This is much like UF's breakthrough game in this tournament, the 57-53 win over Georgetown in the Sweet 16. UF dared the Hoyas to hit big threes while taking away Roy Hibbert, and the results spoke for themselves. After two games in which taking away the three-point line was of paramount importance (Villanova, George Mason), Florida sure seems to be in a matchup where they need to once again take away the interior, as was the case against the Hoyas.

If Florida does indeed play zone, the Gators--like any team that goes zone--must be aware of the pure shooters on UCLA's team, and close them down. Much as George Mason didn't shut down Lee Humphrey once the Tennessee native established himself as a hot shooter, the Gators will suffer if they don't stop UCLA's main bombers. The leader of this pack is Michael Roll, UCLA's poor-man version of Humpty. Making these kinds of identifications and pinching a guy like Roll (while making Farmar or Darren Collison shoot the ball more) are essential components of a successful zone defense.

The second big key concerns the chameleon-like nature of the NCAA Tournament and its three-weekend, three-venue plot twists. I personally leaned ever so slightly toward picking Florida to win it all once the Final Four matchups were set, but I didn't commit to a national championship pick because I wanted to see how each National Semifinal played out. There's more than a little reason for doing this, and it plays into the way in which one should view Monday's title game between the Gators and the Bruins.

The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is found in its identity as a supremely organic and evolving event. The Big Dance has a distinctly different personality during each of its three weekends. The first weekend is a frenzied fight for survival: underdogs roar with a combination of confidence and desperation, while the favorites sweat major bullets as they try to get past these pesky directional schools and mid-majors. The second weekend is the time when many of the favorites from the first weekend become underdogs against No. 1 seeds. This enables those underdog teams--now free from pressure--to play their best game and take down the goliaths of the sport who still feel enormous pressure to make the Final Four. (LSU beating Duke was a perfect example of this particular dynamic. Washington and Boston College came within an eyelash of doing the same thing to UConn and Villanova under similar circumstances.)

Speaking of the Final Four, the third and final weekend of the NCAA Tournament offers the huge backdrop of a big dome, the national media feeding frenzy, and various other forces that, come game time on Semifinal Saturday, separate the hunger of some elite teams from the nervousness of other elite teams. The emotional dynamic that worked so well for George Mason in the first two weekends simply did not exist in the third weekend. What was a cozy, intimate, feel-good movie of the year became a national story with a weight that the Patriots just didn't handle well. GMU showed plenty of game, but Mason threw up a bunch of bricks because they were both tight (a response to the atmosphere) and tired (a result of Billy Donovan's superb substitution patterns and long-term strategy in Saturday's game). In the second semifinal, LSU--whose mindset was so good against Duke and Texas, and whose energy level was through the roof in those two games from the Atlanta Regional--came out flat as a pancake against UCLA, never to recover. If you've never a ppreciated this reality before, you need to realize it now: teams are not the same during each successive weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Champions almost always have one bad game they get away with during the march to a title: they don't play at the same level, but instead experience a series of transformations and close shaves that redefine them as they go from one city to another.

With all this as prelude, let's look at Florida and UCLA and their five-game marches from the first round to the final. The trajectory of the Gators' and Bruins' runs to the Monday night championship game will affect the emotional jujitsu that will take place on the court.

The Gators dusted off their first two opponents in the first weekend, but neither South Alabama or Wisconsin-Milwaukee was seeded higher than 11th. That first weekend in Jacksonville was a mere prelude to bigger things, but it did get the "Sweet 16" monkey off Billy Donovan's back, and it thereby changed the mentality of the whole team to a certain extent... maybe not on the outside, but certainly on more subconscious levels.

As the second weekend started, Georgetown--after the Hoyas' spanking of Ohio State in the Buckeyes' backyard (Dayton)--loomed as an opponent that was either going to end the Gators' season or propel this team to something special. Clearly, one could tell that after winning a game in which they played the Hoyas' kind of game at GU's preferred tempo, the Gators were mentally liberated. Their ability to prevail in an ugly, tense brawl in the Metrodome on that Friday night in weekend number two gave them the confidence to max out against Villanova two days later. The resounding dismantling of a No. 1 seed in a regional final made Florida the hottest team heading into the Final Four, and after a sluggish first half against George Mason, the Gators played like a hot and confident team in the final 20 minutes to reaffirm their newfound credentials. One can clearly see (and say) that the team that will step onto the floor Monday night is a team that's very different from the one that took the court against South Alabama (and even Georgetown, for that matter).

But as much as the 2006 NCAA Tournament has transformed Florida, it's changed UCLA even more.

After barely scraping by Alabama in the second round, the Bruins entered weekend number two and played deer-in-the-headlights basketball against Gonzaga for the first 10 minutes of action in the Oakland Regional Semifinal. With 3:27 left against the Zags, UCLA still trailed by nine points. But then, the Bruins played smart and resourceful "endgame basketb all" (a game of clock management, free throw shooting, and timeout utilization) to steal the game from Gonzaga. UCLA had played poorly and shot horribly from the field, but the Bruins won a game they had no business winning. They pulled a Houdini, much as the 1995 Bruins did in the "Tyus Edney Game" against Missouri in the second round. We all know how those Bruins ended that season, 11 long years ago: they won the whole ball of wax. It's not as though Jim Harrick's team was so vastly superior for six games; no, what mattered was that UCLA had a near-death experience that mentally liberated them. (Florida fans know this feeling after seeing how the 2000 Gators responded to the Mike Miller shot against Butler in the first round.)

In light of all this, it was not surprising that UCLA--the bearer of that get-out-of-jail-free card against Gonzaga--then smothered Memphis in front of a partisan West Coast crowd to beat Memphis in Oakland for a spot in the Final Four. Yes, it was indeed surprising that UCLA met with so little resistance from LSU in Saturday's doubleheader nightcap, but at the same time, it was plainly obvious that the Bruins still have the overflowing level of confidence that comes from surviving a near-death event. In a weird and paradoxical but oh-so-real way, UCLA is a profoundly better team precisely because it played so poorly against Gonzaga. The Bruins never would have experienced a profound emotional transformation had they won against Gonzaga in a more pedestrian way.

So let's get down to brass tacks on this question: which team is playing better entering the national title game? If you put a gun to my head right now, I have to say UCLA. Both teams were about even after t he first weekend, and Florida was definitely playing superior basketball after the second weekend, but after the first games of this third weekend, UCLA has actually elevated its level even more than Florida has. The twists, turns and transformations of the NCAA Tournament create ever-changing realities such as this one.

Now, let's step back for a bit and make this concession: by playing a Cinderella in the National Semifinals and not a heavyweight, Florida had a unique emotional and tactical challenge against George Mason, while UCLA--up against another power conference team in LSU--had less pressure to deal with. Florida clearly engaged in a feeling-out process against a team it didn't expect to play at this level, while UCLA punched LSU in the mouth in the game's first eight minutes and never looked back. It is fair to say that LSU helped UCLA play so confidently and freely. But at the same time, it sure does seem that as confident as Florida currently is, UCLA --improbably--is even more confident right now.

So as you contemplate how this national title game will play out, it's worthwhile to think about UCLA's extreme emotional high and consider how this should affect the contest. Before Saturday, I would have leaned toward Florida as the team that would win the title. But now, my reluctance to commit to picking a champion--based on the changing nature of each weekend of tournament basketball--seems to have been justified. This Gators-Bruins brouhaha looks, cooks and smells like a toss-up. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute made Tyrus Thomas look rather silly on Saturday. I, for one, was not ready to see that. I wasn't ready to see Lorenzo Mata--an oft-injured gruntman and bruiser with an inelegant but fierce style--become one of the three most effective players on the court for UCLA (along with Mbah a Moute and Farmar). I've seen UCLA play a lot this year, and this is the best UCLA has played by far. They're peaking, peaking in a big way, and peaking at just the right time. They're not the same team that entered the tournament, and it's even more evident that they're not the team that nervously began the Sweet 16 against Gonzaga.

If you are willing to accept the notion that UCLA is the hotter team entering this game, you have to put the burden on Florida to send the first message on Monday. Early in the game, the Gators don't have to go on any kind of 15-0 run (though, of course, that would be awesome), but they do have to let guys like Mbah a Moute and Mata know that the joyride of the past two games (smothering defensive efforts that limited two very athletic teams to 45 points each) is very much OVER. It will likely fall to a big man--Horford, Noah, or Richard off the bench--to make an emphatic block, dunk, or rebound that serves as a kind of "territorial marking" that immediately re-directs the emotional ebb and flow of the game. If UCLA is the hotter team, Florida needs to jolt the Bruins out of a comfort zone as soon as possible on Monday night. That's a huge key to watch for (and it needed that lengthy an explanation, too...)

The third and final key--hinted at in the title of this piece--is that it's time for this special Florida team to play a team game in the fullest sense of that somewhat cliched term. It's natural, and--moreover--important to look at individual matchups on the floor before a huge basketball game. Noah-Hollins. Horford-Mbah a Moute. Brewer-Bozeman. Green-Farmar. Humphrey-Afflalo. UF's bench in road blues versus UCLA's bench in home whites, etc., etc. But after seeing Saturday play out, the ultimate key to Monday's game (and I wonder if any other commentator has the big picture perspective necessary to see this and point it out...) is that there is no one key. It's not about winning the game inside as opposed to outside (or vice versa). It's not about Horford having a huge game (though he does offer UF its biggest matchup advantage when he's on the floor). It's not about Taurean Green performing well under pressure (though he must do exactly that). It's not about Aaron Af flalo finally going off for a big number after struggling for most of this tournament (though that would hugely increase UCLA's chances).

No, the big key in this game can be found in the fact that Billy Donovan and Ben Howland both went to their bench--liberally and willingly--on Saturday. Florida's coach shuttled people in and out in the first half to wear down George Mason and set up the game for the second 20 minutes. Howland might have been trying to wear down an out-of-shape Glen Davis with his even more frantic and furious substitution patterns, but UCLA's coach got tremendous production from just about everyone he put into the game. Billy Packer noted--as UCLA dominated throughout the first 30 minutes before coasting home to victory over LSU--that the Bruins were dusting off the Tigers with three or four subs on the floor. It really didn't matter who was on the court for the Pac-10 champs: everyone played ferocious defense, rebounded like madmen, and ran the sluggish Tigers into the ground. Just as tellingly, the lack of an overwhelming UCLA star in this game (though Mbah a Moute created the biggest sens ation with his power around the basket) spoke to the effectiveness of the Bruins' halfcourt sets at the offensive end. UCLA gets its points not because of individual efforts, but from the overall combinations of screens, cuts and crisp movements... from all five players who are in the game. These same five players work together to rotate, help, chase and rebound at the defensive end. This is a UCLA team that, in its togetherness and its lack of sexy stars, would make John Wooden proud.

The challenge for Florida, then, is to meet UCLA's team game with an ultimate team performance of its own. No longer can some people step up while others fade into the background. If Lee Humphrey shoots the bomb effectively on Monday night, but Joakim Noah doesn't improve from his so-so performance against George Mason, Florida will likely lose. Same goes for a game in which Noah stars and Humphrey gets completely smothered. In halfcourt sets, it's not a matter of Corey Brewer having to shoot the three when Al Horford gets doubled. Just the same, this game won't depend on Horford dominating if UCLA pays extra attention to Brewer on the wings. It's a case of both-and, not either-or.

This might seem like a petty or trivial exercise in semantic precision, but it really is important to be careful and intentional in articulating the mission for Florida as it tries to win the national championship: the key is not to be found in any one player. Everyone must do what he needs to do in a given situation--that's the best way of expressing things. It's essential that both Brewer AND Horford make the plays that they need to make, when they need to make them. It's essential that Green, as Florida's point guard, and Noah--Florida's occasional "point center"--both have high assist-turnover ratios. It's important that Chris Richard and Adrian Moss, when in the game, can bother UCLA's bigs with their width at the defensive end of the floor. In short, it's important that as UCLA puts the Lorenzo Matas, Darren Collisons, Alfred Aboyas, and Michael Rolls of the world into the game, Florida can get equally strong efforts from Richard, Moss, Hodge, and Huertas. If Florida's four main subs allow UCLA's four main subs to be as effective as they were on Saturday against LSU, it will be difficult for UF's starting five to compete with a Bruin roster that will be fresher and deeper throughout Monday night's battle for No. 1.

So there you have it: Florida will likely need to play zone and disrupt some West Coast momentum that actually seems to be exceeding the mojo the Gators have in their corner right now. But if this decorated team wants to win a title that will give it a special and unrivaled place in the history of Florida basketball, it will get quality efforts from nine players, much like the picture-perfect triumph over Villanova on March 26. Joakim Noah carried this team on his back to Indianapolis; once there, Corey Brewer and a hot-shooting backcourt carried the load for No. 13 when Yannick's son wasn't at his best. On Monday night, though, it has to be one for all and all for one--Number One, that is--if the Florida Gators are to win their first national championship in men's basketball.

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