The match-up is the first between the two programs since the Gators beat the Bruins in the 2007 Final Four. Much has changed since that time for both teams, with the Bruins having missed the 2010 Tournament and the Gators falling off quite a bit from their back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, at least until this year. Much like the Bruin victory over Michigan State on Thursday night, the game should come down to the effort and intensity that UCLA brings to the floor.
The Bruins won their first game in the 2011 NCAA Tournament on Thursday night when they defeated Michigan State, 78-76. Before moving on, one thing about that game: while the Bruins did hold on for the victory after having a huge lead, I have seen MSU play numerous times this season and outside of the egg the Spartans laid at Iowa there was not a team on Michigan State's schedule, Ohio State included, that so thoroughly dominated the Spartans as the Bruins did until the 8:08 mark of the second half. The free throw issue that has troubled the Bruins all season almost did them in again on Thursday (if the Bruins had hit the majority of their free throws late in the game then they still would have won by double digits in spite of MSU's flurry of threes) but they survived and advanced, and that's the goal in each game of the Big Dance.
The Gators coasted to an easy 79-51 win over UCSB on Thursday and it really wasn't that close. Florida showcased a lethal inside/outside game in dismantling the Gauchos. However, UCSB had to be one of the weakest teams in this year's Tournament and while the Bruins may not win they should be much more of a difficult opponent for Coach Billy Donovan's Gators.
Outside of the intensity issue for the Bruins, the game should come down to the obvious individual match-ups and how the Bruins handle certain tactical decisions that Donovan will certainly throw UCLA's way.
Florida's backcourt will have a decided quickness advantage while the Bruins should enjoy a height/length and strength advantage. The starting backcourt for the Gators will be junior point guard Erving Walker (5'8" 171 lbs.) and sophomore shooting guard Kenny Boynton (6'2" 183 lbs.). The two guards are the leading scorers for the Gators, averaging 14.5 and 14.1 PPG respectively. Defensively they have combined for 68 steals and 199 assists while only combining for 130 turnovers. Walker is the kind of jitterbug point guard that has bothered the Bruins the past few seasons. He is quick and has a decent handle. He is the leading three-point shooter on the squad at 39%. It is imperative that Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones keep Walker in front of them because Malcolm Lee is going to busy guarding Boynton.
Boynton is also a heck of an athlete but he scores as a byproduct of Florida's ability to work the ball inside. He has taken over 400 shots from the field and 220 from beyond the arc. In fact, Boynton and Walker have taken the most shots, the most three-pointers and the most free throws, where they both hit charity shots at a high rate. Boynton will look to slash to the hoop but will also use screens to get himself set for a deep jumper. Malcolm Lee will have his hands full against Boynton, but after his defensive performance against Kalin Lucas, no one should put anything past the Bruin junior -- literally. There is a concern as to whether Lee's injured knee will be swollen from the effort he put forth on Thursday. If he's not fully healed from Thursday's game then the Bruins will be in trouble.
The Gators are long and lanky up front with senior Vernon Macklin (6'10" 240 lbs.) in the low post, senior Alex Tyus (6'8" 220 lbs.) at the four spot and senior Chandler Parsons (6'10" 215 lbs.) at small forward. Macklin and Tyus are strictly low post players, having attempted only 5 three-pointers between the two of them, with Tyus attempting all of them. Frankly, the Florida bench isn't deep, especially up front and while the two Gator starters are athletic and long the Bruins should have a decided advantage because of their depth and because of Joshua Smith. The Gators simply don't have anyone that can match up with the Bruin freshman. The two Florida low-post players also are average on the boards, both averaging 5.5 RPG.
Parsons is a different animal entirely. Tyler Honeycutt almost certainly will guard him and the Bruin sophomore will have his hands full. Parsons is almost a more polished version of Honeycutt. He is a good outside shooter (38% from distance), leads the team in rebounding (7.8 RPG) and is a superior passer (a team-leading 122 assists). He also averages 11.5 PPG but could average a great deal more if he wasn't so unselfish. He is almost the prototypical college version of a point forward. Honeycutt will have the advantage in athleticism and he'll have to use that to close out on Parsons hard and force him to put the ball on the floor, where Parsons has a loose handle. This match-up may be where the game is decided. If Honeycutt can somewhat control Parsons then the Bruins have a decent chance at the victory. If Parsons has a triple-double type of game then the Bruins will be going home.
Sophomore Erik Murphy (6'10" 229 lbs.) and freshmen Patric Young (6'9" 245 lbs.) and Scottie Wilbeken (6'2" 175 lbs.) are the main players that Donovan uses off the bench. While they give the Gators solid minutes off the pine, if they have to play big minutes for whatever reason then the Gators are in trouble.
Each team will offer the other some tactical problems. Florida is going to pressure the Bruins over the length of the floor. That's not to say the Gators will actually press UCLA but rather that they will play straight-up man defense for 94 feet. They are going to look to speed up the Bruns and get them to play at Florida's tempo. UCLA was susceptible to this against Michigan State, often speeding up themselves to make poor decision about when to drive, etc. This was alleviated somewhat by the play of Jerime Anderson but Lazeric Jones struggled to control tempo. Neither Bruin point looked particularly comfortable when the Spartans started to ratchet up the pressure in the second half but Anderson at least consistently got the Bruins into their offense and didn't turn the ball over. Florida is going to be more comfortable and quite frankly better at applying that kind of pressure.
Florida is going to have to deal with UCLA's depth and, more importantly, Smith's size in the low block. Quite honestly, Florida is going to struggle when Smith gets the ball in the post unless they prevent him from getting it at all. That's where the pressure comes in. If UCLA can deal with that pressure and run their offense, especially through the post, then the Bruins should see success.
Florida isn't a very physical team and they've had trouble with teams that want to knock them around a bit. In losses to Central Florida, Jacksonville, South Carolina and Mississippi State, the Gators were pushed around and they didn't like it. On top of that Florida is much less able to handle foul trouble with their bench than is UCLA.
One would think that Florida has a homecourt advantage playing in Tampa but, as one BRO poster pointed out, Kentucky is playing in the game after the Bruins and Gators and many of the general ticket sales have purportedly gone to Wildcat fans. If the Kentucky fans do indeed flood the arena then UCLA may be the most popular team on the floor as Kentucky fans are vehemently anti-Donovan.
Finally, the Gators are bound to be better rested than UCLA. Coach Ben Howland was forced to play his starters serious minutes after the Bruins started giving up that 23-point lead and the concern is that they'll have tired legs. If they do then they'll be in trouble as Florida is going to look to convert turnovers into easy points through transition. To see how tired the Bruins are look to see how they get back in transition. If they struggle with that aspect of the game then the answer to that will be obvious.
There are several factors that each team will have in its favor. The match-up of Honeycutt and Tyler Lamb on Parsons will be huge as will be the battle of the backcourts. Josh Smith is simply going to be a handful for Florida to deal with and that could get the Gator bigs in foul trouble. On that note, it is important to point out that outside of Boynton and Walker, Florida struggles from the charity stripe, especially their inside players. Tyus is at 62%, Parsons is at 56% and Macklin is a woeful 46%. Perhaps it's someone else's turn to miss critical free throws.
Assuming the Bruins don't come out flat, this game is very hard to predict. While it would be easy to pick the Bruins, it would be just as easy to go with the Gators. However, it's probably too much to ask for the Bruins to bring the kind of intensity and effort they did on Thursday.