As the Bruins move into the second weekend of the Big Dance, the team is now essentially playing with house money in terms of its moving on to the Elite Eight or beyond. There is definitely a buzz surrounding the team right now and much of that has to do with the manner in which the Bruins have played since the debacle in Pullman almost three weeks ago. Coach Steve Alford was able to exorcise some personal coaching demons by getting beyond the NCAA's second round, which he hadn't done as a coach since he was at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) in 1999.
Now the Bruin program is facing a demon on Thursday night in the form of the top-ranked and top-seeded Florida Gators. There is really no need to get into the history of these two programs playing in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade. Suffice to say that the only necessary fact to understand is that Florida has knocked out the Bruins from the NCAA Tournament three times in the past eight years. However, the only constant from the past is Florida coach Billy Donovan, whom UCLA reportedly courted for the job now held by Alford.
Florida advanced to the South Regional Semifinal against the Bruins on Thursday night (6:45 PM PDT; CBS) by defeating 16th-seeded Albany in a round-of-64 game and 9th-seeded Pittsburgh in the round-of-32. The Gators are a senior-dominated line-up (they start 4 seniors) that has been to the Elite Eight the past three seasons.
UCLA's route to the Sweet Sixteen included 17-point wins against 13-seed Tulsa (competitive) and 12-seed Stephen F. Austin (not all that much in doubt). The Bruins start two seniors, one junior and two sophomores. None of the players on the UCLA roster have ever been beyond the first round of the NCAA (last season), so anything beyond the Tulsa win has been a new experience for the entire squad.
The edge in experience certainly goes to the Gators, as does the edge in the crowd, with more Florida fans bound to be in the stands than Bruins fans in Memphis FedEx Arena. However, this Bruin team has already shown in the past two weeks that it can handle a hostile environment. The Pac-12 Tournament title game was essentially a home game for Arizona, and certainly was more of a home court advantage to the Wildcats than Memphis will be for the Gators.
This experience should take the Gators to a certain level, but as Kentucky proved this past weekend, talent can triumph over experience when that talent plays to its potential. Florida may have the clear advantage in athleticism but UCLA has advantage when it comes to pure basketball talent.
That's not to say that Florida doesn't have talent; that would be absurd. However, before people start anointing the Gators, a closer look at that talent is warranted.
Senior post Patric Young (6'9" 240 lbs.) will be one of the most physically imposing players the Bruin front line will have faced in the past two years. He is, quite simply, built like an NFL linebacker with height, and if anyone has seen his "hard fouls" over the past season, they'll know that he hits like a freight train. For all the hand-wringing that Bruin fans are doing, keep in mind that Young is only averaging 10.9 PPG and 6.3 RPG. He turns the ball over quite a bit and he has been less than mediocre (under 60%) from the charity stripe. Many people get caught up in how Young physically appears and don't really watch his game. He could certainly hurt the Bruins, especially if Travis Wear and David Wear decide they don't want any part of him, but he could just as easily be neutralized by the Wears pulling him away from the basket. He doesn't have a great natural feel for the game, which might speak to Donavan's ability to coach up his players, but he has developed his game to the point he'll get shot at the NBA, although he is undersized for a power forward.
The other starting forward is senior Will Yeguete (6'8" 230 lbs.), and he plays much like Young, though without the imposing physique, and he tends to shoot more jumpers. Yeguete is the glue guy on the team, another athlete that struggles with his feel for the game, but hee knows his role. Of the two post players, Yeguete is the one who should find himself more easily stepping out defensively against the Wear brothers. He barely scores, but does average 5.1 RPG. He also struggles from the line, hitting only 65% of his free throws. Boxing him out on the defensive glass will be key for the Bruins, but Alford could use either Kyle Anderson or one of the Wears to defend Yeguete.
Senior Casey Prather (6'6" 214 lbs.) may be the most difficult match-up for the Bruins. He is arguably Florida's most athletic player and he is the Gators' leading scorer at 14.1 PPG. He is explosive, especially on the offensive glass, but he has holes in his game, too. He isn't an outside shooter, having only attempted 5 three-pointers on the year. He is shooting under 70% from the free throw line and, most importantly, he can be a turnover machine, often playing out of control. In spite of Prather's scoring prowess, his major contribution in this game should be the defense he plays on Kyle Anderson. He is athletic enough to slow down Anderson and cause him some issues.
Sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith (6'8" 212 lbs.), a Virginia Tech transfer, provides depth for the frontline and is very good in his own right. He gives the Gators some offensive punch off the bench but, more than that, he is the best pure rebounder on the team. He averages a team-leading 6.7 RPG in only 26 MPG. He is also a threat to shoot from the arc, although his 31% three-point shooting percentage almost begs the Bruins to allow him to do so.
Sophomore Michael Frazier II (6'4" 199 lbs.) starts at the shooting guard spot and is the team's primary long distance shooter. He averages 12.5 PPG and shoots almost 45% from behind the arc, but he is almost no threat to put the ball on the floor. He's taken 319 shots on the season and 248 have come from behind the arc. He is the more athletic version of Lee Humphrey (a name most Bruin fans remember). Frazier is the one player that Alford does not want to foul as he hits almost 85% of his free throws. Putting Jordan Adams on him wouldn't be a bad idea for Alford as Adams' guile (assuming he's engaged) could cause Frazier some real headaches.
True freshman Kasey Hill (6'1" 181 lbs.) provides solid depth off the bench. Hill plays both positions in the backcourt, but he is a point guard at his core. He is a horrible outside shooter, hitting only 13% from behind the arc, but he averages 3 APG. How Alford adjusts when Hill is in the game will be important. Hill will spell either Frazier or senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (6'2" 176 lbs.). When that happens, Alford could go to a zone defense that shades away from Hill's side, almost inviting him to shoot. The Gators shoot 36% from behind the arc as a team, but that is almost entirely because of Frazier and Wilbekin (40% from three). Finally, outside of Bryce Alford, there's really no one on UCLA's roster for Hill to guard.
The engine that makes Florida run on both ends of the floor is Wilbekin. Many "experts" have tried to break down this game to other things: UCLA will win if they shoot well, rebound well, get Young into foul trouble, etc. Florida will win if they…you get the idea. This game is actually setting up to be much simpler than that. There will be one match-up that will more than likely decide this game – Wilbekin vs. Norman Powell. Florida's press more than likely won't bother UCLA that much because Florida gets many of its turnovers from behind on the press as the front line forces teams to pull the ball out or slow down. UCLA has been a team that attacks the press when it can, and the Bruins know enough to not allow a player like Wilbekin to attack from behind. I believe that the game will be won at the other end of the court. The most important person the UCLA roster for this game will be Powell, and it is critical that Alford realize that. If Wilbekin struggles on the offensive end then UCLA will win this game. Nothing else happens effectively for Florida is he is slowed down. The trouble is, no one has been able to really do that for the majority of a game this season. Powell has the ability to at least to slow down Wilbekin. If Wilbekin has a typical game for him, then Florida should win by 8-12 points.
This game is eminently winnable for UCLA, at least the version of UCLA that has been playing the past two weeks. Looking at Florida's schedule will show that this will be the best, most complete offense that Florida has faced this season. The Bruin offense is also unlike anything else Florida has seen style-wise. Florida has played this season in a bad league. Even though three SEC teams are still alive in the Tournament, but look at who they've played: Tennessee's toughest opponent has been Iowa, who is, at best, mediocre. Kentucky's toughest was obviously Wichita State, but does anyone seriously believe that if Arizona or Florida or Virginia put forth their best games, as the Shockers did, that they wouldn't have beaten the Wildcats? Florida's best win was against Kansas, and we all saw how good the Jayhawks ultimately were, Joel Embiid or not. All of this goes to show that Greg Hicks and Tracy Pierson have been right all season when saying that there are no unbeatable teams. The Bruins have more than a puncher's chance in this game.
However, there are two key things working against the Bruins. First, the experience that Florida has is going to be difficult for the Bruins to offset. That includes Wilbekin's experience, which he can use to beat Powell at critical times.
The second is the battle on the sidelines. Donovan is arguably college basketball's best strategist and is one of the best in-game tacticians. That's a pretty potent mix. Up until this NCAA Tournament, Alford has been criticized as not being better than average at either skill. He'll definitely have a chance to refute that accusation in this one, but it will be challenging. Alford will have to push the right buttons at the right times because the overwhelming chances are that Donovan will be a step ahead pushing his own buttons.
Of course, there is the final factor -- that of trying to answer the question of which UCLA will show up, the bad Bruins or the good Bruins? Even though we haven't seen them for a while, there is some worry that the bad version is always just around the corner. However, if the good Bruins show up for this game, the Bruins of Las Vegas, then not only is a win on Thursday possible, but something far greater as well.
The logical assumption is that Florida wins a fairly tight game. However, the more you consider the match-ups the more you begin to think that might not be the case. Although Florida has held opponents to less than 40% shooting for the season, there's a sense that if UCLA executes offensively as it has recently then Florida shouldn't be able to keep down UCLA for long stretches. Florida, on the other hand, should be able to score more readily then its admittedly plodding offense has been able to do up to this point in the season.
The last areas to consider are rebounding and turnovers. If UCLA can stay close on the boards and turn over Florida the way they turned over SFA, while keeping its own turnovers down (although it would be tough to ask any team to replicate the 3 TO performance from Sunday), then UCLA will do well. If that happens it probably means the Bruins were able to keep Wilbekin in check.
However, if the opposite occurs, then it could be a win by Florida in blowout fashion.
When all is said and done, Wilbekin's experience will be too tough to handle. The Bruins may keep it very close, and Powell should play well, but in the end the Bruins will come up a bit short. But I wouldn't be surprised if I were wrong.