Preview of Championship Game

UCLA plays its last game of what has turned out to be one of its most miraculous seasons in its history, when it takes on the Florida Gators in the NCAA Championship Game tonight. Will the Bruins take home NCAA Championship #12?

The UCLA Bruins (32-6) play the Florida Gators (32-6) Monday night for the right to be crowned NCAA champions.

If the Bruins win, it would be their 12th title overall. If the Gators win, it will be their first. This is Florida Coach Billy Donovan's second trip to a championship game.

We can assume that Florida won't be impressed by UCLA's basketball history, and we can also assume that Florida will focus more on what they do best than on what the Bruins do worst. Typically, Florida is a long, athletic team which likes to pressure the ball man-to-man in the half court, though sometimes they will use full-court pressure, including a zone press as well. To the best of my knowledge, Florida hasn't played a zone defense all year and I doubt they will unleash one against UCLA even though the Bruins often struggle to score off a zone. Florida has held opponents to a shooting percentage of 40.5% for the season (32.8% from 3), and has outrebounded opposing teams by a margin of 35.4 to 32.0.

Florida can get out and run in a transition game or work for good shots off its twin-post motion offense in the half-court sets. As a team, Florida shot 50.6% from the floor and 39.4% from 3, and the Gators averaged 78.6 ppg compared to 63.9% for their opponents. Florida has wins this year over Albany at home (scoring margin of 19 points), Syracuse on a neutral court (5), at Miami (10), at home against Kentucky (15), at home against LSU (9), at Kentucky (15), and in the SEC Tournament wins over Arkansas (3), LSU (16) and South Carolina (2). Florida's 6 losses have come at Tennessee (by a margin of 4 points), at South Carolina (6), at Arkansas (4), at home against Tennessee (4), at Alabama (5) and at home against South Carolina (4). Thus, Florida's 6 losses came by a combined total of 27 points. The Gators are obviously an outstanding squad, although the win over Syracuse was the only nonconference victory of note.

The Gators are anchored by two outstanding big men, Joakim Noah (14.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.4 bpg) and Al Horford (11.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Noah is a long (6-11) slender (227) sophomore big man who relies on his agility and quickness rather than brute strength to get the ball into the basket. He's one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in all of college basketball and with his play in the NCAA Tournament has rocketed into the position of being a lock for the NBA lottery whenever he chooses to leave school. In the tourney, his stats are 16.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 4.6 bpg. If Noah has weaknesses, they're a lack of bulk and limited range on his shot. Ryan Hollins seems like a good matchup for Noah and we might also see Lorenzo Mata taking a crack at him. Hollins has the length and agility to bother Noah and Mata has the strength and shot blocking ability to do the same. Horford has averaged 11.4 ppg and 10.6 rpg during the tourney and UCLA will no doubt match up Luc Richard Mbah A Moute with the 6-8, 235-pound sophomore. Horford will have the advantage of strength, but Mbah A Moute (and Alfred Aboya off the bench) will have the advantage of quickness.

The backcourt/wings for Florida consist of Corey Brewer, 6-8 SO SF (12.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg), Taurean Green, 6-0 JR PG (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 39.6% from 3) and Lee Humphrey, 6-2 JR SG (10.8 ppg, 45.8% from 3). Brewer is long and lean (185 pounds), with a diverse game. He's capable of knocking down the 3 (34.7% from 3 for the season, 52.9% during the tourney) or taking his man off the dribble towards the basket. He's also an excellent individual defender. No doubt the Bruins will match him up with Cedric Bozeman. When Bozeman takes a break and Mike Roll comes into the game, Brewer will have a strong advantage of size and athleticism and I suspect we will see Bozeman getting a lot of minutes Monday night.

Green is a quick, slender guard who is more of a scorer than a playmaker. He's averaged 12.2 ppg and 3.0 apg in the tournament and despite a strong showing against George Mason he's generally been dismal from behind the arc against tourney teams, hitting just 9-28 from the floor. Given the fact that he was shooting over 40% from 3 going into the tournament, it seems likely that Green is ready to have a break-out game. It isn't clear whether Arron Afflalo or Jordan Farmar will be given the primary assignment to guard Green, but most likely it will be Afflalo, with Darren Collison coming off the bench to assist him (when Collison comes in, he will guard Green and Afflalo will switch to Humphrey). Green has a great advantage of quickness over any of the Bruins except for Collison, so this has to be one of Collison's biggest games of the season. Green is a superior defensive player in his own right.

Humphrey, as you can tell from his 45.8% shooting percentage from 3, is a deadly outside marksman. He's averaged 12.4 ppg and shot 45% from 3 in the tournament. Humphrey will utilize a pick to get open or he will plant himself in position to receive the ball after it goes inside to one of the big men. Humphrey is an average athlete and UCLA can afford to stick Farmar on him. Farmar will have to be focused and intense on the defensive end of the floor to limit Humphrey's open looks and force him to put the ball on the floor. Humphrey has a hard time setting up for his shot and he will turn the ball over as well if he tries to create his own shot. Humphrey is a very average defensive player, but usually more than makes up for that on the offensive side of the floor.

The Florida bench isn't deep and hasn't been utilized as much in the NCAA Tournament as it was during the regular season. Chris Richard, 6-8 255 JR PF (5.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is a physical inside presence who will score off of offensive rebounds. He plays pretty good defense. Walter Hodge, 6-0 FR PG/SG (3.9 ppg) started a few games early in the season before he was beat out of his job by Humphrey. He's quick and a solid shooter from behind the arc (37.3%). Adrian Moss, 6-9 247 SR C (3.0 ppg) is another big body off the bench; his skills are limited and he's mainly a banger who will use up some fouls while spelling the starters. David Huertas, 6-5 FR SG (2.5 ppg) is a solid athlete and shooter (33.3% from 3). None of the reserves played substantial minutes in Florida's last 3 tourney wins, but UCLA's depth may force Coach Donovan to give his subs more minutes so the starters don't get worn down.

Florida has been very impressive during the tournament, beating South Alabama by 26, UW-Milwaukee by 22, Georgetown by 4, Villanova by 13 and George Mason by 15, but apart from Villanova the Gators have not had to face any top 15 teams so far. UCLA, with its victories over Alabama, Memphis and LSU, has faced the stiffer competition to date. All of that goes out the window now. UCLA is the best defensive team in the country, but they are facing a team with a strong inside-outside attack combined with the ability to fast break as well as outstanding defense. Florida is the best team UCLA has faced in the tournament so far and this should be the Bruins' toughest matchup. The Bruins must slow down the game to a crawl and make Florida work hard on both ends of the floor if they want to win. They certainly won't win if they get into a scoring contest with the Gators.

My prediction:

UCLA will lift banner number 12 to the Pauley Pavilion rafters.

UCLA 56
Florida 53


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