UCLA faces its nemesis from last year, the Florida Gators, in the semi-final game in Atlanta Saturday.
Florida, of course, beat UCLA in the NCAA Championship game a year ago, 73-57.
So, it's de ja vu all over again.
The one prevailing question regarding the re-match: Why would this game go any differently than the championship game a year ago?
That's a legitimate question. It's very easy to assume that Florida, with its superior talent and athletes, will once again prevail. If there's a team that lost key personnel from last season it's UCLA – Cedric Bozeman, Ryan Hollins and Jordan Farmar. While you'd have to think that UCLA's players have improved, it's only fair to assume that Florida's have also. So, all things being even, Florida should win this, right?
But, as Head Coach Ben Howland said on Tuesday at his press conference, that's why they play the game.
While most national pundits aren't getting past the natural assumption that Florida will again beat UCLA Saturday, we're here to present a reason why history might not repeat itself.
You could make a case that Florida has actually improved from a season ago – at least as individual players. The one guy who definitely has improved and taken his game to another level is junior power forward Al Horford (6-9, 240). Horford, while he was very good in 2005-2006, has continued to improve, becoming much more of an offensive threat. He's bigger and stronger from a season ago, which enables him to score even easier down low, if it wasn't easy enough. More and more of Florida's offense begins with a dump down to Horford, to see if he can back in his man for an easy lay-in, and it commonly is the case. Among the starters, his numbers have clearly improved, now averaging 13.2 points and 9.2 points per game. Those numbers are very inter-connected, too, since Horford gets so many of his points from wiping up the offense glass. He can also get out on a break and run better than just about any 6-9+ in the country. He's improved as a defender, much better at timing his blocks and keeping his feet on the floor and maintaining position. Horford is probably the #1 reason why the Gators made it back to the Final Four this season. He's among the handful of the best big men in the country.
The guy who got most of the spotlight last season was junior Joakim Noah (6-11, 23), but Horford has stolen more of the spotlight this season. Last year, Noah could have probably been the #1 pick in the NBA draft, but he passed it up to return to Florida to win back-to-back championships. No matter how obnoxious his posing on TV is, you have to give him an immense amount of credit for that decision – especially since he's fallen in the eyes of many NBA scouts and it probably cost him millions of dollars. Noah is still very good; he probably gets off the floor, the second time, faster than any player his size in the country. When he plays hard, he's a major force inside, mostly because of that quickness off the floor and his length. He can really alter an opposing team's offense in the paint, and offensively, when he's down low, he's hard to defend, being able to play above the rim and use that length to get room to score. Noah, however, hasn't improved that much since a season ago. He's still, physically, about the same, and, actually, his intensity has waned more often. As Horford has taken over more of the low-post scoring responsibilities, Noah's scoring has gone down, from 14.2 points per game to 12.2. But, to his credit, he has been very comfortable with being more of the second low-post option on offense and has worked harder on the boards, averaging 8.5 rebounds, up from 7.6 last season.
The two of them, Horford and Noah, could be the best 1-2 rebounding tandem in the country, and it could be the team's toughest offensive weapon. Many teams, when it gets late in the shot clock, give it to their go-to guy on the perimeter to create something. Florida jacks up a shot with the hope that Horford or Noah will get the offensive rebound and put-back. And it's usually a pretty decent bet.
Last year, against UCLA in the title game, Horford and Noah combined for 32 points and 16 rebounds, dominated the paint, and were too much for UCLA to handle.
It doesn't hurt when you also actually have a go-to guy on the perimeter, as Florida does in junior Corey Brewer (6-8, 185). Brewer is one of those guys who is so unique in his ability that he creates some tough match-up problems. He's very tall and long (but not the 6-9 everyone says he is), but has unusual quickness for his size, which makes him one of the toughest on-ball defenders in the country. Brewer shut down UCLA's leading scorer, Arron Afflalo, in that championship game, not allowing Afflalo to get any space to get off a shot or drive to the basket. Brewer, too, has improved offensively; his jumpshot has improved, even though he's still not a great three-point shooter (31%). In fact, he's been even colder during the NCAA tournament from beyond the arc. He has, though, been Florida's leading scorer in the tournament, averaging almost 16 points a game, while averaging 13.1 points per game for the season. He's tough to handle driving to the basket, and he's doing it better, more under control and more productively, making more of his baskets when he bounces it.
The steady influence for Florida has generally come from its point guard, junior Taurean Green (6-0, 170), who tends to get over-looked because of Horford, Noah and Brewer. But Green is the team's leading scoring at 13.3 points per game, and is the constant, the guy who is consistent from game to game that the Gators can count on. In fact, when Florida faltered a bit late in the regular season, losing two consecutive games to LSU and Tennessee, and three of four (including the loss to Vanderbilt) it was mostly because Green went through a rare period of struggling. Shooting 44% from the field for the season, he went through a four-game stretch where he shot 19% from the field and 17% from three. It's too bad, for UCLA fans at least, that he hasn't been in a similar slump in the NCAA tournament. In the last three games, he's averaged 17 points and shot 45% from three. Green has good quickness and can get to the hoop easily, but he also gets off his shot very quickly. He's deadly on a kick-out from the big guys underneath.
The guy with the least amount of talent among the starters, senior shooting guard Lee Humphrey (6-2, 192) is, ironically, the guy who makes Florida so tough. You have four future NBA players in Horford, Noah, Brewer and Green, but then add to that Humphrey, one of the best, pure spot-up shooters in college basketball, and he's the back-breaker. He can't put the ball on the floor, and he's not a very good defender, but he'll kill you when he knocks down that big three. He's taken a whopping 231 three-pointers this season and made 46% of them. That's only 8 more three-point attempts than Arron Afflalo has taken all year, but Humphrey has made 21 more. Imagine if Afflalo had made 21 more threes for the season, and you can imagine how devastating Humphrey's three-point shooting can be, especially as the fifth scoring option on the team. He's actually Florida's all-time leading three-point shooter, having made 280 in his career. The seven threes he made against Oregon in the regional final broke Brett Nelson's school record. Oregon, of course, likes to run and gun, and it allows its opponents to do so also, so Humphrey showed what he can do when he's given open looks.
The defensive match-ups for UCLA are pretty straight forward. Lorenzo Mata or Alfred Aboya will probably get Horford; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will get Noah; Afflalo has to match up against Brewer; Darren Collison will guard Green and Josh Shipp will have to do a good job of closing out on Humphrey.
Head Coach Billy Donovan utilizes primarily two guys off the bench, senior post Chris Richard (6-9, 255) and sophomore guard Walter Hodge (6-0, 170), who both average about 18 minutes per game. Richard is one of the best sixth men in the country, and would be starting for just about any other high-major team. He's a big body who likes to bang, but there isn't that much of a drop off in inside scoring with Richard on the floor, with Richard using that big body to gain position under the basket. There's also no drop off in rebounding. Hodge gives Green relief, and while he might not be the playmaker Green is, he's a very good shooter, leading the team in three-point shooting percentage at 51%. Hodge hasn't had a very good NCAA tournament, and played just four minutes against Oregon. Freshman forward Dan Werner (6-7, 235) can get some minutes, when Florida's bigs get into foul trouble.
This season, when Florida has been in big games against its tougher opponents, its bench has shortened, pretty much just utilizing Richard and the starters.
Offensively, Florida simply is one of the most difficult teams to defend, because of its great balance. It can put up points in every way possible, from the low-post, by penetrating, outside shooting and in transition. Florida does, though, look first down low, and UCLA's defense is going to need to do a far better job in limiting Florida's inside scoring than it did in last year's title game.
Again, why would anyone think UCLA can do that, since it's missing a 7-foot defensive presence in Ryan Hollins? First, there's one natural element to this that many tend to forget. As players mature, both physically and mentally, it's far easier to improve as a defensive player than an offensive player. Improving offensively isn't a certainty, by any means, but just about anyone can improve defensively. You can improve just by maturing one year physically and getting stronger. UCLA's interior defense is vastly better than it was a year ago. Hollins did indeed give UCLA more of a shot-blocking presence, but the job he did defensively in that title game was more akin to his early, poor defensive work as a Bruin than the late-season run in 2006. Right now, Mata is a better overall defensive player than Holins was, and far more consistent. And the combination of Mata and Aboya are far better than the combo of Hollins, Mata and Aboya a year ago. Contributing to that improvement is the experience Mata, Aboya and Mbah a Moute now have in defending the post. They've defended many of the best low-post players in the country, and all shapes and sizes. It's not like last year, when facing Horford and Noah was a clear step up in competition for them. You could make an argument that UCLA faced a comparable front line last week in Kansas. UCLA will undoubtedly double the post selectively, and they do it now quite a bit better than they did in that title game last year. They've been doing it pretty well in the NCAA tournament not only because UCLA's bigs have doubled well, but because the rest of UCLA's defense has been excellent at rotating, and now allowing the post who is getting doubled an easy pass out of it.
And so much of the outcome of last year's game was decided by how effective Florida's interior offense was, and it will undoubtedly be the big key again in this game. So, while many outsiders casually conclude that UCLA is worse off in defending Florida on the inside than it was a year ago, or no better, that's probably an error. The major factor that will keep this game at least quite a bit more competitive is the fact that UCLA will almost certainly do better in defending Florida's bigs than it did a year ago.
Where UCLA isn't as good as it was in last year's game defensively is on the perimeter. It had Bozeman, its best on-ball defender, to match up against Brewer, and Afflalo on Green or Humphrey. In this game, Shipp, who is a step down in terms of defense from Bozeman or Afflalo, will have to shadow Humphrey. Shipp has been playing the best defense of his UCLA career in this year's tournament, and his defense on Humphrey will be key. Florida's offensive success against UCLA could shift from the interior in last year's game to the perimeter this year.
Florida is a good defensive team, actually posting a lower defensive field goal percentage than UCLA at 41%. Noah and Horford are very good defensively inside, and Brewer usually gets assigned to the opponent's best perimeter offensive player, and that there is good enough to be a good defensive team. Throw in that Green is a solid defender. They'll go to a zone sometimes, especially to keep their big men in the game if they're in foul trouble. With how UCLA has struggled at times against a zone, you can probably expect Donovan to utilize it, but probably to use his man primarily.
The key to UCLA's offense could be Shipp. He gives UCLA a clear boost from last year's team offensively over Bozeman, and more than likely Humphrey will be defending him. Shipp should be able to shake loose Humphrey or post him up. So, Shipp having a good offensive game should be a key factor.
Probably the other factor – and perhaps the biggest – is the mindset of both teams. The Florida players turned down the NBA to return this season to win another NCAA championship, but there hasn't been the hunger or fire like they had a year ago. While they say they want to win another title, it's another thing to have that deep motivation to do it, and perhaps winning last year, psychologically, took their edge. This year, they've had tendencies to go into long lulls in their intensity and focus. Besides their first-round blow-out in the tournament, the other three tournament games have been very close, with the Gators having to come from behind late against Purdue. While it's the Final Four, and just about every team should be able to get up for it, you'd have to wonder if Florida could be looking past UCLA a bit, thinking that they've already showed they're better than the Bruins and there are Georgetown or Ohio State looming in the championship game.
On the other hand, UCLA should be all-business. In the NCAA tournament they've shown very good intensity, especially on defense, and you'd have to think that showing they can beat Florida is a huge motivating factor.
In terms of coaching, both teams should be very well prepared by their respective head coaches. It's been said before, but it's tough to bet against Ben Howland when he has a lot of time to prepare for a game. In the last two years, UCLA is 30-2 in games when they've had more than 4 days to prepare, and 45-13 during his four years at UCLA.
There's no doubt that UCLA will have to play one of its best games of the season, if not its best. Arron Afflalo will have to have a Kansas-like performance. If the shooting slump comes back, UCLA will lose. But the break-out Kansas game might be enough to keep Afflalo loose and at his usual level of effectiveness.
So, most of the intangibles are pointing toward UCLA. UCLA proved against Kansas (and what many national pundits forget), sometimes it's not the most talented team that wins these types of big games, but the best team that's playing with the most intensity.
UCLA's defense will get the best of Florida's offense this time around and unfocused Florida, thinking UCLA is just that school who used to have that old dude as its coach, ultimately, won't be able to match UCLA's intensity, much like Kansas.