What UCLA Has To Do To Win

Florida could be the best team in the country, with the most talent and most offensive balance, but they've shown some vulnerability this season, not looking like the team that won the national championship a year ago. UCLA will have to exploit those vulnerabilities to win Saturday in the Final Four...

Tracy asked me earlier this week to write a story about what I thought it would take for UCLA to beat Florida on Saturday.

So I've been thinking about it for a couple days and one of the things that occurred to me is this somewhat obvious point: there are a lot of different ways to win a basketball game. Pretty great insight, right? Aren't you glad you subscribed to BRO premium? (Next thing you know, I'll be telling you that the team that scores more points has a good chance of winning the game).

But bear with me for a minute. The reason that I point this out – that there are a lot of different ways to win a game -- is because of what happened this past weekend against Kansas. If you had told me before the game that UCLA would commit 24 turnovers and still beat Kansas by 13 points, I would've said you're crazy. My pregame prediction of what UCLA would need to do to beat Kansas probably would've included the phrase "take care of the basketball." Because you just don't beat one of the top five teams in the country – especially when that team is playing very good basketball – when you turn the ball over that many times. But it happened. The Bruins did win and they won pretty convincingly. So that's what I've been thinking about for a couple days – there are a lot of different ways to win a basketball game (including some that don't seem too likely). All of which is a long-winded way of saying I've got some ideas on what UCLA needs to do against Florida, but the Bruins might do none of the things I say are important and still win the game.

UCLA has hung its collective hat for the past couple years on defense and that figures to be an important part of any winning equation against Florida. If you'll recall (and I don't blame you if you've blocked it out and don't recall), the Bruins had a lot of trouble defending Florida last year. UCLA tried to double the Gator big men and that didn't work too well, as Joakim Noah and Co. passed the ball very well for easy buckets. The Bruins, of course, had tremendous success doubling big men in the post last year and the Gators were really the first team that had success against that strategy. After the game, some people questioned Howland's decision to continue with the double-teaming after the Gators sliced up the Bruin defense early in the game. I think that's a fair question – whether continuing to double was the way to go – but we'll never know what might've happened if UCLA tried a different tactic. Maybe Florida would've scored even easier or maybe it would've struggled.

This year, though, I don't expect to see UCLA double the post every time. I think the Bruins will mix it up and try to keep the Gator big men off guard. The reason I say this is because the Gator bigs are good passers and the Florida perimeter players are too good to leave wide open. Lee Humphrey shoots 45% on threes, Taurean Green shoots 40% and Walter Hodge comes off the bench to shoot 50%. Of course, one strategy could be to try and shut down those perimeter players and just defend the big men with single coverage. The problem there, however, is the quality of the Florida big men. Al Horford and Noah are very tough to deal with in a man-to-man situation. So you have to give help, at least some of the time, or you risk getting killed in the paint. The issue is -- who do you help off of and how often do you do it? If you leave Horford or Noah to help, they go straight to the rim and dunk on your head. If you help off of Corey Brewer, he slashes off the wing and, again, there's leather bouncing off your skull.

So I expect the Bruins to double the post at times, but I don't expect them to do it the same way throughout the game. A big key when they do double is anticipating the pass into the post and doubling so hard and fast that the Gator bigs don't have a chance to survey the court. UCLA has been very good at this lately. The guy doubling has gotten to the ball so fast that the opposing post player is trapped, with his back to the weakside, and is unable to pass to open teammates. If the Gator big men do have a chance to pass out of the double, it's critical that the Bruin perimeter players are ultra quick in their rotations. Obviously, they have to help down in the key to prevent any lay-ups, but they also have to rotate very quickly to the perimeter and not allow Humphrey or Green wide open threes. Needless to say, that's a very difficult task. I don't expect UCLA to double every time, but their level of effectiveness when they do double figures to have a huge effect on the outcome of the game.

As I write this sentence, it's 10:45 a.m. Wednesday morning. And I think that whatever Ben Howland is doing right now, along with what he did the previous three days, as well as everything he does up until approximately 8:47 p.m. Saturday night in Atlanta, is going to play a big role in the outcome of the game against Florida. I was talking with a scout a couple days ago and he noted that there is one major difference between last year's championship game and this year's semifinal. That difference is the preparation time that Howland has this year. Last year, he had forty eight hours. This year, Howland has six days to get ready for the Gators.

I saw that one of that national media idiots gave Donovan the edge over Howland in the coaching department. What's that saying about keeping your mouth shut and not letting everyone know that you're a fool? Doug, keep your mouth shut next time – it's just sad that you would make such a moronic comment on national television. Ben Howland is one of the very best in the business when it comes to game preparation. In all honesty, it's his coaching ability that gives UCLA a chance in this game. The Bruins don't have anywhere close to the talent of Florida. But they do have Ben Howland. And if there is any weakness that can be spotted, any edge that can be found, Howland will see it in the hours of tape he'll be watching this week. Howland is a master at seeing the tendencies of individual players, as well as teams, and his ability to see those things might be as important as anything that happens on the court Saturday night.

Reading the various media types and their analysis of the game, you see a lot of different players described as the "key guy" or "X factor." I think for UCLA the key guy is the obvious guy – Arron Afflalo. After winning a game where they committed 24 turnovers, I'm not going to say the Bruins can't win if Afflalo plays poorly. Anything is possible, obviously. Afflalo might go 1-15 and UCLA could still win. But it's not likely, is it? Afflalo is UCLA's best player and, typically, you need your best player to come up big if you're going to knock off the best team in the country. Where things get dicey for the Bruins is in the match up. Corey Brewer is a great athlete and a very good defender. He did an excellent job on Afflalo last year and you'd assume he'll be assigned to Afflalo on Saturday. The important thing for Arron to remember is that he must let the game come to him. Arron is not a guy that's going to create his own offense too often, especially against a defender like Brewer. So the Bruins need to do a great job of setting solid picks for Afflalo and, even more important, Collison needs to get Arron the ball when he's open. Darren has a bad habit of not always getting the ball on time to open shooters. He needs to be extra vigilant this game in getting open shots for Afflalo.

I've watched Florida play maybe seven or eight games this season, including a couple in the tournament, and I still don't feel like I've seen the team that beat UCLA in Indianapolis last year. I think that Gator team was playing at a higher level last year and I also think UCLA had an absolutely terrible night. Remember, going into that game, the line according to Vegas oddsmakers (the true "experts" in this business) was pretty much pick'em. The oddsmakers said the two teams were virtually even and I felt the same way prior to the game. Then they played the game and I came away thinking that Florida was clearly a far superior team. But I now think they were just a far superior team that particular night. The Florida team I've seen this year has been very good, but definitely beatable. I don't think their defense is consistently great. I've seen some sloppy shot selection from them at times. Their transition defense has been wobbly on occasion.

The point I'm getting at here is that UCLA needs to take advantage of these blemishes, if in fact any of those blemishes are evident Saturday night. If the Gator floor balance is bad a couple times, then the Bruins need to make them pay and get a few easy transition baskets. Easy baskets of any kind – whether in transition, off of turnovers, or halfcourt defensive breakdowns – are critical for UCLA. The Bruins, as we all know, can struggle to score at times. They need to get some easy baskets if the opportunities present themselves. If Florida takes a few bad shots, UCLA needs to be excellent in its own shot selection. Watching the two teams this year, I've seen Florida take far more questionable shots than I've seen from UCLA. I think that's because the Gators know they have more margin for error. They know that they've won games in the past even when they've been a little sloppy. Their talent allows them to waste a few possessions. UCLA doesn't have that luxury and, usually, they play as if they know that's the case. Also, the Kansas game notwithstanding, UCLA needs to take very good care of the ball in this game. Turnovers often lead to fastbreak baskets and UCLA can't afford to give up many transition points to the Gators. Florida is good enough without making it easier for them with open court opportunities.

In general, UCLA needs to play a very focused, intelligent and efficient game. The Bruins are at their best when they're really locked in and focused during each possession. I think the Bruins are among the best teams in the country when it comes to playing a "possession-by-possession" game. By that, I mean a game where there aren't a ton of possessions, where the teams aren't running up and down, taking quick shots and being loose with the ball. I think Florida is used to playing games where a couple loose possessions here or there doesn't really matter. UCLA, on the other hand, is more accustomed to tighter games, where each possession really matters. I think that's the kind of game you'll see Saturday and I believe the Bruins have a slight advantage because of their season-long approach.

I'm relatively confident that UCLA will play its most focused, intense and energetic game of the year on Saturday night. It's a measure of how talented Florida is that it might still not be enough for the Bruins to come away with a win. But I do think the Bruins may have a slight psychological edge in this game. No matter what they say, it's hard for the Gators to forget how easily they dispatched the Bruins last year. It's just human nature. So I expect the Bruins to be the team that gets the loose balls and to be the team that maybe has a little extra bounce in their step. And if that's the case, then I think it just comes down to making shots. Some nights they drop, some nights they don't. If the Bruins have a decent shooting night Saturday, I give them a pretty good shot of advancing to Monday's championship game.


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