This Will Be Toughest UCLA Matchup Yet

Living in Los Angeles certainly has its advantages. Great weather. Close proximity to beaches and mountains. Top flight restaurants and bars. Lots of entertainment options year round. And one more for me over the past decade: watching the Gators beat UCLA in the NCAA Tournament.

I moved here 14 years ago and figured I had said goodbye to the days of seeing the Gators in person. Then a funny thing happened. One of the teams I covered for a living, UCLA, made a run to the Final Four in 2006. And so did Florida. The same thing happened again in 2007. The Gators beat the Bruins for the title the first time and beat them to advance to the championship game the second time. For two straight Aprils, I was standing on a court watching the Gators cut down the nets while “One Shining Moment” filled the air.

It was a surreal experience. I was working so each game, I sat in the press box with our on-air talent outlining the key storylines we’d cover after the game, all the while living and dying on the inside with every make and miss, never once cheering, yelling, screaming or showing any emotion. There was plenty of standing and pacing in the back of the room. There was lots of teeth grinding. When the games ended, the rush of emotion within me had to be buried deep inside while I did my job – covering the dejection and sadness in the UCLA locker room and breaking down why they lost. The dichotomy of emotions inside and out was always striking. But the time our show was over and I met up with some of the other members of the Our Two Bits clan, I was exhausted.

I’ve since moved on from producing those shows and no longer travel as much. So by the time the Gators and Bruins met up in the Tournament for a third time three years ago, I didn’t make the trip to Tampa. And this year unfortunately, I won’t be in Memphis. But I’ll never forget those two Final Four experiences and the luck of UCLA and Florida matching up in back-to-back years.

Florida’s fourth matchup with the Bruins in the past nine seasons figures to be its toughest. The Gators were not only the superior team in each of the first three matchups, but they also had the most talent on the floor. This time around, the Bruins may have the two most talented players in the game in Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Norman Powell might arguably be third on the list. The Gators will have their hands full with UCLA’s talent and athleticism.

By now, you know that UCLA’s offense is prolific, ranking fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. One of the biggest keys to that efficiency is the transition game. The Bruins led the Pac-12 in turnover differential and Adams was among the country’s steals leaders. When they force turnovers, the get out and run for easy layups and also have the trailing shooters to make you pay for open looks at the three-point line. The fact that Anderson is such a good defensive rebounder means they can run off misses too with him pushing the tempo. In the half-court, the Bruins aren’t as deadly but can still be very dangerous. Anderson’s length and vision allow him to get the ball to teammates in good spots. He’s crafty on drives and with his midrange game as well. As a team, UCLA shoots the three-ball at a clip that ranks among the top 20 in the nation. They have so many ways to beat you.

The one knock against UCLA all season has been their defense. For a good part of the year, they seemed disinterested in working hard on that end of the floor, content to merely outscore opponents. But over the second half of the season, and especially in the postseason, they’ve bought into Steve Alford’s zone and have at minimum become competent on that end of the floor. In the NCAA Tournament, they’ve rotated well and forced their two overmatched opponents into contested shots. They’ve had some spotty moments but for the most part they’ve looked very good.

We’ve seen Florida struggle at various times this year against zones, especially when fronted by the length UCLA’s guards will present. Florida will have to aggressively attack the interior of the zone with Patric Young, Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith. The Bruins don’t have the post defenders to matchup. Tony Parker is very good off their bench but he fouls a lot and generally won’t see a ton of minutes. UCLA’s game plan will be to pack it in and help around the paint and force Florida to beat them from the outside. The Gators cannot be content to launch three-pointers all night. If they are, I have no doubt the Bruins will win.

Perhaps an even bigger factor in the game will be possessions. Florida needs to crash the offensive glass to gain extra possessions and prevent UCLA from getting out and running. Florida is a good offensive rebounding team and they have to come up big on Thursday. More importantly, the Gators have to protect the ball. Florida has a very poor turnover rate for the season and costly mistakes by the likes of Kasey Hill, Prather and Finney-Smith will spell doom.

Once the bracket came out, I knew this matchup was coming and spoke to former Bruin All-American Don MacLean, a colleague of mine and the former radio analyst in Westwood. A week ago, he told me that Florida was the worst nightmare for UCLA because he didn’t think the Bruins were tough enough and that Florida would physically abuse them. Yesterday, he had softened on that stance because of the Bruins’ increased tenacity on the defensive end. I asked him if he thought Donovan might opt for defending Anderson with a bigger body than Wilbekin, maybe throwing Doe Doe on him occasionally. He said Florida would do better locking down Adams and Powell and letting Anderson roam. The Bruins have only lost once since Anderson and Adams returned from a one-game suspension but in that loss, Anderson scored 19 while the rest of the starters combined for 20. A similar storyline was present in other Bruins’ losses this year. There is no doubt Billy and his staff are aware of this.

There are these and so many more storylines. How about the fact that Anderson chose UCLA over Florida and Donovan? What about both coaches leading their teams to the Final Four as players in 1987? Both also have sons on their respective rosters. And then way down the list is me and all the other Gators who live here in Southern California and have had the pleasure of lording a 3-0 mark in the Tournament against the school that Coach Wooden built. We trust in Billy, these seniors and this TEAM to make it four straight against the Bruins and four straight Elite Eight trips.

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