Florida-UCLA preview with a West Coast perspective

With amazing prescience, I told you to the Gators needed to be careful with UC Santa Barbara, lest they find themselves in for a dogfight. Well a 28-point beatdown later, I told you… nothing obviously. I still believe that if Florida didn’t come out ready, they would have had issues. But they were focused and blew the Gauchos off the court in the first 10 minutes.

But as good as Florida looked, I think UCLA looked even better in the nightcap in Tampa. Florida fans, especially those on Twitter (or was it just one particular blog’s 25,000 tweets throughout the day), were especially giddy. But Florida did what they were supposed to do against a 15 seed. Only four 15 seeds EVER have won a game. Meanwhile, the Bruins faced a Michigan State team that many tabbed a sleeper. Everyone knows how dangerous Izzo and Sparty are come March. But the Bruins came out swinging and held off a furious rally. That sets up a Saturday rematch with very pleasant memories for Gators fans.

In 2006 and 2007, the Gators and Bruins met in the Final Four. Both times, of course, Florida was victorious in a rout. Both times, of course, Florida won the national championship. So Gators fans should be confident. But as with UCSB, if UF is not ready, Ben Howland’s team will knock them on their backsides.

As Bourbon Meyer’s resident West Coast eyes, I know UCLA very well. This is a very good team. They laid an egg against Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament and surrendered a late lead in Seattle against a desperate Washington team, but take those two games away and the Bruins have played as well as any team in the country the last six weeks. UCLA’s leading scorer is Reeves Nelson, a football player who plays hoops. Don’t underestimate him, though, the kid can ball. He’s a force on the glass. Their best players are Tyler Honeycutt and Josh Smith. Honeycutt is a guy the League is in love with because of his sweet all-around skills. His play is very similar to Chandler Parsons, funny considering how different they look. Josh Smith reminds me of Demetri Hill, except bigger with less skill but more athleticism. He can dominant the block. A wildcard is Malcolm Lee, a sneaky guard who can create his shot and carry the team for stretches.

The key to every Ben Howland team is the defense. These Bruins aren’t the single-minded defensive beasts their predecessors were. But they still scrap and fight on every possession and Florida will have to avoid some of the turnover issues they’ve had at times this year. The good news for Florida is the Bruins don’t play much zone. Florida’s ball screens and inside posts are much more effective against man-to-man.

UCLA’s weaknesses are inconsistency and turnovers. From night to night, the Bruins haven’t known who is going to play well for them. Honeycutt, despite being their “best” player, has been a no show at times. Smith is invisible for long stretches. The greatest weakness for the Bruins is protecting the ball. The Bruins turned it over a ton this year and if Florida can get in the passing lanes and deny Smith the ball inside,, they can get into the transition game quite easily. The Bruins also don’t shoot the 3 particularly well and allow opponents to shoot it at a pretty good percentage. That bodes well for the Gators.

If you break down the game by matchups, UCLA has the edge with Smith over Macklin and Nelson over Tyus. Florida has the edge with Walker over Zeke Jones. Boynton and Lee and Parsons and Honeycutt are probably slight edges for Florida but could go either way. The bench is a big advantage for Florida.

Overall, this is a matchup that favors the Gators. There is a reason that so many pundits said the Gators were blessed with a miracle draw. But UCLA is a dangerous team on Saturday. They feel they are due against the Gators. They have good size inside and great athletes on the wings. They have enough depth to match up with Florida, too. I expect UF to win but it won’t be easy and it could be devastating if they aren’t locked in.

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