4 UCLA vs. 1 Florida, 9:45 pm ET, CBS
The Gators and Bruins are meeting in the NCAA Tournament. Again. They played each other for the national title in 2006. They met in the Final Four in 2007. They faced off in the second round in 2011. Now, it’s the Sweet 16. They just need to play in the first round and Elite Eight in the next couple of years to complete the cycle.
This game is being billed as a classic contrasts matchup, with Florida being defensively oriented and UCLA offensively oriented. The Bruins are a bit more lopsided in the efficiency stats, but not by a mile. While the contrast is there, it might be a tad oversold.
The real contrast is less about who plays what well and more about pace. Florida, for all of Billy Donovan’s reputation of having running teams, rates 321st nationally in adjusted tempo. UCLA is 41st. The Gators aren’t afraid to get up and down the floor if they’re forcing turnovers, but they don’t fly around as a standard operating procedure. As odd as it may sound, Florida is going to be the team here looking to slow things down and not get caught in a track meet.
Arkansas is the fastest paced team the Gators have faced to date, and it pushed them to overtime before losing. Florida was shorthanded for that one though, missing Casey Prather from the lineup. Memphis also is one of the higher tempo teams, and it lost to UF by just two in Madison Square Garden. UCLA has some potential to cause real trouble here.
From a historical perspective, this is one of the bigger coaching mismatches in the bracket. Donovan is one of the best in the country at performance against seed expectation (PASE). Plus his only loss in the Sweet 16 came in his first tourney in 1999, suggesting that he does very well in March with a good team and extra time to prepare. Meanwhile, Steve Alford doesn’t even make the top 20 of PASE for active coaches, and I am confident he’s near the bottom for guys with his experience and number of appearances. This year is the first since 1999 that he’s guided a team to the Sweet 16, but he beat a 13-seed and a 12-seed to do it. Those results don’t really suggest a breakthrough.
Nevertheless, UCLA is not an automatic W for UF. The Bruins knocked off Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament final, and those Wildcats are as good as (if not better than) the Gators are.
The toughest player for Florida to deal with will be Kyle Anderson, UCLA’s top scorer who went for 21 and 15 in that win over Arizona. He’s going to be guarded most likely by a combination of Prather, who gives up three inches to Anderson, and Dorian Finney-Smith. While it’s Prather doing the work, it will be interesting to see how Donovan uses Will Yeguete and Patric Young to help.
The Gators’ big men will mostly be assigned to the Wear brothers, who are not really offensive threats. If they can get their rotations down, then they’ll effectively help contain Anderson. If not, then either the Wear twins will get a lot of cheap points or Yeguete and Young will fall into bad habits and pick up fouls. Anderson will get his—he’s failed to reach double digits just six times, two of them early season blowouts and another the first round blowout over Tulsa—but Florida can’t allow him to put its starting frontcourt on the bench.
Ultimately, Florida’s defense (particularly in transition) should carry the day. The biggest risk outside of Yeguete and Young getting into foul trouble is if the team simply can’t throw it in the ocean. Florida made only 25% of its threes in Orlando, and that number is probably too low to beat UCLA. In UF’s close SEC Tournament win against Tennessee, it shot under 60% from the foul line; the next day, it was under 50% in a one-point win over Kentucky.
Most of the signs here point to Florida winning, but don’t expect it to be a blowout. It’s more likely to be the latest in a long line of close finishes in this tournament.