ATLANTA, GA — The Florida Gators (34-5) have a date with history tonight at the Georgia Dome. It’s pretty simple. Beat Ohio State (35-3) and the Gators have crashed the exclusive two-straight NCAA titles party. Lose, and the Gators will be thought of like Arkansas or UNLV, good teams that couldn’t seal the deal the second time around. Here are matchups and other factors for tonight’s game.
THE OHIO STATE HAS IMPROVED FACTOR: Ever since Saturday night, all we’ve been hearing is how Ohio State is a better team than the one the Gators faced the first time they met, back on December 23. We’ve heard all about Greg Oden and his wrist. He’s got two good hands now and he has improved, as you would expect. Ohio State has improved as you would expect. So they’re better than they were. Which is what you would expect. What everybody seems to be overlooking is the Florida Gators. They are also a much better team than they were back in December. Back in December, Florida was far from healthy — Al Horford had a bad wheel, Corey Brewer was still trying to come back from mononucleosis and Joakim Noah was still battling a bad bronchial infection. The Gators are 100 percent healthy now, too. The Ohio State has improved argument is just that — an argument. Both teams are better and both teams will have no excuses when the horn sounds to end this game.
THE REVENGE FACTOR: Ohio State’s players spent Sunday talking about how it’s their job to avenge what happened back in Glendale on January 7. They talked about how the football players have been telling them all week that it’s up to them to make up for their 41-14 loss to the Gators in the national championship game in Glendale. There’s also that little fiasco that happened back in Gainesville on December 23 when the Gators hosed Ohio State, 86-60. That’s a game when the Buckeyes flat out gave up when they were getting whomped. Rather than worrying about revenge, Ohio State might want to think about having the resolve to play hard the whole game. While Ohio State’s players are trying to earn revenge for the football team, Florida’s football team has been texting the Gators with words of encouragement. All of the Gator football players signed a poster and sent it to the Gators three weeks ago when UF won the SEC Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome. The poster read, “What starts in Atlanta ends in Atlanta.” The Gators started their run to get to this game by winning the SEC Tournament. This is their chance to finish. As Joakim Noah said Sunday, “Revenge is way over-rated.” In this game, take the confidence of a team that has been there and done that over a revenge-minded team.
THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR: The Gators have been there and done that. This is a veteran team that knows how to close out big games and knows what it’s like to get emotionally prepared to be on the big stage. They have been winning championships since they were freshmen. That SEC Tournament championship when the 0-Fours were just freshmen was huge because it prepped them for the big run last year. Last year’s big run toughened the Gators up for this year. Go back to the 2005 season and the Gators are 21-1 in postseason play. They’ve won their last 17 games.
BREAKING THE 17 JINX: The Gators have had three 17-game winning streaks over the past two years. They have a 17-game winning streak in the postseason going right now. Each time the Gators have gotten to number 18 in the previous streaks, they’ve lost. However, there has never been as much at stake as there is tonight. The Gators understand that they have a date with destiny 40 minutes away. This is the night that the Gators break the 17-jinx and make their case for a place in basketball’s history book.
THE BENCH FACTOR: David Lighty is a great player off the bench for the Buckeyes and Daequan Cook, when he’s not in a shooting slump, can light it up from the outside. The problem is the Buckeyes need bench to replace Greg Oden and all they have is Othello Hunter and Matt Terwillegar, not exactly stiffs but they aren’t anywhere close to Chris Richard’s league. Hunter and Terwillegar come in the game to bang people get a rebound or two. Richard comes into a game to score. He’s 19-21 from the field in the NCAA Tournament and shooting 69.3 percent from the field for the entire season. When Florida comes off the bench to help Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey, it will be Walter Hodge, who’s hitting 50 percent of his three-pointers. Given Lighty’s contributions it’s tempting to call this even, but Richard can get it done on the inside as a scorer and he has proven he can muscle up with Oden. Give the edge to Florida here.
THE COACHING FACTOR: As well as Thad Matta has coached during Ohio State’s run to the championship game — bringing the Buckeyes back against Xavier and Tennessee was brilliant manipulation of his bench since Oden was in huge foul trouble — he’s going to meet up with the hottest coach in America in Billy Donovan. Donovan has punched all the right buttons the last two seasons and he’s as good a game coach as there is. Here’s where Florida gets the edge, however. Billy Donovan gets his team ready to play a big game better than any coach in the country. When the Gators take the floor against Ohio State, he’ll have the team prepared for anything the Buckeyes can throw at them. UCLA brought its double teams from two different places than what they’ve shown all year. Were the Gators surprised? Not in the least. Billy had them ready for that just like he’s had the Gators ready for anything that anyone has thrown at them. Matta is a great coach and he’s going to win a national title someday. The first one won’t happen tonight, however. Give the edge to Florida.
THE X-FACTOR: Florida’s X-factor in this game is going to be Joakim Noah. Ohio State is going to try to use its guards to pressure Taurean Green into mistakes as soon as he crosses midcourt. This is where Noah’s ability to handle the ball comes into play. Mike Conley Jr. called Noah a “point-center” yesterday and that’s what he will have to be if the Buckeyes try to trap Green. Noah will come out high, take Green’s pass out of the double team, and the offense will revolve around him. Once he has the ball in his hands, he can handle the ball like a point guard — he was a 6-2 point guard when he was a sophomore in high school — and he can get Florida’s offense going. Once he gets into the paint with the ball, he can force Greg Oden to step up which will open up Al Horford or Chris Richard under the basket. If Oden stays back, Noah can continue to the hoop or find Corey Brewer or Lee Humphrey on the perimeter. The X-factor for Ohio State is David Lighty. When he comes off the bench he has to give the Buckeyes instant offense. If he doesn’t have a good night, then it’s good night Ohio State. Give the edge to Florida.
GREG ODEN VS. FLORIDA’S THREE-HEADED MONSTER: Oden is one of the best defensive erasers at the center position to come along in years. He’s been compared to Patrick Ewing, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and just about every other 7-footer that ever intimidated someone. Oden may never be as good as any of those aforementioned big guys, but that’s not to say he’s not really, really good. What makes him such a factor is he’s got long, long arms and unlike most 7-footers, he actually jumps and jumps very high. Against most teams he intimidates and dominates in the middle. Here’s where Florida is different from the teams he’s played. The Gators have Al Horford (6-10, 250), Joakim Noah (6-11 … really, he’s 7-feet but they list him at 6-11 so we’ll go with what Florida’s media guide says), and Chris Richard (6-9, 260). All three of Florida’s players are aggressive on the offensive end and they’re not going to be intimidated. What separates them from a team like Georgetown, which also had a lot of tall players, is that Florida’s big men will pass the ball to each other. The game for the Gators will be draw Oden to one, pass the ball to the other. Since he’s been in foul trouble just about every game, watch Ohio State to try to hide Oden with a zone in an effort to keep him in the game longer. Give Florida the edge here because the Gators can come at Oden in waves.
MIKE CONLEY JR. VS. TAUREAN GREEN: When Florida and Ohio State met in the first game, Taurean lit up the Buckeyes for 24 points while Conley had a solid 13 points and seven rebounds. All the talk this week has been about how Conley has taken over games and kept the Buckeyes in the tournament. He’s good. He’s really, really good. But, tonight he will have to put up numbers that absolutely dwarf Taurean Green for Ohio State to win this game. Don’t count on that happening. Green is a big time player on the big stage and if Ohio State goes zone a lot — expect that because they only have one big man and Florida has three — then Taurean will have a chance to pick the Buckeyes apart from the three-point line. His history is that he hits big shots in big games. Conley has to be able to get into the paint against Florida and get to the foul line. Watch the Buckeyes try to free him up at the top of the key so he can get in the paint and force Florida’s big guys to foul him. He’s really good about hanging in the air and drawing contact. If Florida’s bigs cut him off and stay on their feet, then Ohio State will have to throw that strategy out the window. Call this one even.
RON LEWIS VS. COREY BREWER: Lewis will give up five inches in height to the 6-9 Brewer and that’s going to be huge in this game. Brewer is every bit as quick as Lewis so he can put the ball on the deck and take it to the rack. The height advantage means that Brewer can get his jump shot off any time he wants it. Lewis is a streaky shooter who had some big games in the tournament but against Georgetown, with 6-9 Jeff Green guarding him, Lewis went 1-8 from the field. This is a position that Florida can exploit. Brewer hit 4-5 on three-pointers against UCLA. If he has the three-point shot going tonight, it will be lights out for the Buckeyes. Give Florida the edge here.
JAMAR BUTLER VS. LEE HUMPHREY: In the first meeting, Humphrey was able to drive past Butler for a couple of easy layups when Butler tried to get in his face to stop the three-point shot. Figure Ohio State plays a lot of zone in this game so Humphrey is going to get his chances to light it up from the outside. Since Lee Hump is now the NCAA’s all-time three-point shooter in tournament games (he’s hit 43), zoning Florida is not exactly the smart thing to do, but this is a pick your poison night so Ohio State will choose to protect Oden with the zone. Humphrey is patient and knows how to keep working until he finds openings to launch. Watch Ohio State to try to shade its zone to his side. Defensively, Humphrey and Taurean may switch since Butler has been in a shooting slump lately. That will ease the load on Taurean. As for Humphrey handling Conley’s quickness, just look what Lee Hump did to Darren Collison of UCLA. Everyone was saying that Collison is the quickest player in the tournament. Lee Hump strangled him. Collison went 3-14. Give the edge to Florida.
THE FINAL ANALYSIS: Florida has all the necessary ingredients to write its name in the basketball history books. The Gators have size, strength, shooting, defense and coaching, plus they have the incentive to make it two NCAA titles in a row. Ohio State has a young team that is very, very good, and if they all stay together another year, you have to figure that they’ll get a title — next year. This is the Year of the Gator. Figure it’s going to be a tough game on both ends of the court but in the end, Florida’s guys have been there and done that. In the final four minutes of the game, Florida’s experienced players and experienced coach will be the deciding factors. Billy Donovan is a big game coach that knows how to get the job done. This is a big game team that knows what the big stage is all about. It’s going to be an orange and blue kind of night as the Gators make it a championship sandwich — NCAA basketball champs 2006, national champs in football 2006, NCAA basketball champs 2007.