ATLANTA, GA — It’s a case of same old, same old in the NCAA semifinals today when the Florida Gators face off with the UCLA Bruins, the same team they beat last year in the NCAA championship game. The Bruins are still the same defense-first team that Florida faced last year and Florida’s key to winning remains the same as it was last year when the Gators punched UCLA’s second-place ticket.
“They [UCLA] still get most of their offense from their defense and they rely on making you do things you don’t want to do,” said Florida radio network analyst Mark Wise. “For Florida, Taurean Green has to have a great floor game.”
Last year, UCLA came into the national championship game on the heels of great defensive efforts that shut down Memphis in the regional final and LSU in the semifinals. Florida was able to break down the UCLA defense using high, flat screens at the top of the key that freed Green to find Joakim Noah and Al Horford in the low blocks, and when UCLA collapsed to stop the inside game, the ball found its way to Lee Humphrey, who buried the Bruins from the perimeter.
UCLA hasn’t changed its defensive philosophies much in the last year, but Wise says the Bruins are going to have to do a few things different this year if they intend to derail the Gators.
“I’m curious to see what changes they’ll make defensively from last year’s game to this year,” said Wise. “There are two things that will really intrigue me. How will they defend the high flat screen that Florida likes to run with Taurean Green that picked them apart last year? Everybody talks about the job that Noah and Horford did in the championship game but all that was set up by Green. I’m interested to see the changes Ben [Howland] will make in terms of defending that. Secondly, will he double the low post? Because they’re undersized but have great team speed, quickness and great hands, will they double Horford and Noah inside? If you do that and Howland knows it first hand, just like Ernie Kent does now, you open the door for Lee Humphrey on the perimeter.”
Last year Humphrey nailed three threes in the first few minutes of the second half that expanded Florida’s nine-point halftime lead to 18 and from there, the Gators cruised to the championship. After getting pounded on the inside in the first half by Florida’s big men, the Bruins tried to double down in the second half and that’s when Humphrey went off. All of that was set up by Green’s ability to break down the Bruins with his ball handling. Green didn’t have a great scoring game but he had a tremendous floor game with eight assists and just one turnover.
“Green does not have to be a scorer in this game,” said Wise. “Florida has proven it can beat UCLA with Taurean going 1-8 or 1-9 but the Gators cannot win this game with Taurean having a bad floor game. He can’t go three assists and five turnovers or something like that. If that happens, Florida struggles.”
UCLA’s defense likes to push teams out of their comfort zone. The Bruins like pressure on the wings to force the wings way out behind the arc and they like at attack the point guard. Purdue had some success against the Gators in round two of this year’s tournament by attacking Green with double teams. Wise thinks that UCLA might try that same strategy.
“I think Florida is going to have to adjust,” said Wise. “UCLA and Ben Howland and his staff know they have to do something different. When Purdue doubled the pick and roll, all those guys were 6-4 and 6-5. When UCLA does this it will be with Collison. Now if they double it’s with a 6-1. There’s a big difference trying to see over a 6-1 guard instead of a 6-5 guard. Taurean’s going to have to handle that.”
UCLA has to have the pressure because the Bruins aren’t a particularly imaginative offensive team. The Bruins need to get a good portion of their offense in transition and that starts with their defense. Wise says the Gators have to avoid the turnovers that will play into UCLA’s hands.
“You cannot allow UCLA’s defense to become part of their offense,” he said. “Florida last year in the championship game had 21 assists and six turnovers and Taurean Green had eight assists and one turnover. They did not give UCLA points off turnovers and that’s the biggest key. If you’re going to turn it over you’re better off to throw it in the 30th row. That still means they have to attack and come down offensively in the half court, which is not when they’re at their best. Everybody thinks they play slow but they really don’t. They’re really just very unimaginative on offense. Their offense is based on transition and your mistakes.”
When UCLA has the ball on offense, the Bruins rely on their two wings, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, to come up big. Shipp is more of a catch and shoot guy while Afflalo has learned to get points off the dribble.
“The majority of what UCLA runs is staggered screens for one of those two wing guys,” said Wise. “They like to catch and shoot but there is a difference in Afflalo because he has become more than a catch and shoot guy. He doesn’t mind coming off the screen, putting the ball on the deck and getting into the paint.”
When Afflalo can get into the paint off the dribble, that opens things up for UCLA’s big men, Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. They aren’t particularly big (Mata 6-8, a Moute 6-7) but they know how to get open down low if there is penetration into the paint.
“The way their big guys score this year, the wings will come off the staggered screen,” said Wise. “If you trail, they will get into the paint and if you step up and help, their bigs become receivers for easy baskets down low. This is not a team that’s going to run sets designed to throw the ball into the blocks. But in terms of their bigs and the way they score, it’s off staggers from the wings and they’re garbage guys. They’re really good garbage guys in terms of offensive putbacks and being physical around the basket.”
UCLA’s offense starts at the point with quick Darren Collison at the point. He’s not the scorer that last year’s point, Jordan Farmar, was but he has a true point guard mentality and that means he’s looking to distribute the ball.
“I think they are probably a little better than they were last year although I don’t think it’s a great amount of difference,” said Wise. “I think they are a different team with Collison because he gives them a true point guard presence while Farmar was a scoring point guard and I think that is a big difference. That’s like going from Anthony Roberson to Taurean Green. Now you have someone who thinks like a point guard and that’s others first.”
When Florida is on defense, the Gators have to think perimeter first. The Bruins aren’t a consistent team on the outside, but when they get hot, they can get the offense jumpstarted quickly with three-pointers.
“There are days that Afflalo, Collison and Shipp jump up and shoot jumpers and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason when they’re on, but the days that they can do that they’re very tough to beat when you add in their defense,” Wise said.
Florida has three keys to winning the game, Wise said.
“First and foremost is points off turnovers,” said Wise. “Florida has to limit mistakes. You cannot allow UCLA to score off your own offense. Secondly, you have to make UCLA defend with you going north-south. You have to be the more aggressive team on offense and you can’t let them push you out. Third, because they are so undersized, you have to pound it inside early. You have to make that defense collapse. If you get them on their heels defensively, that’s when things open up for Humphrey on the perimeter.”
He said the key players for the Gators will be Brewer, Green and Humphrey.
“I think Brewer, first and foremost because of his matchup with Afflalo, has to play well,” said Wise. “If you cut out Afflalo’s points — he’ll get double figures — but if you hold him to 13 points instead of 23 points, that’s 10 points they have to make up somewhere and they just don’t have the kind of offensive explosion to do that. Green has to have a quality floor game.
“They rode the shoulders of Al Horford against Purdue and Butler when it was grind it out, tough wins. They’re going to have to ride his shoulders and grind it out to win this game.”
It will be a game of adjustments and Wise likes Florida’s chances if the Gators adjust to what UCLA will do with its defense.
“That’s where it starts,” he said. “UCLA can’t win the game without a great defensive game and Florida will have to win this game with its offense, not with the defense. Florida has to aggressively attack UCLA and force them to do the things they don’t want to do. If the Gators don’t let them [UCLA] start their offense off Florida mistakes, then the Gators are probably going to win this game.”