Though the Bruins haven’t won an NCAA title since 1995, UCLA men’s basketball has had plenty of tournament success. They reached the Final Four in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and won first round games in 2008 and 2009, but even with all-star alumni like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, one thing stands in the way of immortality: Florida. The Bruins just haven’t been able to compete.
After bouncing UCLA from three of its last six NCAA Tournaments, a red-hot Florida Gators take on the Bruins once again in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s both cruel and totally expected that UCLA faces its old foe while in the midst of its best tournament run in six years.
With a win in tomorrow’s South Regional semifinal in Memphis, UCLA coach Steve Alford could best former coach Ben Howland, a good strategist who could never quite close in big moments. Surefire first-round NBA Draft pick Kyle Anderson can leave, satisfied with having built a legacy in his two years in Westwood, and UCLA would likely be the favorite to advance to the Final Four, playing the winner of Stanford and Dayton on Saturday.
But if they lose, the Bruins will be hearing plenty of “Da na na na, go Gators!” in what is likely to be a Florida-fan-dominated FedEx Forum. They’ll also add further proof to the rumor of a curse issued by Florida coach Billy Donovan, who is 3-0 against the Bruins since coming to Gainesville.
College basketball analytics expert Ken Pomeroy places UCLA’s win probability for Thursday’s matchup at 30%, but the Bruins have an outside chance at tournament redemption if they stick to their strengths. Here’s three pieces of unsolicited advice:
1. Stay out of foul trouble
Florida is big, perhaps the biggest team UCLA has been up against all season. The Gators rely heavily on the post presence of 6’9” senior center Patric Young as well as the athleticism of forwards Casey Prather (6’6”) and Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8”). UCLA has received better rebounding efforts from twin forwards David and Travis Wear, but sophomore forward/center Tony Parker has struggled mightily to stay out of foul trouble against more-athletic big men. If Parker can stay light on his feet and give the Bruins close to 20 minutes, UCLA can neutralize Florida’s size.
2. Limit Scottie Wilbekin
You’ve probably heard the story by now. Donovan suspended the senior guard in June for a violation of team rules only to have him become the heart and soul of a team that hasn’t lost since December. The senior has reached double figures in scoring in each of his last six games and leads one of the most efficient offenses in the country for an average of 33.8 minutes per game. UCLA junior guard Norman Powell and Jordan Adams have been the Bruins’ two best lockdown defenders this season, and keeping Wilbekin in check will require a Herculean effort.
3. Beat the press
Florida frequently defends teams for the length of the floor and their gambles have paid off plenty this season. Opposing offense turn the ball over on more than 21 percent of their possessions and the Gators’ 57.5 points allowed per game is the third-lowest average in the country. UCLA, in that sense, is Florida’s perfect match. The Bruins take advantage of any and all opportunities to run out in transition and quickly build runs on their opposition, and the Gators suffocate opponents into making crucial ball-handling mistakes. The balance between running out in the open and running a half-court offense will likely decide UCLA’s fate.