UCLA Basketball: How the Bruins Can Outduel the Top-Seeded Florida Gators
UCLA has made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008. In order to continue its run in the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins will be forced to upend the No. 1 seed in the field, Florida.
The recent tournament history between the two programs (Florida is 3-0 in the teams’ most recent meetings, including two Final Four victories) creates an engaging storyline for Thursday’s showdown. Notwithstanding historical context, UCLA faces an immense challenge as it aims to advance to the Elite Eight.
Florida is arguably the best team in the nation and is equipped with one of the best defenses we’ve seen all season. The Gators are on a 28-game winning streak, having suffered their last loss on Dec. 2 and cruising through the SEC with an untarnished 18-0 conference record.
That’s a daunting track record to consider for a UCLA team that lost conference games to Oregon State and Washington State.
Yet, the Bruins are long beyond their Pac-12 woes. Since losing to Washington State in its regular-season conference finale, UCLA has been playing its best basketball.
The Bruins not only defeated a highly ranked Arizona team in the Pac-12 tournament final, but have also won both of their NCAA tournament games in convincing fashion.
If ever there were a chance for UCLA to usurp the best team in the nation, it will come on Thursday.
History, be it favorable or unfavorable to the Bruins, won’t sway the outcome of their Sweet 16 matchup against the Gators.
They’ll have to hack away at Florida with a collective, precise effort.
Here’s what UCLA will need to do to emerge victorious against the Gators.
Control the Pace
UCLA plays its best when its offense is flowing and it’s able to run in transition.
Although its offense looks the same in the possessions per game table as last year (2013: 72.3; 2014: 72.1), UCLA has thrived in transition this season, which is one of the reasons it’s been able to boost its scoring to 81.5 points per game from 74.4 points per game last season.
The Bruins’ free-flowing offense faces a major challenge against Florida, which is one of the nation’s best defensive teams.
The Gators allow a mere 57.5 points per game, which slots them third in the nation. Their smothering defense has the potential to overwhelm UCLA even though the Bruins have the offensive weapons to win.
Therefore, it’s vital that UCLA controls the tempo of the game and maintains its offensive flow despite Florida’s attempts to slow the game down.
Managing the flow of the game was a key factor in the Bruins’ Pac-12 tournament championship victory over Arizona, which also has an excellent defense and lives on slowing the game down.
The Gators like to play at an even slower pace than the Wildcats (Florida: 64.5 possessions per game; Arizona: 67.3), which makes it all the more important for UCLA to prevent the Gators from getting comfortable by slowing the game down.
Own the Defensive Glass
Much is made of the importance of the rebounding battle, and rightly so. Offensive rebounds usually lead to second-chance points that can sway the outcome of a game.
Florida isn’t statistically among the best rebounding teams in the nation, but it makes sure to outrebound its opponent.
The Gators rank 30th n the nation in rebounding margin, outrebounding the opposition by an average of 4.8 per game. The Bruins, by comparison, only exceed their opponent on the boards by an average of 2.0 rebounds (120th).
Yet, UCLA is significantly better at corralling defensive rebounds (25.5 per game to Florida's 24.0), which can serve as an advantage for the Bruins.
However, Florida is excellent at crashing the offensive boards. Of the rebounds it pulls, 34.1 percent are on the offensive end.
UCLA generates only 28.1 percent of its rebounds on the offensive end, which can be explained by the simple fact that the Bruins’ best rebounder, Kyle Anderson (8.7 rpg), is the team’s point guard.
Florida has the capability to dominate its opponent by overmatching it on the boards, especially by creating easy second-chance opportunities.
Thus, it’s important that UCLA keep up its adeptness on the defensive glass and keep Florida’s second-chance opportunities to a minimum.
Make Guards Score off the Dribble
Florida may not have as prolific an offense as UCLA, but the Gators have a versatile, unselfish offense that has the potential to dizzy the Bruins.
The Gators have an inside-outside game, led by SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin (13.1 ppg) and center Patric Young (10.9 ppg).
Like Arizona, which overmatched the Bruins’ frontcourt with physical 7’0” center Kaleb Tarczewski, Florida is slated to win the battle in the paint with Young, a 6’9”, 249-pound center who is considered one of the toughest big men in college basketball.
However, while Young will be a challenge for the Bruins in the paint, the Gators don’t have any other players who can outduel the Bruins inside.
With its excellent ball movement, Florida tends to find open looks on the perimeter, which allow the Gators to distance themselves from their opponent by hitting threes.
While Florida’s top starting guards, Michael Frazier II and Wilbekin, are excellent from beyond the arc (a combined 42.6 percent), they aren’t nearly as spectacular inside the arc, where they shoot a collective 44.5 percent.
This discrepancy encourages UCLA to pressure the Gators’ top guards on the perimeter and force them to score off the dribble.
It seems as though Florida's NCAA tournament opposition has already incorporated this tactic into its strategy. Albany and Pittsburgh held Frazier and Wilbekin to 7-of-24 (29.2 percent) shooting from beyond the arc.
Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are the key components to UCLA’s offense, but Norman Powell is the grease that keeps it running.
When Powell has a good game, the Bruins are unstoppable, as opposing defenses are forced to deal with yet another forbidding force in their offense.
The junior guard, who is averaging 11.5 points per game, has the potential to boost his team with his tenacious drives to the basket, which usually culminate with a spectacular finish.
Powell’s three-point shot still hasn’t clicked this season (29.9 percent), but he nonetheless ranks second on the team in effective field-goal shooting (57.3 percent) because of his proficiency in the paint.
Better yet for the Bruins, Powell has been extremely confident in the past couple weeks, and it has had a tremendous contagious effect on his teammates.
In his last four games, the 6’4” guard has averaged 17 points, shooting 56.4 percent from the field.
Florida’s defensive scheme will focus on preventing Adams from finding open looks and Anderson from attacking the lane. But if Powell is able to sustain his stellar play, the Gators will be forced to tend to him.
That will, in turn, spread Florida’s tenacious defensive and put UCLA in the best position possible to exceed the Gators on the offensive end.
Send Florida to the Line
You’ll often hear coaches say that games are won at the free-throw line, and never was that on more perfect display than in UCLA’s recent victory over Arizona.
In the tightly contested matchup, the Bruins made 21 of 25 free-throws, while the Wildcats only cashed in on six of their 16 free-throws. UCLA won the game by four points, 75-71.
That may very well be the difference in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game as well, as the numbers are in UCLA’s favor.
As a team, the Bruins shoot very well from the free-throw line (74.9 percent), but Florida doesn’t fare nearly as well from the charity stripe, shooting 66.3 percent, which ranks it 280th in the nation.
This is a clear indicator to UCLA to allow Florida no easy baskets, particularly in the latter stages of the second half.
The Gators have only two players, Frazier (84.2 percent) and Wilbekin (71.7 percent), who shoot better than 70 percent from the line, which gives the Bruins a handful of players to send to the line should they need to.
Better yet, UCLA can afford to reciprocate physical play with Florida’s frontcourt, as the Gators’ Young and Dorian Finney-Smith shoot an atrocious 60.9 percent collectively from the line.
That’s a weakness the Bruins will need to exploit if they are to advance to the Elite Eight.