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March 31, 2007

Head to head: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 UCLA

Billy Donovan called it a "new set of elements."

Those elements will separate this meeting between Florida and UCLA from their meeting a year ago in the national championship game, which Donovan's Gators won 73-57.

"This is a totally new experience for us," Donovan said. "This is a new set of circumstances."

Despite returning nearly all of its roster from that team a year ago, among those new circumstances is the increased media attention that follows a team seeking to be the first since Duke in 1992 to repeat as national champions.

Another is the expectations. A year ago, Florida - unranked to start the season - was a Final Four surprise. This year, anything less would be disappointment.

And if those weren't enough, another circumstance entered the fray. Florida has a new set of distractions with all the Donovan-to-Kentucky rumors that the coach and team must address on a nearly daily basis.

Revenge-minded UCLA wants to be the element that keeps Florida from repeating. Joakim Noah blocked six shots and Corey Brewer shut down UCLA star Arron Afflalo in the last matchup.

All three are back, but UCLA is looking for a new result.

"We watched the tape and there are some things just about everything we could have done better," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

Donovan says his team is different than the team that defeated UCLA last year. Howland thinks there's a better description.

"When he uses the word different, I would use the word better," Howland said. "They're better than they were a year ago."

UCLA will hope it is better as well.

Florida will play UCLA at 8:47 p.m. Saturday in Atlanta. The game will be televised on CBS.

No. 1 Florida (33-5) at No. 2 UCLA (30-5)
Taurean Green vs. Darren Collison
Florida frustrated former UCLA point guard Jordan Farmar in last year's championship game. Farmar's replacement, Collison, is a different kind of player. The sophomore who came of the bench in last year's tournament run is among the quickest guards in the country. Collison has 10 steals in four tournament games. He has also been superb from the free-throw line, making 39 of 42 attempts in the tournament. For Florida, the Gators go as Green goes. Florida's late-season dip coincided with a drop-off from Green. He resumed his high level of play in the tournament, providing nine 3-pointers (and only three turnovers) in the wins over Butler and Oregon. He also provided excellent defense against Oregon's Tajuan Porter, who didn't have a basket in the first 39 minutes of the regional semifinal. How Green handles Collison's speed will be one of the key matchups of the game.
Edge: Even
Lee Humphrey vs. Josh Shipp
Florida's Humphrey is one of the major variables in the Final Four. The only senior starter in the game, Humphrey preys on teams that pay too much attention to Al Horford and Joakim Noah. In the regional final, Oregon was so focused on stopping the Gators' big men that the pure-shooting Humphrey had plenty of looks at the basket. He responded with seven 3-pointers and 23 points against Oregon. He also had four 3s against UCLA in last year's title game. Sidelined with a shoulder injury, Shipp is UCLA's only starter who didn't play in the loss to Florida. With 13.1 points per game in the tournament, Shipp is a solid contributor. Along with Collison, he is one of UCLA's secondary scoring options beyond Afflalo.
Edge: Even
Corey Brewer vs. Arron Afflalo
If anything this head-to-head matchup should be the best defensive duel of the game. Afflalo is UCLA's best perimeter defender while Florida looks to Brewer to spark its offense with steals on the defensive end. After struggling from the floor in the previous two tournament games, Afflalo broke out of it in the regional final against Kansas. He was 10 of 15 from the floor with 24 points against the Jayhawks. Brewer has been Florida's leading scorer in the tournament with 15.8 points per game and had 11 points, four assists and three steals in last year's title game. The key to the matchup will be how the 6-5 Afflalo deals with the length of the 6-9 Brewer. The two guarded each other in last year's game, a matchup won by Brewer.
Edge: Florida
Joakim Noah vs. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
If there's anyone UCLA didn't want to see again from Florida, it's Noah. The junior center was the tournament MVP with six blocks against the Bruins in the title game last year. He returns to face a Bruins team that's perhaps less-equipped to handle him. The 6-11 Noah dealt with the 7-foot Ryan Hollins in last year's game, but UCLA counters Noah and Al Horford this year with the 6-8 Mbah a Moute and 6-9 Lorenzo Mata. Mbah a Moute has hit a sophomore slump since he was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year but he remains and standout defensive player and rebounder.
Edge: Florida
Al Horford vs. Lorenzo Mata
Noah is the emotional center for Florida, but Horford is its most reliable inside presence. Horford returned to Florida to become the Gators' most improved player off last year's squad, but he has yet to play a defensive team like UCLA in the tournament. Horford (6-10, 245 pounds) has a slight size advantage over Mata (6-9, 240), but the Bruins junior is solid defensively. Mata, though, is not much of an offensive threat, and he's even worse from the free throw line. He made only 37.9 percent of his foul shots during the season and is 2-for-7 during the tournament.
Edge: Florida
Florida's bench vs. UCLA's bench
Florida doesn't turn to its bench much, relying primarily on two reserves. Florida calls on senior Chris Richard to spell Horford and Noah. Sophomore Walter Hodge can play both guard spots. Ben Howland sometimes turns to Alfred Aboya, a 6-8 forward. Aboya gives UCLA another option against Horford and Noah down low. Guard Michael Roll can come off the bench and hit 3-pointers. Freshman guard Russell Westbrook has been used sparingly in the tournament. UCLA has more options, but Florida has two bench players that have been tested in the NCAA tournament for at least two years each.
Edge: Florida
Billy Donovan vs. Ben Howland
Florida's slow starts in all four tournament games have to have Donovan worried, but the Florida coach has been able to push the right buttons for the team to rally. He has the weapons to beat teams a number of different ways - whether it's with Horford and Noah inside or Humphrey and Green outside. If an opponent tilts to defending one or the other, Florida doesn't hesitate to use its other options. Howland's group can slow down and defend teams better than any of the other three Final Four teams. UCLA hasn't allowed more than 55 points in the tournament so far, including against an explosive and athletic Kansas team. Because of the way UCLA executes Howland's defensive system, we're tempted to give the edge to the Bruins, but we have to go with the coach who already won a head-to-head matchup.
Edge: Florida

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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