Thursday March 27, 2014Florida Defense in Spotlight vs. High-Powered Bruins, But Gators Better Score, Too
Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II takes shots during Wednesday's open practice at the FedExForum.
Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II takes shots during Wednesday's open practice at the FedExForum.
VIDEO: Florida players discuss Thursday night's Sweet 16 game against UCLA.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A lot of numbers were being thrown at the Florida Gators during the team’s closed practice Wednesday at Street Ministries here in downtown. Most of them came from the mouth of Coach Billy Donovan.
All of them concerned the UCLA Bruins.
* Average length of possession: 15 seconds.
* Points per game in transition: 17.
* A starting center with 14 assists and zero turnovers in the postseason and a team ranked fifth in the nation in assists per game.
“You have to be so locked in possession after possession after possession that it’s going to be scary,” Donovan shouted at his players. “And it starts with transition and being in the right position.”
In the Bruins, the top-seeded, top-ranked Gators (34-2) drew the most explosive offensive team still alive in the NCAA Tournament, which is really is interesting considering fourth-seeded and 20th-ranked UCLA (28-8) drew the best defensive team left in the field in Florida. The winner of this test-of-wills clash Thursday night at the FedEx Forum will advance to the South Region title game and play for a date in the Final Four.
Something’s got to give.
“They’re a great offensive team, we’re a great defensive team,” UF senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Those styles are going to clash a little bit in the game.”
More like a lot of bit.
So just as Donovan was spewing statistics at his players Wednesday, it’s safe to assume Bruins coach Steve Alford was firing some Florida defensive data at his players.
* Average length of defensive possessions: 20.2 seconds (second-longest in the nation).
* Adjusted defensive efficiency rating (points per possession): .872 (also second-best in the nation).
* Opponents hitting just 38.1 percent from the floor and 24.4 from 3-point range in March.
Alford, though, had a little different take on the game when he took his question-and-answer turn at the podium Wednesday. The battle lines being drawn aren’t nearly as clearcut as the numbers suggest, he said.
“A lot’s been made of Florida’s defense and lot’s been made of our offense, but I think there will be a lot more than just their defense and our offense,” Alford said. “I know our defense is probably better than advertised and I know Florida’s offense is probably better than advertised.”
Last year, Florida had a pretty good defensive reputation when it ran into a buzz saw known as the Michigan Wolverines, who carved up the Gators from the opening tip of a 79-59 blowout loss in the Elite Eight that wasn’t as close as the score suggests.
This UF defense, led by Wilbekin on the perimeter and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Patric Young in the post, is vastly superior to that one; no comparison.
It will need to be.
UCLA went 25-2 when it scored at least 75 points (with one of those losses coming in double-overtime). The Bruins were 3-6 when scoring less than 75.
Florida gave up 70 points -- get this -- three times this season (with one of those coming in an overtime win at Arkansas when the Razorbacks scored 16 in the extra period).
The Gators make you work for shots. The Bruins are looking to score quickly.
“We’ll see whose style of play wins out,” Young said.
The Bruins will have their chances in transition; they’ll have more if the Gators are struggling to make shots. UF averaged 70.4 points per game, but only hit the 70-point mark nine times in the 24 games since the calendar flipped to 2014.
“We all want the ball to go in the basket,” Donovan said. “I hope we score 120 [Thursday] night, but we haven’t done that this year.”
In five postseason games (three in the SEC Tournament, two in the NCAAs), the Gators are averaging 63.4 per game, yet they’ve managed to force tempo with their pressure defense -- in both the halfcourt and fullcourt -- and figure to take that same fight to the Bruins.
That means challenging 6-foot-9, 230-pound guard Kyle Anderson, a projected lottery pick in the June draft, and 6-5, 220-pound backcourt mate Jordan Adams. Together, they’re scoring 32 points per game, both shooting over 48 percent from the floor and make a serious matchup issue -- “a unique cover,” was how Wilbekin put it -- for the Gators because of their ability to see over UF’s guards when facing the basket and posting them up beneath it.
And Anderson-Adams duo keys the UCLA transition game.
For Florida, getting back on defense and building walls will be paramount to limiting the Bruins on the run.
“We’re going to stick to our principles and just play the way we’ve been playing,” UF senior forward Will Yeguete said. “We’re going to have to limit them because they’re going to score on tough shots.”
Preferably tough 2-pointers.
The Gators, in turn, need to make shots; preferably some 3s.
UF entered the NCAA Tournament on a long-distance tear. Over the final six regular-season games, the Gators went 57-for-120 from the arc (47.5 percent), but against Albany and Pittsburgh in the Orlando regional games they combined to go just 8-for-32 (25 percent). Sharp-shooting sophomore guard Michael Frazier, 44.4 percent on the season from distance, hit just three of his 13 attempts, with several rattling in and out.
“I had a lot of good looks, but unfortunately they didn’t go down. That’s part of the game,” said Frazier, who is now just 5-for-21 from the 3-point line in six career NCAA games. “That’s in the past. All I can do is continue to take good shots and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.”
Some of those in-rhythm, transition 3s would do Florida wonders, but as the Gators have demonstrated time and again this season, what they do on defense -- and it starts with intense, energized and passionate play -- is what makes their offense work. They were reminded of that in sleepwalking past 16-seed Albany, then getting back to their dogged ways in both-ends of the blowout against 9-seed Pittsburgh.
Whether it’s Florida’s offense or defense, the Gators will need that kind of effort -- and more -- to beat UCLA.
“We would like to play fast, but there are things you have to do inside of playing fast,” Donovan said. “When you’re playing a team as gifted and talented as UCLA is on the break [and] in the halfcourt offense, you want to make sure that you’re able to get matched up and not give up easy baskets.”
GATORS HOOP SCOOP
NCAA SOUTH REGION SEMIFINAL
No. 1 Florida vs No. 20 UCLA
When: Thursday, 9:50 p.m.
Where: FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.
Records: Florida 34-2; UCLA 28-8
TV: CBS (w/Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore, Reggie Miller and Rachel Nichols)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; UCLA notes
History: The two are meeting for the fourth time, with the previous three also coming in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators defeated the Bruins 73-57 in the 2006 national championship game, then a year later ousted the Bruins from the Final Four with a 76-66 win in national semifinals. Their last meeting came in the 2011 round of 32 in Tampa, where UF won 73-65 behind 21 points from Erving Walker, who converted an acrobatic 3-point play with 1:14 left and the Gators up by just one point. Florida is 11-10 all-time against teams from the Pac-12 Conference, including an 8-3 mark under Coach Billy Donovan.
Pre-game storyline: East vs. West. Offense vs. Defense. Head coaches with Final Four pedigree as players. Take your pick. Bottom line: Winner advances to the South Region final and a chance to play for a berth in the Final Four. That’s where the Gators’ seasons have ended each of the last three years and this group of seniors is determined to give it one more try.
About the Gators: They survived the carnage of the South Region by muddling through an unimpressive defeat of 16th-seeded Albany then overwhelming Pittsburgh in the round of 32 with their trademark defense and stellar performance from senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin. Those two games served as reminders that Florida can be very average when not armed with the intensity and play-harder mentality Donovan and his staff talk about every day. That combination fuels a defense that is the best in the country. ... Wilbekin (13.1 ppg, 3.7 apg) is coming off maybe the finest all-around game of his career, after finishing with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting against Pitt. He scored all 13 of his second-half points in the final 10 minutes, including eight straight at one point to seal the game. He also guarded the Panthers’ best offensive player, Lamar Patterson, and held him to one point after intermission. ... Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II (12.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) is UF’s second-leading scorer, but after going on a 3-point shooting tear late in the regular season and into the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Frazier went just 3-for-13 from the arc in the Orlando regional. Though a career 45.1-percent shooter from distance, Frazier is now just 5-for-21 in six NCAA tournaments games (23.8 percent). ... Senior center Patric Young (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) will be a huge key for the Gators on both ends of the floor. His defense has been so consistent it’s practically a given he’ll be good on that side, but UF could use some thump from Young on offense, too. He was really good against outmanned Albany, tallying his first double-double of the season (10 points, 10 rebounds), but went 3-for-11 from the floor against Pitt. He missed a handful of easy shots, but fought his way to eight boards.
About the Bruins: They score. Lots. UCLA ranks fifth in the nation in points per game (81.8) and fifth in assists (17.2). That means the UF defense will be tested in all areas. ... The Bruins finished second, three games behind Arizona, in the Pac-12 Conference with a 12-6 record, but defeated the Wildcats in the championship game of the league’s postseason tournament. ... Steve Alford is in his first season at UCLA after jumping from New Mexico after last season. The Bruins are the fourth team Alford has guided to NCAA Tournament berths, along with New Mexico, Iowa and Southwest Missouri State. He’s 489-281 all-time (.670) and 7-7 in eight NCAA tournaments. ... The backcourt of 6-9 PG Kyle Anderson (14.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.5 apg) and 6-5, 220-pound Jordan Adams (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is a problem because of its unique size. Anderson and Adams will score more in the paint than they will from the perimeter. ... The Bruins start a third guard, 6-4, 215-pound Norman Powell (11.5 ppg), who shoots nearly 54 percent from the floor. Yeah, he’ll post, too. ... Twin brothers Travis and David Wear give UCLA two 6-10 bodies in the post. Both start and both shoot over 50 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free-throw line. ... Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, comes off the bench with his 3-point gun loaded (39.2 percent).
* .857 - Donovan’s record in Sweet 16 games, by virtue of his 6-1 record. The lone loss came in his first trip to a regional semifinal, back in 1999, when the Gators lost to Gonzaga 71-70 in Phoenix.
* 3 - Number of 3-pointers Frazier needs to tie Lee Humphrey’s single-season record of 113. Frazier has 110. Humphrey made 113 in both ’06 and ’07 on -- and this is crazy -- on the the exact same 246 attempts both years.
* 4 - Consecutive Sweet 16 trips for the Gators, the longest current streak in the nation and tied for the fourth-longest since the NCAA field went to 64 teams in 1985. The only ones longer: 9 - Duke (1998-2006) and North Carolina (1985-93); 7 - Duke (1986-92); 5 - Kentucky (1995-99) and Kansas (1993-97).
* 18 - Average free throws per game for UCLA in the postseason. The Bruins shot nearly 75 percent from the line for the season, compared to UF’s 66.3.
* 46 - All-time NCAA Tournaments for UCLA, a run that includes 11 national championships, the most in college basketball, with 10 under coaching John Wooden.
Watch for it: Because of UCLA’s size in the backcourt, the Bruins basically play upside down, with the guards in the post and the bigs on the perimeter. The Gators will have to play outstanding help defense -- and know their switches -- to cover for their smaller guards when matched up down low.