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March 27, 2014

Sweet 16 Notebook: Contrasting styles collide

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top-seeded Florida and fourth-seeded UCLA will square off for the fourth time since 2006 in a match-up pitting contrasting styles in the South Regional Semifinals at FedEx Forum on Thursday night (9:45 p.m., CBS).

The Gators (34-2) have been nothing but heartbreak for college basketball's most historic program, but the Bruins (28-8) are red-hot and hoping to dish-out some revenge.

"We know we've got a lot of challenges with Florida, so everybody might as well throw in the history too," UCLA first-year coach Steve Alford quipped.

The Gators, winners of a nation's-best 28 straight, trumped the Bruins in all three previous tournament matchups -- highlighted by Florida's back-to-back wins in the 2006 NCAA Championship game (73-57) and 2007 Final Four (77-66).

Florida also topped UCLA 73-65 in the Round of 32 in 2011.

But history means nothing Thursday night, as UCLA and its high-powered offense looks to upset the gritty Gators.

UCLA is an electricscoring team (81.7 points per game), powered by sensational sophomores Jordan Adams, a potent finisher in the post and from deep, and Kyle Anderson, a do-everything freak. Anderson, a 6-foot-9 point guard with a 7-3 wingspan, led the Pac-12 in assists (6.6 apg) and was third in rebounds (8.7 rpg) and poses as a matchup nightmare for the Gators. Under Alford's up-tempo system, Anderson has thrived as a sophomore, with UCLA's coach saying the sophomore's versatility, facilitating and improvement the biggest key to the Bruins' season.

Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin gives up six inches to Anderson, admitting UCLA's combo guard will be a tough mark.

"He's a unique cover," Wilbekin said. "We just have to build walls, help each other and try to keep him out of the lane."

UCLA has won five straight -- all against NCAA Tournament teams -- and has size (the Wear twins, both 6-10), skill (Anderson, freshman guard Zach LaVine) and shooting (Adams, averaging 17.4 ppg) to threaten the nation's second-stingiest defense.

The Bruins have scored over 90 points nine times this season, while Florida hasn't eclipsed the 90-point mark once.

UCLA's guards post-up and bigs shoot 3-pointers, but the Gators are a battle-tested group ready for the challenge.

"We're going to stick to our principles and just play the way we've been playing," Florida senior forward Will Yeguete said, as the Gators look to advance to their fourth consecutive Elite Eight.

HAPPY HOMECOMING
As a standout at North Side High in Jackson, Tenn., Florida's senior slasher Casey Prather grew up just 90 miles from FedEx Forum.

The Gators' leading scorer (14.1 ppg) played high school and AAU games at the arena and is thrilled to return to his backyard.

"It's great just having my family be able to support me," Prather said, on this homecoming. "I know they wanted to come to a lot more games but I've been kind of far away, so me playing close to home is just great for them. "It's a great environment. I'm excited. It should be a lot of fun." The 2013-14 season has been special for Prather, as his well-documented struggles with injuries and identity issues nearly derailed his Florida career.

But after some soul-searching last offseason, the 6-foot-6 swingman has matured into Florida's most potent threat around the rim.

Prather led the SEC in field goal percentage (60.7) and was an all-conference first teamer, as his patience and perseverance paid off.

"I had to stay locked it to who I am as a player," he explained. "Just playing to my strengths. The [coaching staff] helped me see the big picture. I took a step back and realized what I can bring to the team and things I could do effectively to help us win."

NO REGRETS
Florida nearly poached UCLA's do-everything-all-star two years ago, as Anderson almost committed to the Gators during the 2012 recruiting cycle.

The Jersey City St. Anthony's standout -- the same hoops academy former Gators guard Mike Rosario attended -- ultimately chose the Bruins due to former UCLA coach Ben Howland's propensity for developing combo-guards.

However, Rivals' third-overall player said it was a close decision.

"I wouldn't have had a problem going to both schools," the former McDonald's All-American said. "I just happened to like UCLA more. The player development that I saw when being recruited by Donovan played a big role in how much I liked Florida at the time. But I decided to come to UCLA, and I'm happy with my decision."

VALUE THE BALL
While the Bruins are considered solely an offensive juggernaut, they rank No. 4 in the country in steals, averaging 9.3 swipes per game thanks to their impressive length, size and quick hands.

Florida is well aware of UCLA's prowess of jumping passing lanes and converting turnovers into fast points, with senior center Patric Young calling the Bruins "the fastest shooting team [from defense to offense] in the country."

Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added, "taking care of the ball is key because they score a lot of their points in transition."

THIS & THAT
Florida made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators still rank No. 280 nationally (66.3 percent) in overall percentage and the charity stripe may loom large down the stretch. UCLA is very good free throw shooting team, finishing the season No. 21 (74.9 percent) nationally. ... UCLA is 14-7 against RPI top-100 teams. ... Donovan is 6-1 in the Sweet 16, winning six-straight since 1999.


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