Tonight in Memphis, Florida and UCLA will meet for the fourth time in history. That history is recent, three games in the past eight years all occurring in the NCAA Tournament. With a win, the Gators will be 4-0 all-time against one of college basketball's most prestigious programs. Before the teams hit the floor, ITG caught up with Edward Lewis, publisher for BruinSportReport.com, to preview the UCLA perspective.
- It has been a successful first season for Steve Alford to say the least. What has he brought to UCLA that has been missing in the recent past?
Lewis: "Chemistry. UCLA has always had the talent. Even in his darkest hour, Ben Howland was able to haul in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country (Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker in 2012). Yet after Howland's early glory years in Westwood, he could just never get them to play to their potential. There were horror stories of playing for him and practicing for him that made players miserable and transfers happen more often than big wins.
"But with Alford, it all seems different. While a bit prickly with the media, his players absolutely love him. There are anecdotes about him joking with Parker mid-game about missing free throws, or making fun of Norman Powell's bow-leggedness, or giggling in the huddle when drawing up a game-winning play versus Arizona. It just seems like these players will pour their heart out onto the floor for Alford, which is something they wouldn't do for Howland the last few years."
- Kyle Anderson is the major topic of discussion when the Bruins come up. How does an opposing team go about stopping a player who matches his size with his skillset?
Lewis: "We haven't seen anyone do it quite yet. A tall, long and athletic wing seems to be the most ideal formula to defend him, like Arizona did with Aaron Gordon in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship, but Anderson still got off for 21 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in that game.
"Anderson's No. 1 weakness is his lack of athleticism and his slower handle. If you can throw a quicker, more athletic 6-foot-9 wing on him, there's a chance you can neutralize him. But that hasn't been done by any team just yet."
- What's the biggest concern regarding Florida that Alford and UCLA players have expressed in the build-up to tonight's matchup?
Lewis: "Size inside. UCLA only has three big men on its roster, and two of them (Travis Wear and David Wear) prefer to play more like wings than post players. Meanwhile, Florida's bevy of bigs is alarming, most notably the play of Patric Young.
"In the Pac-12 this season, there weren't many true centers or power forwards, so UCLA has gotten away with not having an interior presence all season. But you can tell now there's some worry Florida might finally be the team that has the size and ability to beat up UCLA down low, and that has the Bruins most worried heading into Thursday night."
- Give me an idea what the biggest strengths and weaknesses are for the Bruins.
Lewis: "Its strengths are its firepower. UCLA has four or five guys who could easily go off for 20 points in any given game, and it has two future first-rounders in its back court (Anderson and Zach LaVine) and probably two more NBA guys back there as well (Norman Powell and Jordan Adams). They can run up and down the floor with those talented guards, and all of them can handle the ball, shoot it from three, or explode to the cup.
"Its weaknesses are post play and defense. As mentioned before, there are only three big men on the roster, so posting up teams is not what UCLA will do. And, defensively, UCLA is not the most athletically-gifted team, which means schools with quicker and more athletic players generally give the Bruins fits on the defensive end."
- How do you see tonight's game playing out?
Lewis: "If you ask 10 pundits, experts or even level-headed fans out here in L.A., for some reason, seven, eight or even nine of them are picking Florida. Me, personally, I look at Florida's first two games of the Tourney, and then I look at UCLA's last five games (which included a big win over No. 1 seed Arizona), and I genuinely think the Bruins are the hotter team coming into this matchup.
"I also think the game will have a neutral court feel, which should benefit the Bruins, who haven't had much success on hostile ground this year. In the end, I'm not so sure I believe Florida has the explosive scoring ability that people want to see in a No. 1 overall seed. I'm actually picking UCLA to win, probably in a 69-66 game, although I would not be shocked to see that score flipped Thursday night in Memphis."