Mar 22, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; The Florida Gators huddle prior to the first half of a men's college basketball game against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: ┬ęDavid Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators vs. UCLA Bruins: Strength vs Strength Meet in Sweet 16

In four out of the past nine years, the Florida Gators (34-2) and UCLA Bruins (28-8) have squared off in the NCAA Tournament. Florida and UCLA first faced each other in the 2006 national championship game. I think we all remember the result of that. Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, and Lee Humphrey all cut down the nets to win Florida’s first national championship, a 73-57 victory. The very next year, the Gators and Bruins met under similar circumstances: In the Final Four. Once again, the Orange and Blue were victorious 76-66. And just when UCLA thought they had enough of Florida, the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 put them opposing each other again in 2011. The result? Another Gator victory, this time 73-65. Florida is 3-0 against UCLA all-time, with those wins coming in the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, UCLA fans are tired of seeing the Gators. But this is a different team with a new coach. If the first weekend of games taught us anything, it’s that upsets happen in the tournament.

Florida made it to the Sweet 16 as the top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They used a strong performance by speedster Kasey Hill to blow past a pesky Albany group and finally fired on all cylinders against Pitt, with Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete fueling the win. In the first game against the Great Danes, Kasey Hill provided a spark off the bench only he could muster. His speed and quickness were clearly too much for Albany as he tallied 10 points and two steals in 17 minutes. All this happened after Hill was listed as questionable for the game with turf toe. I think the toe is doing just fine. Everything was working for Florida in the Third Round game against the Pitt Panthers. The Gators played smothering defense, causing 11 turnovers with 10 steals, all while holding Pitt to 37.3% shooting from the field. Will Yeguete did everything right in the game, causing turnovers, playing great defense, and making those little hustle plays that don’t show up in the box score. Scottie Wilbekin provided the offense for Florida, scoring 21 points, including a silencer at the halftime buzzer. Those two wins, along with losses from Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin mean Florida’s 28-game winning streak is the longest in the country.

UCLA is streaking it their own was as well. A team that struggled for much of the season found their stride during the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bruins went through three NCAA Tournament teams during the conference tournament, beating Oregon, Stanford, and one-seed Arizona on their way to their first Pac-12 Tournament title since 2008. Since then, the Bruins have continued to find their groove. Fourth-seeded UCLA beat the 13-seed Tulsa Golden Hurricanes handily in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Adams led the way with 21 points and eight rebounds in the Bruins 76-59 win. As fate would have it, UCLA faced the 12-seeded Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks’ and their 29-game winning streak. The Bruins took care of the Lumberjacks, 77-60, with Adams pacing UCLA once again. Adams had 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go along with five rebounds, and three assists.

The previous three UCLA teams Florida had faced in the tournament were led by Ben Howland, a stickler for strong defensive squads during his time at the helm. This year’s head coach is Steve Alford who has completely changed the philosophy in Westwood, going to a up-tempo, high scoring offense. The Bruins average 80.1 points per game, good enough for 12th in the country. The rank in the top-10 for field goal percentage and assists, averaging 49% from the field (10th) and 17.2 assists (5th). That shows me an unselfish team that takes high percentage shots. A lot of this offensive efficiency is likely due to their sheer size. The smallest player they have is 6’3″ and they can really create some mismatch problems because of it. Kyle Anderson is getting a lot of attention because he’s a 6’9″ point forward who leads the team in assists and can regularly get the to the basket. He’s a walking triple-double waiting to happen. If there’s one thing Florida should be worried about, it’s the size of UCLA. They faced a tall Kentucky squad three times and came away with victories, but this Bruin team presents a different issue.

The Bruins aren’t too great on the defensive side of the ball, however. They do create many turnovers, stealing the ball 9.4 times per game which ranked fourth in the country. Given all their size, they actually don’t have a great rebounding team. They collect 35.6 boards per game for 129th. Meanwhile, a shorter Florida team manages to pick up exactly the same amount of rebounds. UCLA gives up 70.1 points per game, ranking 178th in the nation. With the Gators defensive prowess and the Bruins offensive acuity creates an incredible matchup of Florida’s strength against UCLA’s strength. It’s the unstoppable force versus the immovable object all over again.

Winning the Pac-12 Tournament championship might have sealed UCLA’s fate, however. The winner has not advanced past the Sweet 16 in the past five years. And Florida would like nothing more than to continue the streak and make it to their fourth straight Elite 8.

Florida will likely start their four seniors: forward Casey Prather, guard Scottie Wilbekin, foward Will Yeguete, and center Patric Young, with sophomore Michael Frazier II at guard. UCLA will probably counter with redshirt senior twin forwards David and Travis Wear, junior guard Norman Powell, and sophomore guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson.

You can check out the question/answer we did with Go Joe Bruin for some fan insight, and don’t forget to head over to their site to see what we had to say to them. It was a fun way to get to know your foe.

Tip-off is set for 9:45 pm Thursday night, but that starting time is fluid. The game between 11-seed Dayton and 10-seed Stanford, which starts at 7:15 pm, will end 30 minutes before the Florida-UCLA game can start. It looks like it’ll be a late night for Gators fans on the east coast, but it’ll be worth it with a win. The game will be played at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN, the last site for the South Region before the winner heads to North Texas for the Final Four. Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore, Reggie Miller, and Rachel Nichols will be covering the game for CBS. The Voice of the Gators Mick Hubert and Mark Wise will handle the Gator radio broadcast. TV coverage will be on CBS, or streaming at March Madness Live. If you can only listen to the game, you can check it out on the Gator IMG Sports Network, or streaming on Country 103.7 The Gator and Westwood One Sports.

For more on the Gators make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@HailFloridaHail and @BrettKaplan13).

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Tags: Basketball Florida Gators NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 UCLA Bruins

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