For several years, Alabama versus Oregon was the fantasy pairing in college football. The nation’s nastiest defense against the most exciting offense. Power and strength versus speed and precision. Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference.
Welcome to the Sweet 16.
While the marquee matchup never materialized on the gridiron, top-seeded Florida and fourth-seeded UCLA will battle on the hardwood in an all-too-familiar storyline in the South Regional semifinals at FedEx Forum on Thursday night (9:45 p.m., CBS).
The Gators (34-2) and Bruins (28-8), pitting contrasting styles of play, will meet in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time since 2006, and Billy Donovan’s team has been nothing but heartbreak for college basketball’s most historic program.
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The Gators, winners of a nation’s-best 28 in a row, trumped the Bruins in all three 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.
Yet history means zilch Thursday night, and Bruins first-year coach Steve Alford amusingly acknowledged as much Wednesday.
“We know we’ve got a lot of challenges with Florida, so everybody might as well throw in the history, too,” he quipped.
But the Bruins aren’t in Memphis by accident.
UCLA is an electric offensive team, scoring 81.7 points per game — powered by sensational sophomores Jordan Adams, a potent scorer, and Kyle Anderson, a do-everything freak.
Anderson is a 6-9 point guard with a 7-3 wingspan who led the Pac-12 in assists (6.6 apg) and was third in rebounds (8.7 rpg). He is a matchup nightmare as an unselfish combo-guard.
After struggling with consistency as a freshman, Anderson has thrived under Alford’s up-tempo system, with UCLA’s coach saying the sophomore’s versatility, facilitating and improvement “has been the biggest thing for us this season.”
Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year and one of the nation’s top perimeter defenders, is six inches shorter than Anderson and said the Gators must work together to slow down the Bruins’ sophomore.
“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 is on a five-game winning streak — 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.
UCLA’s guards post-up and bigs shoot three-pointers, but the Gators haven’t blinked all season, and a battle-tested group isn’t about to shy away from a formidable challenge just a single victory away from their fourth consecutive Elite Eight appearance.
“We’re going to stick to our principles and just play the way we’ve been playing,” Florida senior forward Will Yeguete said.
Meanwhile, both schools are actually proficient in the other’s greatest strength, adding intrigue to the showdown.
UCLA isn’t solely an offensive juggernaut, as the Bruins rank No. 4 in the country in steals (9.3 spg).
“A lot has been made out of Florida’s defense and our offense. I think our defense is probably better than advertised, and I know Florida’s offense is probably better than advertised,” Alford said.
Despite averaging just 70.4 points per contest, the Gators rank among the nation’s most efficient units.
“We all want the ball to go in the basket,” Donovan said. “I hope we score 120 tomorrow, but we haven’t done it this year.”
But the Gators have played ferocious defense all season, something they hope continues Thursday night.
Florida will press UCLA in an effort to change the tempo and prevent the Bruins from scoring in bunches.
According to Anderson, UCLA’s defensive effort is just as important as its ability to match UF point-for-point.
“Defense is the key to winning,” he said, bluntly.
“We don’t want to get into a matchup where it’s our good offense versus their good defense. We want to have a presence on the defensive side as well. Which team is better defensively will win this game.”