8:47 pm EDT (#2 West) UCLA (30-5) vs. (#1 Midwest) Florida (33-5) - a rematch of last year's championship game and both teams have earned the right to be here, though Florida's route looks to have been considerably easier than that of the Bruins.
The Gators are on an 8-game win streak which includes winning the SEC tourney. Even in their own conference tournament, though, the Gators didn't face the best teams in the SEC, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Florida skated through the conference tournament with wins over Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. Only the Razorbacks made it to the Big Dance, and they were summarily dispatched in the opening round.
The teams Florida has played since then won't really have them properly prepped for UCLA, either. Jackson State was a walkover (112-69); they struggled with a very suspect Purdue team (74-67); struggled even more against the Butler Bulldogs (65-57), before beating up on Oregon, 85-77, a team which lost its shooting touch at precisely the wrong time.
Florida was not impressive in any of their wins, but they did what they had to do to advance. Against Oregon, specifically, they rode the red hot shooting of Lee Humphrey (7 of 13 3-pointers) and Taurean Green (4-8) to commandeer a healthy lead over the Ducks until the closing minutes of the game. Despite their substantial size advantage and Oregon's foul problems - 2 Ducks fouled out and 2 others finished with 4 fouls - the game got close late.
The considerable edge Florida had at the free throw line (28-43 to Oregon's 15-16) was also more than the margin of victory, so in retrospect, the Ducks (who also hit only 8-22 3-pointers) did more to lose that game than Florida did to win it.
The Gators also don't seem to have the same emotion as last year, which is understandable. Like sex, the first time is always the most thrilling, with each subsequent foray an opportunity to make mistakes. There are a lot of distractions which seem to have invaded Florida's game. The Gators are not as intense as last season's squad, despite having the same starting five. It's going to be a problem because the Bruins will be fired up.
Nothing prepares a team better than a loss. And last year's loss in the NCAA finals still stings the Bruins, especially their star, Arron Afflalo, who was basically invisible for much of the game.
Afflalo has raised his game, especially in the Bruins' last outing against Kansas. in which he led UCLA with 24 points in a 68-55 win. While Afflalo was doing the bulk of the scoring and hitting key shots at critical points, his running mate, Darren Collison was aiding the cause with tight defense, 5 steals and 14 points, including 2 of 3 3-pointers.
If anyone thinks defense doesn't matter, they'd better take a closer look at that game. The Bruins turned the ball over 24 times themselves! Most of the time, that would result in a big, fat L. Instead, the UCLA players contested every Kansas shot, forced 21 Jayhawk turnovers and barely won the battle of the boards. They also played with tremendous commitment and tempo on offense and ended up outshooting Kansas, 53-41%.
When it was all over, the Bruins had held the Jayhawks to their lowest point total of the season. They earned the win, and they did it the hard way.
When the Bruins take the court against Florida, Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are going to give Al Horford and Joakim Noah a pair of steel-eyed looks that speak revenge. Collison and Afflalo match up very well with Humphrey and Green, though Afflalo may have to defend the taller, and more dangerous, Corey Brewer.
That matchup is the real key to the game. If Afflalo can limit Brewer's penetration, or Brewer can keep Afflalo off-balance on offense, their respective team will win the game. Brewer and his mates have already done it. Afflalo and the Bruins are hungry for a championship and they come in healthy and well-prepared.
On Friday, I'll give you the final take on who's going to advance, but right now, I'm leaning heavily towards UCLA.