For Joakim Noah and his fellow Florida Gators, the setting is familiar. They're playing for the national championship for the second year in a row, this time on a court that they might as well call home. The Gators won the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome and easily handled UCLA (again) in their half of the national semi-finals.
Against UCLA, the Gators displayed the kind of aggressive play that have put them at the pinnacle of their sport, plus, having the Bruins' Arron Afflalo sidelined with two early fouls didn't hurt. Afflalo, UCLA's leading scorer and best defender, picked up his second foul less than three minutes into the game. As the Gators threatened to blow the game open, coach Howland put his star back in only to see him pick up foul #3.
Meanwhile, Corey Brewer was lighting up the scoreboard with three 3-pointers that put the Gators ahead by 6 points at the half. From there, Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard provided most of the offense as the Florida lead grew to double digits and the outcome became predictable. Humphrey hit 3 3-pointers in the second half and Richard scored repeatedly on dunks and tip-ins, finishing with 16 points. Brewer led all scorers with 19, while Al Horford swept the boards, accounting for a tournament-high 17 rebounds.
The final score of 76-66 was not indicative of how lopsided Florida's win really was. Afflalo did get back into the game in the second half and finished with 17 points, but he only hit 5-14 shots and much of his scoring was late in the game.
Earlier in the day, the Ohio State Buckeyes extended their winning streak to 22 games with a 67-60 win over Georgetown. The anticipated showdown between Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert failed to materialize as both players got into early foul trouble. The game lacked any real flow or consistency as the Buckeyes maintained a single-digit advantage through much of the contest and Georgetown could never sustain their offense for long.
Georgetown actually outshot the Buckeyes, 49-44%, but both teams were icy from outside, going a combined 11-35 from beyond the arc. With less than 3 minutes remaining, the Buckeyes opened up a 9-point lead that the Hoyas could never overcome and the game devolved into a foul-shooting contest late.
The national championship game tonight between the Gators and Buckeyes is a rematch of the programs which competed in the Fiesta Bowl in January for football's national title. In that game, the Buckeyes were heavy favorites, but the Gators shocked them with a one-sided win.
It's doubtful that the basketball Buckeyes will be able to turn the same trick. Florida is a 4 1/2 point favorite, and that's probably not even close to what the final score will be. While the Ohio State faithful are hoping for the first national title in over 40 years, the Gators are on the verge of being the first team to repeat as champions since Duke did it in 1992.
The matchups really favor the Gators here, despite not having a single player the stature of Oden. The problem for the Ohio State center is that the Gators have four players they can send at him - Noah, Horford, Chris Richard and, if need be, Marreese Speights, another 6'10" reserve. Oden doesn't have the stamina to stay in the game the full 40 minutes anyway, and there's a good chance he'll be in early foul trouble again.
On the perimeter, the Gators and Buckeyes match up pretty well, though nobody in the country has an answer for Corey Brewer, who has been the real x-factor in Florida's two-season run. Nobody is able to match up effectively with his long, lean 6'9" frame. Brewer is the team's best defender and can slash to the hoop or shoot from outside. Ohio State will have trouble - as has every other team - containing him.
These two met earlier in the season and the result was an ugly, 86-60 rout by the Gators. Sure, the Gators were at home and Greg Oden was playing in just his fifth game after an injury. But Oden is still a freshman, after all, and the Gators are still defending national champions.
An upset by Ohio State seems unlikely. Tomorrow morning, we're likely to be singing the praises of the Gator nation.