Saturday’s UCLA-Florida game shouldn’t be called a rematch.
Yes, Florida returns every key player from last year’s team with the exception of reserve forward Adrian Moss. Yes, future pros Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer have each had another stellar year. And, yes, it seems the smart money is on Billy Donovan’s team to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Duke did it during the 1991-92 seasons.
But for all that has stayed the same with Florida, on Saturday, they will face an entirely different UCLA team than it dismantled, 73-57 last year.
For starters, UCLA is a team that looks like it belongs in the Final Four. Last year, the Bruins were nearly eliminated twice on the way to the championship game. In the second round against Alabama, the Bruins were down by two points with under a minute to go before being bailed out by an Aaron Afflalo three-pointer. Then against Gonzaga in the regional semifinals, the Bruins had to overcome a 17-point deficit.
This year, the Bruins have cruised to the Final Four by an average victory margin of more than 13 points a game.
But the biggest changes to UCLA have been addition by subtraction.
The Bruins lost forwards Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins and guard Jordan Farmar, and, in turn, their departures have allowed for the emergence of players like the speedy point guard, Darren Collison.
Collison was a non-factor in last year’s game, going scoreless in 21 minutes. It makes sense, considering that at the time, he was a freshman playing behind Farmar.
This year, it’s Collison’s team.
Whereas Farmar was more deliberate (others would like to call it just plain boring) with his pace, Collison is more willing to run, and the Bruins get more opportunities, since Collison is a better ball-hawker than Farmar.
Collison has also proven his penchant for the clutch, as evidenced by draining a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down with just under five minutes left in UCLA’s 68-55 win over Kansas.
Then, there is the emergence of Josh Shipp, who was injured for all of last year. This season, he’s developed into a solid scorer and, like Collison, plays the kind of defense that coach Ben Howland imported from his days in the rough-and-tumble Big East.
But the biggest difference has been in Afflalo, UCLA’s best player.
The guard was developing a reputation for vaporizing during key moments. There was last year’s Final Four run, when he scored a combined 19 points against Florida and LSU. This year, he was a ghost when UCLA got bounced in the first round against lowly California. The Pac-10 Player of the Year also struggled against Indiana and Pittsburgh in the two games prior to the Elite 8.
But all was forgotten, and Afflalo finally exorcized some demons of the past against Kansas.
UCLA hung on to its lead each time the Jayhawks charged, thanks in no small part to the play of Afflalo. He drained a three midway through the second half with the shot clock nearing zero to silence the Kansas crowd. A tantalizing drive three minutes later subdued another Jayhawk run. Twenty four points and a return trip to the Final Four later, Afflalo finally had something to point to as a clutch performance.
UCLA will need more of the same from Afflalo, plus a little more from everyone else, to overcome Florida.
The Bruins, not known for their rebounding in the first place, will need to stifle a mobile and agile Gator front line. That’s no easy task, considering UCLA doesn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-9. Howland will need to find a way to get the most out of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata.
They’ll also need to address concerns that have haunted the Bruins all season — a weak bench, and even weaker free throw shooting.
But if the Bruins control tempo, if Collison’s drives can draw Noah and Horford away from the block, and if Afflalo continues his stellar play, the Bruins have a chance.
Considering last year’s result, a chance is all that UCLA can ask for.