As Neil Shulman recapped yesterday, Florida defeated UCLA Thursday night for the fourth time in NCAA Tournament play and in so doing advanced to its fourth Elite 8 in as many years. No other college basketball program has achieved that feat– in fact, with Louisville’s loss to “tweaked” Kentucky last night, no other program has advanced to three consecutive Elite 8’s. Eighteen years of Billy Donovan in Gainesville and Florida has become one of the nation’s preeminent programs. It is no longer silly to say Duke, Kansas, Kentucky…Florida when you talk about the best basketball programs. Tonight, this particular group of Gators, led as ever by their seniors, will attempt to finally win an Elite 8 game and advance to the Final Four for the fifth time in program history and the first time since 2007. I’ll preview the matchup, as well as Saturday’s other Elite 8 game, below.
My “Sweet 16” preview resulted in 6 of 8 hitting, and I was very close on scores to a few games as well. I might have gone 7-1 were it not for a shameful charging call against Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes in the closing seconds of UT-Michigan last night. All in all, I’ll take the 75 percent winning percentage on those picks again in the Elite 8.
Let’s start with the West Regional Final.
(1) Arizona vs. (2) Wisconsin, 8:49 PM, TBS
Let me just say if I entered a time-cubicle after the Florida game ended and emerged from it tomorrow morning and you told me either team won the other regional final, I wouldn’t be surprised. This game really could go either way.
On the one hand, I could wake up and read:
“Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes finally exploited Arizona’s lack of Brandon Ashley on the interior. Sam Dekker and Wisconsin’s ball movement was nearly as outstanding as it was against Baylor, and the Badgers made critical three pointers again and again in building an early lead. Arizona rallied, but Nick Johnson had another night where the shots weren’t falling and this time, they were too far behind to catch up, largely because Bo Ryan is coaching his most prolific offensive team yet, and the Badgers could do what San Diego State couldn’t– continue scoring.”
On the other hand, I could wake up and read:
“If you want to beat Arizona you’d damn well better be as physical as Arizona and you have to get in their face and contest jump shots. Arizona, even without Brandon Ashley, posed too much of a physical problem for Wisconsin’s bigs, and set the tone early on the offensive glass despite the fact that the Cats couldn’t hit jump shots early. Nick Johnson showed up for thirty minutes, not three, and Arizona played like a # 2 overall seed ought to play. It was a great year for Wisconsin because they were far better offensively than usual, but in the end, the fact that they couldn’t consistently defend like a Bo Ryan ball club cost them against an Arizona team that plays the game at the pace it wants to and is built to stop finesse offenses.”
My guess– something closer to the latter will occur. Arizona survived the San Diego State game against a ferocious defense because it was able to get stops repeatedly until the shots fell. I doubt they’ll shoot in the 40’s again, and I don’t trust Wisconsin to shoot in the fifties again against a defense that is, in terms of metrics, the best remaining in the field.
Prediction: Arizona 68, Wisconsin 60
Now the South Regional Final…
(1) Florida vs. (11) Dayton, 6:09 PM
Florida won on Thursday night against the most potent transition offense in the Sweet 16 despite the fact that they got very little from Casey Prather and Patric Young, who were saddled with foul trouble, and despite the fact that their press only turned the Bruins over eight times. They also won despite the fact that Scottie Wilbekin wasn’t terrific until the final ten minutes of the game, and despite the fact that they allowed more transition points than they have all season on defense. That’s why it is somewhat baffling to me that the Gators didn’t receive much acclaim or love for the victory in the national media. All we got was more stories that have already been written before about Scottie Wilbekin.
The better story is the one Chris Harry wrote about the Gator bench, a group whose sensational effort won the game for the Gators. Chris Walker was a force in limited minutes, scoring a season high seven points, grabbing three boards and blocking a shot. If Florida advances to the Final Four, the extra week of practice Walker gets is worth thinking about. It can only make Florida better. Devon Walker was an effective defender off the bench. Kasey Hill became just the fourth freshmen point guard in the history of the tournament (Jason Kidd, Kevin Gatlin, Magic Johnson) to dish out ten assists. Four of those set up Michael Frazier II for devastating three pointers that either helped build or stretch the Gators lead. Finally, Dorian Finney-Smith played like a conference 6th man of the year, scoring in double figures, crashing the glass, and most critically, utilizing his length to contest UCLA jump shots on the perimeter. The Gators ability to defend the three point line made it an uphill battle for the Bruins to erase 8-10 point deficits, and though they did on two occasions, they were out of runs in crunch time.
Beyond that, Florida defended a UCLA team who had scored nearly 1.2 points per possession since February 1st to .92– a staggering .3 difference that proved Florida can dictate tempo and slow down just about whoever they want to slow down.
These are all reasons Florida is going to defeat Dayton tonight and make the Final Four.
Don’t get me wrong– the Flyers are a terrific team. They will play like they’ve got nothing to lose and all the pressure is on Florida because, well, they have nothing to lose and all the pressure is on Florida. Jordan Sibert and Devin Oliver are terrific guards who can score a bunch of different ways. Dayton is also 24-3 when three or more players score in double figures– and that happened against Stanford Thursday night. Archie Miller does an outstanding job of getting his bench involved: 12 players– 12!!!– played in the first half against Stanford. The Flyers have great depth, pass extremely well and, while not UCLA-good in transition, are still good. More than any team the Gators have faced this postseason, including resurgent Kentucky, the Flyers are a “team.” There’s not a superstar but that is more by design and scheme than due to a lack of personnel. They’ll be ready to play.
The Gators do have some distinct advantages. First, they are bigger. So was Stanford, but Florida is a different type of big. Will Yeguette, who has had a brilliant NCAA tournament, could be a big problem for Dayton’s undersized forwards near the rim. Second, Dayton will turn the ball over. They average around 14 a game. This should allow Florida to have its fair share of opportunities in transition. Finally, the Flyers are a great three point shooting team, but the first three teams they faced in the tournament: Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford, are all below average offensive units and below average perimeter units. The Gators are one of the most efficient offenses left in the field and are, as a whole, an above-average perimeter club. I’d give UF a small edge there.
The Gators need to come out focused but not too anxious. They need to avoid the bricks and turnovers that sometimes plague teams who want it too badly. They need to play the game one segment at a time. They’ll need to deal with a crowd, that despite a large Gator contingent, will see more Dayton red than Florida blue and will see neutrals pull for Cinderella as long as the game is close. This won’t be an easy game. As I wrote in my Sweet 16 preview, it isn’t supposed to be easy. Everyone at this point is good.
Florida is just better. And the seniors have, as Patric Young told the media yesterday, “laid the soil” for this moment all season. I think they’ll live in it tomorrow, and advance to North Texas.
Prediction: Florida 71, Dayton 62