Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Final

It's the Gators and the Bruins in the NCAA championship game tomorrow night, a matchup that was unlikely when the tournament began but now makes perfect sense.

Florida has been the best team in the tournament. Mark this stat away: The last eight champions have won each of their first two tournament games by double digits. (Arizona in 1997 was the last not to do so.) The Gators opened this tournament with impressive victories over South Alabama and UW-Milwaukee, and only Georgetown lost to the Gators by single digits (57-53). It is often true what they say about championship teams getting lucky at least once in the tournament, but it is rare that the winner doesn't also get a few easy games, especially early against much lower seeds.

UCLA certainly got lucky in the Sweet 16 when Gonzaga blew a late nine-point lead. (The Bruins also squeaked past Alabama 62-59 in the second round.) But UCLA beat the Bulldogs as they have won virtually all of their games this season, with defense. Their victories over Memphis and LSU were borderline unwatchable, because of the Bruins' suffocating man-to-man. But think about what they did, knocking out two hot teams that UCLA supposedly didn't have the athletes to compete with. The Bruins are very quick, very determined, and they go to the glass as well as any team in America. They'll need those traits to beat the Gators, who have proven their own mettle much the same way.

This matchup also features two teams that won their conference tournaments, putting an end to the myth that it's better to lose early and rest before you go to the NCAAs. Florida was very impressive in the SEC tournament until the final, when they had to grind out a two-point victory over a South Carolina team that had beaten them twice during the regular season. UCLA dominated the Pac 10 tournament, beating Cal in the final 71-52. As a result, the Gators enter the game Monday on a 10-game winning streak and the Bruins on a 12-game winning streak.

Finally, Florida and UCLA represent the two of the most impressive conferences in this tournament, with the Missouri Valley likely being a third. The Gators joined SEC rival LSU in the Final Four, and the Bruins came out of a Pac 10 that nearly shocked two number one seeds -- Arizona took Villanova to the wire in the second round, and Washington would have beaten Connecticut in the Sweet 16 but not for a silly foul by Mike Jensen and a late 3-pointer by Rashad Anderson.

Meanwhile, the Big East watched all eight of its teams go down, including two number-one seeds in the Elite Eight. The Big Ten didn't even survive the tournament's first weekend. The ACC was done by the end of the Sweet 16 (while the women's Final Four has three ACC teams, all of whom have won a men's title since 2001). And the Big 12 put Texas in the Elite Eight but lost Kansas and Oklahoma in first-round upsets and Texas A&M in the second round.

Where these two teams blow the prototypes of finalists is in their makeup. Both are extremely young, especially their stars. Florida starts four sophomores and junior Lee Humphrey. UCLA has two senior starters but its top three players -- Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- are two sophomores and a freshman. Also, it's rare that a team that doesn't shoot particularly well, like UCLA, or a team that relies so heavily on the 3-pointer, like Florida, wins the championship. Why they're here is that the Bruins can stay in games in which they don't shoot well, and the Gators have two great inside players to complement their shooters.

Who wins? I'm looking at it this way: The team that can stop the other from doing what it likes best will win. I think UCLA has the better chance of doing so. Florida loves to run and press, but UCLA is quick enough and deep enough to stay with them, and they have two good point guards in Farmar and freshman Darren Collison. The Bruins also pressure the perimeter and recover well on defense, making Florida's inside-outside game harder to execute. UCLA doesn't have great big guys, but the Bruins showed on Saturday that Mbah a Moute, Ryan Hollins, Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya, and company can hold their own against the likes of Davis and Thomas.

Ben Howland is trying to become the first coach since Jim Calhoun in 1999 to win the championship in his first trip to the Final Four. He and the Bruins will have to win it in the city where UCLA registered its only loss in a championship game (the 1980 final to Louisville in Market Square Arena) and beat a coach who has Final Four experience and a team that is playing at an incredibly high level.

But the Bruins all tournament have shown they can do whatever it takes to win. It's rarely pretty, but the results speak for themselves. After two rather boring semifinals, this one holds our interest and goes to the wire, where the Bruins have just enough -- again. UCLA 63, Florida 60.



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