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March 26, 2014
UCLA gearing up for No. 1 Florida in Sweet 16
UCLA has made strides so far in March under first-year head coach Steve Alford, but celebration is devoid from the Bruins locker room as they prepare for their biggest challenge yet.
After trouncing Stephen F. Austin on Sunday, UCLA advanced to its first Sweet 16 since 2008, when the team made its most recent run to the Final Four.
It was a significant step for a UCLA program that had been on the decline for years, but you wouldn't have been able to tell by the faces in the Bruins' locker room after they clinched a trip to the Sweet 16.
"We haven't been here in a while, but they don't hang Sweet 16 banners up in Pauley Pavilion," sophomore point guard Kyle Anderson said.
UCLA's quest for a 12th national title banner to hoist in the rafters above Nell & John Wooden Court continues on Thursday with a showdown with the No. 1 overall seed of the NCAA Tournament: Florida.
The Gators are not only favored to win the Tournament after a tremendous season that featured an undefeated run in the SEC, but have also had UCLA's number in recent Tournament matchups.
Florida beat UCLA in the national championship game in 2006 and then beat the Bruins a year later in the Final Four. The Gators most recently ended the Bruins' 2011 Tournament run in the Round of 32.
Many variables have changed in the meantime, but it could very well be Florida that once again devours UCLA's title hopes.
Still, Alford isn't preaching the historical context of Thursday's Sweet 16 game to his players. After all, the Bruins don't seem to buy in to the notion that Florida has an edge or bragging rights.
"That's some good history, but we got 11 national championships, so that's good history too," sophomore center Tony Parker said after Sunday's game.
UCLA might have more total championships to its name thanks to legendary coach John Wooden, but Florida has flourished in the NCAA Tournament under Billy Donovan, who is becoming increasingly revered for his accomplishments in March.
In addition to winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, Donovan's Gators have been to three consecutive Elite Eights. Since 2000, Florida has advanced to the Elite Eight on six occasions; UCLA has been there thrice.
While recent history would suggest that Florida will again cruise past UCLA into the Elite Eight, the most relevant history suggests otherwise.
Since an embarrassing loss to Washington State to conclude regular-season conference play, the Bruins have been playing their best basketball of the season.
While it didn't face Florida this season, UCLA played a very comparable team in the Pac-12 that was esteemed as the best team in the nation for most of the season: Arizona.
Both teams play smothering defense and are in the Top 5 in points allowed per game (Florida: 57.5 ppg, Arizona: 58.3 ppg). They are also both very physical, unrelenting teams.
That UCLA defeated Arizona to win the Pac-12 Tournament title in their recent matchup is a vital boost of confidence for the Bruins.
"Arizona was one of the better games we played all year, so if we just look back on that, I think we'll be fine," senior forward Travis Wear said Tuesday before the team departed campus to catch its plane for Memphis, Tenn.
The Bruins may be peaking at the right time, but they know that will quickly change if they don't adhere to the same philosophy that's reaped postseason success for the Bruins thus far: Take care of the basketball.
In its first two Tournament games, UCLA, which has the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation (1.68), registered 39 assists against 13 turnovers, producing an even 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. Only three of those turnovers were committed in the Bruins' most recent game against SFA, in which they tallied 22 assists.
Against a gritty defensive team like Florida, protecting the ball will be a major key to pulling out a victory.
"We've gotta do a good job handling the press. We've been a good ball-handling team all year long," Alford said. "If we're a good ball-handling team in this game, we're gonna give ourselves a very good chance. If we don't handle the ball well, then it could be a long night for us because their press is instrumental."
Florida's defense isn't its only weapon that may stun UCLA. The Bruins will also be challenged by the Gators' slower offensive tempo. This season, Florida averaged 64.5 possessions per game (335th), while UCLA averaged 72.1 (52nd). The Gators also rank sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency.
Above all, Florida finds ways to win. The Gators have won 34 of 36 games this season and have compiled a 28-game winning streak, last suffering a defeat to Connecticut on Dec. 2.
However, UCLA has been making a living on snapping winning streaks in March.
After snapping Oregon's eight-game winning streak in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, the Bruins shattered Tulsa's 11-game winning streak and SFA's 29-game winning streak, which was the longest streak in the nation heading in to their Round of 32 matchup.
Winning streaks mean little to UCLA, even though it has strung together its own winning streak against teams with lengthy winning streaks.
"We're playing another team with an incredible win streak, and I guess the only thing that's good about that is that's what we've been doing the last two or three weeks and we've handled it well," Alford said.
The Bruins hope they can sustain that trend in their biggest matchup yet in the Tournament and beat out Florida for a spot in the Elite Eight, with historical context in mind or not.