April 2, 2006

Gators wary of UCLA's daunting defense

INDIANAPOLIS - After spending several hours breaking down UCLA's defense Sunday, Florida's assistant coaches stepped out of the cramped video room for a short break.

They were admittedly tired and maybe a little overwhelmed.

The Gators haven't faced anyone like the Bruins, whose smothering, hounding, tempo-controlling defense could pose problems in the NCAA championship game Monday night.

''They are one of the top, if not the best, defensive team in the country,'' Florida assistant Larry Shyatt said. ''They have habitually the best half-court understanding I've see up to this point.''

The Bruins are athletic and deep - much like Tennessee and South Carolina, teams that handed Florida four if its six losses this season.

UCLA guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo harass ball-handlers the second they cross midcourt. Forwards Cedric Bozeman and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute torment opponents with their in-your-face tenacity. And center Ryan Hollins hangs around the lane in hopes of altering shots and helping out.

Then there's wave after wave of bench players eager to enter the game with the same intensity, something coach Ben Howland demands.

''You've got to establish your game plan and let them know that you're not going to get punked,'' Florida forward Corey Brewer said.

The Bruins (32-6) have punked just about everyone lately.

They ran their stifling defensive scheme to perfection in NCAA tournament wins over Memphis (regional final) and LSU (Final Four), holding both teams to 45 points. And they have allowed more than 60 points just once during their 11-game winning streak.

''They're very physical, very well coached, very disciplined,'' Florida assistant Donnie Jones said. ''They're going to force you to pass the basketball, go deep into the shot clock and you're going to have to make plays against their defense.

''Every possession's going to be a physical battle.''

The Gators (32-6), though, might be up for the challenge. Joakim Noah and Al Horford have dominated down low, proving to be maybe the best frontcourt tandem in the country. Brewer has created consistent mismatches with his accurate shooting and slashing ability.

Then there's Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green. The duo has combined to make 27 shots from 3-point range in five tournament games.

Humphrey and Green could be the key to getting Florida its first national championship, needing to avoid turnovers, feed the ball inside and then make open shots.

''We know they're going to pressure the ball,'' Green said. ''We have to find a way to get in our offense and create.''

It might not be easy against the Bruins.

Howland was twice chosen Weber State's most valuable defensive player and he has carried it into his coaching career. He made it clear from his first team meeting in 2003 that players were required to be active on both ends of the court. If not, they wouldn't play.

They quickly bought into his aggressive, man-to-man style.

''That's what has caused us to win games,'' Bruins guard Darren Collison said. ''If the offense isn't working, we can turn it over and rely on defense.''

The Bruins contest every dribble, every pass, every shot. They try to disrupt opponents cutting across the court or setting picks. And they always play help defense. But even though they double-team post players, they don't expect to let Humphrey, Green and Brewer get the kind of looks they did in Saturday against George Mason.

The trio went a combined 12-of-25 from behind the arc.

''It's not going to be an up-and-down game where a lot of points are going to be scored,'' Jones said. ''All the little things are going to matter.''

Added Shyatt: ''You're not getting a lot easy; you might not get anything easy.''

And that's what makes the Gators wary. In the 2000 final, Florida was outplayed on both ends by a more aggressive and defensive-minded Michigan State team.

Could it happen again?

''Our biggest strength is we have a lot of guys that can score,'' Humphrey said. ''In different games this year, different guys have stepped up. Our team is very unselfish and we generally have a high number of assists and pass the ball.

''For us to be successful, we need to do that again.''




 

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