March 27, 2007

Last year's beating still on UCLA's mind

UCLA understands the benefits and drawbacks of its NCAA semifinal rematch with Florida.

The luck of the draw gives the Bruins a long-awaited opportunity to erase the memories of their 73-57 loss to the Gators in last year's championship game.

"It gives us a chance to kill two birds with one stone in a sense," junior guard Arron Afflalo said Monday. "We can get a little bit of revenge as well as moving into the championship."

But this twist of fate also makes UCLA's path to the championship game that much more difficult. The Bruins know from experience that they couldn't have drawn a tougher semifinal foe.

"What they've done this year with the bull's-eye squarely on their chest is amazing," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "They're the best team in college basketball. They've improved from a year ago, so it's a daunting challenge."

Howland watched the tape of last year's NCAA final Sunday after learning the Bruins would face the Gators this weekend. A repeat viewing didn't make it any easier to stomach.

"It's hard to watch," Howland said. "We were not very good, and they were very good. We'd definitely like to play better than we played last year."

UCLA shot just 36.1 percent and went 3-for-17 from 3-point range in last year's championship game. Florida capitalized on the Bruins' poor performance to lead by as many as 20 points in the second half.

Florida closed the game with seven dunks among its final eight baskets as UCLA wondered why it showed up flat in its biggest game of the season.

"That aggressive nature just wasn't there for 40 minutes," said Afflalo, who scored 10 points and shot 3-for-10 that night. "They took advantage of it."

The Bruins know they can't repeat that mistake this weekend. After all, they believe this Florida team is even better than the Gators squad that dominated them a year ago.

Florida returned all five of the starters from last year's championship game.

Taurean Green collected eight assists and only one turnover in last year's championship game and has averaged 17.3 points over his last three tournament games. Lee Humphrey made seven 3-pointers Sunday in an 85-77 Midwest Regional championship victory over Oregon.

Rivals.com second-team All-America forward Al Horford and third-team All-America forward/center Joakim Noah combined for eight of the Gators' 10 blocks in last year's title game.

"They're the best big-man tandem on the same team that I can remember," Howland said.

While Florida returned just about all its top players from last year's championship team, UCLA had to replace three starters. Although Florida enters the week as a three-point favorite, at least one coach who has faced both teams believes the Bruins have a fighting chance.

Pac-10 rival Oregon split its season series with UCLA before falling to Florida in the regional championship. Ducks coach Ernie Kent said he believes UCLA has grown stronger over the last year.

"I think this year's UCLA team is probably tougher mentally because they've been through the grind a second time now," Kent said.

Sophomore forward Josh Shipp has developed into the Bruins' second-leading scorer after missing most of the 2005-06 season with a hip injury. The emergence of sophomore point guard Darren Collison has helped the Bruins overcome the loss of first-round draft pick Jordan Farmar.

The Bruins also continue to boast arguably the nation's stingiest defense. UCLA has allowed only 59.5 points per game this season and hasn't allowed any of its four tournament foes to exceed the 55-point mark.

"It's going to come down to defense," Kent said. "If they can defend Florida in the inside and at the same time take away those great 3-point shooters on the outside they'll have an opportunity to play with them and win the game.''

Florida could represent the ultimate test for UCLA's defense.

The Gators lead the nation in scoring margin and field-goal percentage and rank fourth in the nation in rebound margin.

"They shoot 40 percent on 3s, which in my mind is like shooting 60 percent from inside the (arc)," Howland said. "They're shooting almost 53 percent from the field. They outboard their opponents by eight per game. They're beating their opponents on average by 17-plus points per game. In field goal percentage defense, they hold their opponents to 40 percent.

"They do everything well. They don't really have any weaknesses."

About the only thing Florida lacks is a revenge motive. That's one thing the Bruins have in abundance.

"No one was happy with the season we had last year, especially the effort we displayed in that final game," Afflalo said. "There's no mystery that's going to be in the minds of our players, but we're not going to try to come out overly excited. We still need to execute and take care of business."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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