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April 3, 2006

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. Are Florida and UCLA the two best teams in the country? Maybe not. However, have they been the top teams in the past five games? Absolutely--and, ultimately, that's what matters. If you had asked someone prior to the NCAA Tournament if the Bruins and Gators would meet for the title, some might have given you strange looks. But this is the perfect climax to what has been one of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments in recent memory. Enjoy the conclusion to the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here

UCLA came into their region as the most popular Final Four pick (along with Kansas), and has obviously not disappointed those who chose the Bruins. They opened the Tournament with an easy win over Belmont, followed by a very competitive win against Alabama. However, against the Tide, they seemed like they were in control the entire contest.

In the Sweet Sixteen, UCLA made the type of comeback that can propel a team to a National Championship. After being down by 19 at one point, the Bruins came all the way back to take the lead on Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's lay-up in the waning seconds. Their Elite Eight game against Memphis was one of the ugliest games of the Tournament, but the Bruins played their game and forced the Tigers into an awful shooting night.

They faced another team of Tigers in the Final Four when they went up against the vaunted athleticism and frontcourt of LSU. Potential #1 pick Tyrus Thomas of LSU had only 5 points, and UCLA's stout defense and rebounding did not allow the Tigers to use their length and size to dominate the game. UCLA rolled to an easy 14-point win that was not as close as that score.

Florida has been arguably the most impressive team in the entire NCAA Tournament so far. They blew out their first two opponents, South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the first round, the Gators shook off a poorly-played first half to outscore the Jaguars by twenty in the second half for an easy win. Annual upset pick Wisconsin-Milwaukee did not get the chance to play in the Sweet Sixteen after playing the Gators. Florida jumped out to an early lead and controlled the game throughout for their second dominant victory in a row.

It surely was not the same against Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen. The slow-down style of the Hoyas gave the Gators some problems through the game, but their ability to play at any tempo helped them out down the stretch. Down one, Corey Brewer hit an acrobatic, falling-down three-point play with under thirty seconds left. Two free throws in the final seconds gave Florida a four-point win and a berth in the Elite Eight.

The Final Four win over Villanova might have been the best win of the season for them, though. The Gators sent a message from the opening tap that they were going to control the paint, and they did. Taurean Green provided just enough from the perimeter in order for Florida to advance in what was never a competitive game in the second half. In the Final Four, the Gators went up against Cinderella story George Mason. The clock struck midnight for the Patriots, though. Florida used their advantage in athleticism and size to take over the second half in a 14-point victory.

5 Key Questions

1. Which team will impose their style more effectively?
Both squads play contrasting styles. Florida would rather get up and down the floor to get baskets in transition, while UCLA likes to play in the half-court, where they can play five-on-five. The Bruins slow down the game and force opposing teams to make shots in the half-court. If Florida can get their fast break offense game going, it forces UCLA to match-up with the Gators' athletes in transition. This could be the most important thing to watch for heading into the title game.

2. Can UCLA's underrated frontcourt match-up with Florida's trio up front?
The Gators have had one of the most impressive post duos in the NCAA Tournament so far in Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Noah has used his versatility and energy to become a household name in college basketball, while Horford is averaging a double-double down low. Moreover, Corey Brewer has been a go-to-guy. UCLA does not have any "name" players up front, but they looked very good in shutting down LSU's frontcourt. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is one of the most underrated freshmen in the nation, while Cedric Bozeman, Ryan Hollins, etc. are also very effective. If UCLA can shut down the Gators' trio the same way they did to LSU, they have a better shot at winning this game.

3. Will Florida be able to hit enough outside shots in the half-court offense?
Teams have shot 11 for 63 (17%) from beyond the arc against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, which has been a key reason the Bruins have advanced this far. On the other hand, the Gators are a pretty solid three-point shooting team on the season, hitting outside shots at a 39% clip. Lee Humphrey is the main gunner for Florida and will need to hit a couple of jumpers early to give the Gators confidence and momentum in case it becomes a half-court game. Florida can play at any style or pace, and their outside shooting is a reason why.

4. Whose bench will come up bigger? / Which team will have the unsung player that makes a difference?
This may not seem as important as the other ones, but it is. In the championship game, players are going to have to step up in order for their team to win. Some of those unsung players are going to come off the bench. Both teams can go fairly deep down the roster. UCLA's Darren Collison has contributed throughout the season in a variety of ways, while Florida's Walter Hodge and Chris Richard could be key players off the bench.

5. Who will be the go-to-guy to step up down the stretch?
Neither team got to this point by riding one player. Florida is the most balanced team in the country, while UCLA has an excellent backcourt duo in Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo. When these two teams need a basket with the clock winding down, they have several options to go to. For the Bruins, I think that Farmar is very good at isolating himself and getting into the lane to create a shot for himself and his teammates. Moreover, Afflalo is very good in the mid-range. For Florida, Corey Brewer can score in different ways, making him difficult to defend. Joakim Noah is a match-up problem. If I had to give the edge to one player, I think Afflalo is the most difficult player in the game to defend. They could be crucial down the stretch.

Team and Player Breakdowns

UCLA has been one of the top 15 teams in the country the whole year, and are playing excellent basketball lately, having won 16 of their past 18 games, including 12 in a row - the longest winning streak in the country. They are one of the most efficient teams in the nation shooting the ball and also have one of the better scoring defenses in the country. In their recent streak, they have only given up over 60 points once.

They are led by their outstanding backcourt duo of Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar. Afflalo is an excellent defender and might be even more dangerous on offense, while Farmar is an outstanding passer at the point. Afflalo is very good in the mid-range and can also shoot the ball from outside. Farmar is excellent at getting into the lane off of penetration and either taking the shot himself or dishing it off to a teammate after drawing a defender. Darren Collison is a developing scorer coming off the bench. He contributes in a variety of ways. Up front, a newcomer leads the way.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has been the best freshman in the Pac-10, and is a very good rebounder. He also held the heralded Tyrus Thomas to 6 points and 5 rebounds in the Final Four. He has been nothing short of spectacular in the NCAA Tournament. Cedric Bozeman is a versatile wing who can do many things. His defense and athleticism is key for the Bruins. Inside, Ryan Hollins leads the way but Alfred Aboya also contributes. Neither is a big-time producer in either scoring and rebounding, but they provide a big body and some solid defense. Hollins has been a stellar performer in the NCAA Tournament. Lorenzo Mata has played well off the bench down low, while Michael Roll provides good outside shooting when he comes into the game.

Florida might be the most balanced team in the country, as they have five guys that average double-figures and are capable of having big games. They have won 10 games in a row, including an SEC Tournament title prior to the NCAA Tournament. The Gators can play at any style or pace, which makes them difficult to prepare for. Their balance is tough to defend against, as they can beat you in so many different ways.

Florida has depth and talent in the post that few teams in the country can match. Joakim Noah is a terrific athlete who can score, rebound, and block shots with the best of them. His stock has risen considerably in the NCAA Tournament, as he has been one of the most impressive players in the country with his ability to do a variety of things. Fellow future pro Al Horford is a very good rebounder and defender who uses his athleticism to get putbacks. He has a solid mid-range game and has averaged a double-double in the NCAA Tournament. Corey Brewer rounds out one of the best frontcourts in the country. He is very athletic and can do nearly everything on the court. Brewer is an oustanding all-around player who was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and has developed into a go-to-guy for the Gators.

Off the bench is Chris Richard, who could start for most teams in the nation. He is extremely efficient at scoring the ball once he gets it in the paint. Adrian Moss also sees minutes off the pine down low. Taurean Green is one of the most improved players in the country at the point guard position. He is a good scorer and a very solid distributor. When his shot is falling, he can be one of the better lead guards around. Lee Humphrey is an outstanding three-point shooter who is going to play a big role in tonight's game with his ability to knock down the outside shot. Walter Hodge is a good outside shooter who is quick and athletic. He provides a nice change of pace when he is in the game. David Huertas has seen more minutes in the NCAA Tournament due to the size that he provides in the backcourt.

Matchup Analysis

Jordan Farmar vs. Taurean Green: They are two of the best point guards in the country. However, Farmar is more consistent and has the ability to dominate a game at the top of the key. Advantage: UCLA

Arron Afflalo vs. Lee Humphrey: A very interesting matchup. Afflalo is a versatile scorer and is also one of the best defenders in the country, while Humphrey is really nothing more than a shooter. Advantage: UCLA

Cedric Bozeman vs. Corey Brewer: Both players are versatile and athletic. Brewer, though, is an outstanding defender and has been a very good go-to-guy for Florida. Bozeman will have his hands full. Advantage: Florida

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute vs. Al Horford: Going into the NCAA Tournament, this would obviously go to Horford. However, Mbah a Moute has played superb in the Big Dance and has been key to UCLA's run. Advantage: Even.

Ryan Hollins vs. Joakim Noah: Both players have stood out in the NCAA Tournament, but Noah has received more press. There is a reason why--he is one of the top big men in the country due to his all-around play. Advantage: Florida.

UCLA Bench vs. Florida Bench: Other than Darren Collison, the Bruins do not have an overly consistent player that comes off the bench. However, Billy Donovan has a multitude of options when he needs to make a substitution. Chris Richard and Walter Hodge will be key in tonight's game. Advantage: Florida.

Ben Howland vs. Billy Donovan: Another outstanding match-up. Both have been mentioned as candidates for Coach of the Year. Howland has overcome injuries and lack of depth, while Donovan has molded an extremely young team into a team 40 minutes from a national title. Advantage: Even.

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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