It was seven long years ago, but I'm sure UCLA fans still very much feel the sting of getting bounced out of the Final Four two-straight years by Florida in 2006 and 2007. The Bruins were twice so close to adding another national championship to their crowded trophy collection, but were dominated by the boisterous Gators and now, their best team since the glory years of the Ben Howland era, has a stellar Gator team standing in their way.
I don't think this Gator team is as good as those 06 and 07 squads that won championships, but I also don't think this Bruins team is on the level that the Bruin teams that those Gators vanquished and this is a completely different match-up. While I think it is great for the Bruins that this Gator team is far from the seemingly invincible, Joakim Noah-led squads, I'm still not sold on this Bruins team, especially since they had to only beat Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin to get where they are. Still, I think the Bruins have a good chance at pulling off the upset against the tournament's overall seed Thursday night if they can play perfectly and stars Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson hold the key.
As good as the Gators are and as deserved of the top overall seed as they are, they are light on stars and top-flight NBA prospects, lacking players that can match the star level of Adams and Anderson. It's obviously not as important in college as it is in the NBA, but frequently in the history of the NCAA Tournament, it simply comes down to stars (see Kentucky over Wichita State on Sunday) and if the team with the better stars has them play well, there isn't much that the other team can do. With Adams and Anderson, along with an underrated supporting cast, that is as good as just about any in the country when playing well, I believe that the Bruins have a realistic shot at pulling off an upset and opening up a favorable road back to the Final Four.
However, having Adams and Anderson go off will be an enormous challenge. The Gators might be the best defensive team in the entire country and defenses that can get after it have really frustrated the Bruin stars, who struggled at times to step up against tough defenses during the regular season. Until their win over Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship, UCLA struggled against elite teams and while that recent victory over the Wildcats is promising, the fear that the Bruins are still the team that couldn't get over the edge against Duke and Arizona (the first time). Also, even though they have done nothing but win impressively since, the fact that the Bruins got blasted by a putrid Washington State team in the final game of the regular season. With that kind of egg laid in the not-so-distant future, one has to wonder if the Bruins will struggle to make it a game if Florida comes out firing on all cylinders and grabs control early.
With all of this in mind, the key to the game will likely be how UCLA and Adams and Anderson come out. If the two UCLA stars get out the gate quickly and get UCLA out to an early lead, don't be surprised if the Bruins pull off the upset, but if they don't, don't put too much faith in the Bruins keeping up.