The title defense comes down to one game. One more win and the Gators will become just the seventh school in history to repeat as winners of the NCAA Basketball Championship. Previously, Oklahoma State (1945-46), Kentucky (1948-49), San Francisco (1955-56), Cincinnati (1961-62), UCLA (1964-65 and 1967-73!), and Duke (1991-92) accomplished the feat. If Florida wins, they'll also become the first team to win national championships both in football and basketball during the same calendar year. Life as a Texas Longhorn fan is awfully sweet these days, but life as a Gator fan must be even better.
The Gators won't be handed any hardware, however. Ohio State has proven itself a formidable opponent during this year's tournament, earning gutsy comeback wins over both Xavier and Tennessee, as well as less dramatic (and more impressive) wins over both Memphis and Georgetown. The dismantling of Georgetown's #1 rated offense, in particular, was exemplary.
The Buckeyes shut down Georgetown both by drawing fouls on Roy Hibbert and limiting Jeff Green's participation in the game. A big part of Green's disappearance is to be blamed on Green himself, as well as his coach, but the Buckeyes also defended him well. Ohio State excels defensively by controlling the paint with their star freshman center Greg Oden, who will be facing his stiffest test of this tournament. His ability both to stay on the floor (out of foul trouble) and handle the Florida frontcourt attack will be instrumental in enabling a Buckeye upset.
As much foul trouble as Oden has had during this tournament, though, Buckeye fans must be tremendously concerned with the prospects of the Gators pounding the ball inside to Noah and Horford. Oden's a tremendous defender, but they only give you five fouls per game, and you can bet your bottom dollar Billy Donovan intends to find out very quickly whether Oden can slow down Noah and Horford without picking up fouls. If Oden can't, this game will get ugly, and quickly. If he can, Florida may start to settle for outside jump shots, and if they're not having a great night shooting, we'll have ourselves a competitive game.
The engine of the Ohio State offense is freshman point guard Mike Conley, who's had a simply outstanding tournament directing the show for the Buckeyes. His jump shot has been reliable throughout March, making him someone to keep an eye on while he's on the perimeter, but his ability to penetrate has been his most effective weapon. Opposing guards have a devil of a time staying in front of Conley, and he's proven himself capable of getting to the rim and finishing on his own, or using the penetetration to set up good looks for teammates. If I'm Billy Donovan, I tell my defenders to sag a half step off of Conley, take away his penetration, and see if he's up for hitting some long shots on the perimeter.
The other thing I think we'll see from Florida is aggressive trapping of Conley when he has the ball. Outside of Conley, the Buckeyes aren't a great team at creating offense on their own; don't be surprised if Donovan traps every high screen, and even sometimes near half court, just to get the ball out of Conley's hands.
Ohio State has the firepower to play with Florida, and though I don't think we should take much from the team's first meeting in December, when the Gators destroyed the Buckeyes, I do think Florida's the more complete team.
Prediction: Florida 78 Ohio State 69