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The Initial Look at the UCLA Bruins

Ok -- enough about any kind of coaching departures or distractions to our basketball team as they set off towards preparations for the Final Four in Atlanta next weekend (which I'm still trying to snag tickets for, by the way).

The Gators will face off against the UCLA Bruins in the opening round -- the 2 seed from the West region that made wins over Indiana, Pitt and Kansas look fairly easy due to intense defensive performances and clutch play from their star, Junior guard Arron Afflalo.

The Bruins are returning to the Final Four mostly because they played their trademark relentless defense and forced Kansas into 41-percent shooting. But they wouldn't be hopping on a plane for Atlanta on Wednesday if Afflalo hadn't found his jumper.

Matched up with Kansas' best player, 6-foot-6 Brandon Rush, the 6-5 Afflalo won the battle of projected NBA first-rounders (should they leave school early) by making a lot more than he missed in a spectacular 10-for-15 shooting night.

Afflalo came up big particularly in the second half when he drained two three-pointers with UCLA fans counting down the shot clock. The first buzzer-beater pushed UCLA out to a 40-33 lead and the second stretched the margin to 49-40 with 10:18 remaining. Both times, Rush stood one-on-one with Afflalo at the top of the key only to get beat.

If you remember last season's Title game against the Bruins, Corey Brewer and the Gators were able to hold Afflalo to 3-10 shooting and only 10 points.  This fact could make Afflalo an even harder target to stop on Saturday because he's out with a little more on his mind than just winning the game for his Bruins -- he's looking to prove himself against the same Florida starting lineup that beat UCLA 73-57 for the National Title.
"Now that it's here, it's a great thing," Afflalo said of playing Florida again. "It gives us a chance to kill two birds with one stone in a sense -- a chance at revenge and moving toward the championship.

"Obviously to play the team that beat you in the championship game adds a little incentive, a little motivation for you. Hopefully we feed off that as a team and use that to our advantage."

It's going to take quite a bit to stop Afflalo on Saturday night -- a task fit for a National Champion, something that these Gators want to declare themselves once again.

I have been mentioning the win over the Bruins in last season's championship game; a great reminder of a special time for Florida basketball fans.  But let's remember that this is a different Bruins team, one that looks to be better.  Anybody, especially analysts who have gone out and said that Florida would win this game with seemingly little thought, are kidding themselves if they think the Gators have anything but an extremely difficult task in front of them.

"I think this year's UCLA team is probably tougher mentally because they've been through the grind a second time now," Kent said. "They've been through a much more grueling Pac-10 Conference that has gotten them tougher mentally as well.

"I think it's going to come down to defense. If they can defend Florida inside, at the same time taking away those great three-point shooters outside, they'll have an opportunity to play with them and win a game."

Donovan laughed at the inevitability of the question and said he would have to look at the game film before commenting on the difference between the UCLA team of 2006 and the Bruins of 2007. But he knew that they probably have been through a lot because he knew what his own Gators have experienced.

"Give the UCLA kids a lot of credit," Donovan said. "Half the Final Four from last year is back. That's kind of a neat thing, too."

The Bruins have been getting pretty good production out of Josh Shipp (injured in '06), Darren Collison, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya -- all guys who weren't nearly as effective in last year's championship-game run.  It's tough to compare last year's championship game with Saturday's matchup due to this fact.  All we can really look at is UCLA's impressive tournament run of only allowing 50 points per game on defense, including a #1 seed in Kansas, while hitting the shots they need to and making runs when they're called upon this season.

It's going to be a long wait to Saturday night.  Coach Donovan and UCLA Coach Ben Howland have a ton of time to get their team's prepared, so I expect nothing but a hard-fought game from both squads in this one.

Go Gators!