Final Four: UCLA preview

By Eric Sorenson - March 28, 2007

- UCLA (30-5, No. 2 seed out of the West)

Versatility. Coaches love having that in a team. So you would expect Ben Howland to be smiling bigger those people in the Soundgarden video to "Black Hole Sun" right? Because his Bruins are the chameleons of this year's Final Four, able to play many different styles and many different tempos.

There is still one constant to any game they play - defense.

All you really need to know about the Bruins was on display when they beat Kansas 68-55 in the West Regional final. In the first half, they ran with KU at a thoroughbred pace, racing out to a 35-31 lead. Though the half was filled with turnovers, steals and quick whistles, the Bruins matched the Jayhawks' frenetic pace and went into the half with a lead.

Then, in the second half, the Bruins slowed the pace down significantly. Playing a smothering half-court defense with arms and hands in every sight line and passing lane, the Bruins suffocated Kansas to death over the final 20 minutes, holding them to their lowest point total of the year. On three separate occasions, UCLA milked the 35-second clock down to its last bits and pieces and pierced the Jayhawk hearts with buzzer-beating threes that kept KU at an arms-length for the rest of the game.

Whether fast-paced or a slow burn, one thing that never changes is their tenacity on the defensive end of the floor.

And the Bruins will need their best effort of the season to defend against the even more versatile Gators of Florida.

The Good News:
UCLA has some of the intangibles on its side. One, the revenge factor, after getting blown out in last year's title game with Florida. And two, the chalkboard material the Gators are giving the Bruins ("Who's Wooden? That old guy?"). UCLA is probably the most disciplined team in the field as Ben Howland's teams never seem to try to play outside of their abilities. And you recall the old saying, defense wins championships.

The Bad News:
Not a big come-from-behind team, so don't fall behind early. UCLA can guard on the perimeter like nobody's business. But inside is where the Bruins have had some trouble. Horford, Noah and Richard present the biggest challenge to the Bruins. In last year's title game, those three combined to go 13-for-20 from mostly point blank range. The three-point shooting must stay hot or the Bruins have little chance in Saturday's second game.

Key Player:
Aaron Afflalo.
Obviously, he can't disappear as he did in their last few Pac 10 games. But if last weekend was any indication, he won't. He played a very smart game vs. Kansas, which was the biggest key to the win. Shooting threes when he had to, dishing to Shipp for a three-point momentum spike before the half and not trying to over-do it against Brandon Rush. Another cerebral performance or two (and continuing to have the hot hand, of course) could have him wearing a net for a necklace on Monday night.

Key Player II:
James Keefe.
Although he averages only six minutes a game, the 6'8 frosh will be a huge boost if he can provide a few quality minutes for the Bruin starters in each half. Especially in the event of any type of foul trouble. Teaming with 6th-man Alfred Aboya and starters Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, that's four big bodies and 20 fouls the Bruin inside game will need full use of.

Posted by Eric Sorenson at 03:48 PM on March 28, 2007

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