Farmar and Mbah a Moute: Two parts of UCLA's lockdown squad.
INDIANAPOLIS -- West Coast versus (South)East Coast. Tradition-rich against Tradition-light. Businesslike Ben versus Billy The Kid. Overachieving Underclassmen against ... more Overachieving Underclassmen. So many angles for this title game, but the Blog's gonna bury 'em all and break down UCLA-Florida with the cold, hard data.
This, readers, is the final "numbers post" of the season -- your statistical guide to Monday Night. In terms of tempo (possessions per 40 minutes), offensive and defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), and efficiency margin (the gap between the two ratings), here's how the Bruins and Gators stack up (all stats are the latest from kenpom.com, and adjusted for competition):
Team Tempo Off Eff. Def. Eff. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) Mrgn. UCLA 63.3 (306) 113.2 (24) 83.8 (3) +29.4 UF 68.6 (120) 117.7 (6) 87.1 (8) +30.6
What it means: The general impression of the title game is that it features two elite defenses and only one elite offense (Florida's). The second part just ain't true. The Bruins' unhurried pace -- they're the 306th slowest out of 334 teams in Division I -- keeps their scoring totals low, but their offense, which was running on all cylinders against LSU in the first half, operates at a high level of efficiency. Couple that with UCLA's incredibly stout D, and its Efficiency Margin -- the spread between its offensive and defensive ratings -- is within 1.2 points per 100 possessions of Florida's (at 29.4 to 30.6). In a game that's likely to have a possession total in the low-to-mid-60s, the difference between the teams is miniscule.
Both of the title-game teams are facing a much tougher opponent, efficiency-wise, than who they met in Saturday's semifinals. Although I doubt most readers need stats to confirm that Florida is better than LSU, and UCLA is better than George Mason, here's how it breaks down (the new addition, effective field-goal percentage, or eFG, is a version of standard FG% that gives heavier weight to 3s):
For UCLA, let's compare opponents LSU and Florida:
What it means: UCLA, while close to Mason in eFG on both ends, is on a whole 'nother level of efficiency than the Patriots were -- a margin difference of 11.7, nearly 80 percent higher than the gap between Florida and LSU.
Next, let's look at the two teams' point-distribution spreads:
What it means: You can ask LSU, the team that didn't make a single 3-pointer on Saturday night, what this means -- basically, that UCLA is stingy as all hell on the perimeter. And Florida, which scored 36 of its 73 points (49.3 percent) on 3s against George Mason, is going to have a difficult time replicating that against UCLA, which drives opposing guards nuts with its double-teaming, man-to-man D. Of Gators shooting guard Lee Humphrey, who nailed 6-of-12 from long distance against Mason, teammate Joakim Noah said, "Humpty was a monster tonight. When he's hitting shots like that, we're tough to beat." The Gators may have to find a way to win a title without a major contribution from Humpty.
That fact that UCLA gives up an overwhelming amount of its points on 2s (57.5 percent) gives the impression that Bruins are vulnerable to getting lit up by Florida's Noah and Al Horford. But UCLA's interior defenders -- the rotating, big-to-big doubling group of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Mata -- proved on Saturday night that they're capable of neutralizing the nation's elite big men, holding Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas to a combined 19 points. "Most the teams in the SEC, when they doubled [Davis] came with a small -- a guard as a opposed to big-to-big," said UCLA coach Ben Howland. "It never even affected him." The Bruins' doubling scheme had its desired effect.
What it means: The way UCLA scores, and the way Florida gives up points, are almost identical. But the Gators may still be able to take the Bruins out of their game. UCLA scored 10 of its 13 first-half field goals against LSU on layups, dunks and shots within the lane, and while Florida's D allows penetration, it does it on purpose -- to funnel players right at talented shot-blockers Noah and Horford.
The Bruins' season stats are weighted toward the backcourt scoring of Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, but against LSU the point distribution between frontcourt and backcourt was almost 50/50: Forwards Mbah a Moute, Mata and Cedric Bozeman, and center Hollins combined for 29 points, while guards Farmar, Afflalo, Darren Collison and Michael Roll combined for 30. If the Gators opt for a zone, the onus will be on the backcourt -- especially Afflalo, who was held to 3-of-11 shooting by LSU's Garrett Temple on Saturday -- to step up and hit 3s.
Which brings us to ... the all-important pick:
In the Final Four round, I balanced two picks -- the "heart" against the "stats" -- and it didn't work out too well, so I'm opting for a more straightforward approach this time. UCLA and Florida are almost even in this efficiency battle, and the Gators' slight advantage in scoring power is offset by the Bruins' ability to derail most of their opponents' offensive sets. UCLA isn't going to neutralize Noah the way it did Davis and Thomas -- but it is going to take away the bulk of Florida's perimeter scoring. And the absence of those Gator 3s, I think, will be the deciding factor. Bruins 62, Gators 61.
Blog reporters-in-the-field Ryan Hunt and B.J. Schecter cruised the downtown mall in Indy and found SI and CBS' Seth Davis during his autograph session at the Finish Line shoe store. They called to report that "Yes, there is a line," and snapped the cell-phone cam shot that appears at right.
When I took my digi-cam photo of the Davis promo sign on Saturday, I was immediately accosted by a mall-cop, who was wearing a bike helmet and riding a Segway scooter. I would've taken a picture of him, too, if I hadn't been laughing while he held a list of mall rules in my face -- No. 5: No Pictures! -- and threatened to boot me from the premises.
Alfred Aboya and the Bruins' D held LSU to its lowest scoring total of the 2005-06 season: Just 45 points.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
INDIANAPOLIS -- UCLA finds beauty in ugliness. It derives joy from winning a 59-45 Final Four game that drove half the crowd out of the RCA Dome before the buzzer. It gets pleasure from seeing the total frustration in the faces of LSU's players, who were held to 32 percent shooting and a season-low in points. And the Bruins now find themselves on the brink of winning a national championship almost solely on the strength of the nastiest defense in all of college basketball.
"We are not 'Showtime,'" said UCLA senior guard Cedric Bozeman. "That's not our style. Our staple has been defense all year. That's what we focus on, and that's what we pride ourselves on. It may be ugly, but a win is a win."
If the past two weeks of this wild NCAA tournament have taught us anything, it's that the nation's most stifling defenders weren't from Lawrence, Kan., or Austin, Texas, or Memphis, Tenn., or Iowa City -- they were from the West Coast, in Westwood, studying at the Ben Howland School Of D. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a representative of the older, flashier UCLA that won 10 national titles under the legendary John Wooden, may have been looking on from the stands in Indy, but Bozeman said of the 2005-06 Bruins, "we take the image of our coach. [Howland] is very tenacious, and we try to carry that on the court." Last Saturday's victim of that tenaciousness was high-flying Memphis, which was suffocated to 45 points, 36 below its average. This Saturday's was LSU, which spent 40 Slow Minutes In Hell, because, as Howland said, "Our intensity defensively ... was really, really incredible."
The Tigers beat Duke and Texas -- no defensive slouches -- in the Atlanta Regional, and were already quite skilled in the art of winning ugly. But they had never seen anything like what UCLA threw at them on Saturday night. Howland's quickly rotating, double-teaming man-to-man that made LSU feel as if it was playing five-on-seven at times. Big Baby (Glen Davis, with just 14 points), Big Hops (Tyrus Thomas, with just five points in 17 minutes) and the Tigers were turned into one Big Discombobulated Mess, falling behind 20-8 early in the first half, and 39-24 at halftime after shooting 9-of-30 and watching their traditional game plan -- work the ball inside-out with easy post feeds -- get torn to shreds. An agitated LSU fan stood up near press row early in the game, his face beet red from watching the Bruins' handiwork, and yelled, "Can we play some basketball, Tigers? What's going on?"
"That's just the way we come out and play defense," said UCLA point guard Jordan Farmar, who aided the perimeter lockdown effort that kept LSU's guards from effectively feeding its star big men. "They don't do the things they normally do. They're looking at each other, pointing fingers. Sometimes their eyes get real big, like a deer in the headlights, like they don't know what hit 'em."
If you saw the game's first eight and a half minutes that led to the 20-8 deficit, you know that Farmar wasn't embellishing. Davis was held scoreless, denied the ball by UCLA freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and doubled by Ryan Hollins. LSU went 4-of-14 from the field and committed three turnovers -- and only got three shot attempts for the duo of Davis and Thomas. "They came out and they just punched us," Davis said. "We didn't recover from it."
UCLA relentlessly pressured the Tigers and watched its lead grow to as many as 24 in the second half, but the contest was decided by the Bruins' initial blows. LSU coach John Brady opened his press conference remarks by saying, "I thought the first 10 or 12 minutes of the game, UCLA was able to get us back on our heels. We really weren't able to ... make up the deficit that we created for ourselves -- or they created for us." The big boys from the SEC, who had powered their own, magical Final Four run by defense, simply didn't expect to be subjected to that degree of harrassment from the Pac-10. Davis even admitted that LSU was "kind of shocked."
After what it did against Memphis in the Oakland Regional Final, UCLA wasn't remotely shocked by what happened today. In fact, ever since the Bruins' 71-68 loss at USC on Feb. 19 -- a game in which they let their crosstown rival shoot 56.3 percent from the field -- they have been following Howland's master plan: To take every opponent out of its offensive scheme, and win no matter how unattractive the process may be. UCLA has gone 12-0 since that loss, and not a single opponent has shot over 50 percent against the Bruins again. Five squads, including LSU, have been held below 40 percent during the win streak.
"We were definitely embarrassed after the SC game," said Bozeman. "They beat us off the dribble, and they pretty much did everything they wanted. From that day on, we've sunk in and played tough defense."
Howland told his team after that loss that they had all the pieces to win a national championship -- if they committed themselves to his brand of D. It was a statement that, no doubt, has been said to hundreds of teams, by hundreds of coaches over the years. But for these bothersome, ball-hawking Bruins, it's now 40 minutes away from being prophetic.