UCLA’s run in NCAA tournament could face familiar roadblock in Florida

UCLA center Alfred Aboya endures a Florida celebration in the closing moments of a 76-66 loss to Florida in the NCAA Final Four.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

New coach, new freedoms, new fun ... all of it dancing toward the same old crushing chomp.

The good news for UCLA fans is that their freshly minted Pac-12 tournament champions will open the NCAA tournament next weekend down the street in San Diego with a winnable bracket against upstart Tulsa, overhyped Virginia Commonwealth, and hot-but-untested Stephen F. Austin.

The bad news is that, if they survive to advance to the Sweet 16, waiting for them will be the familiar bite of Florida.


Yeah, the Gators again. Yeah, that same Billy Donovan team that, in recent years, has spilled more Bruin blood and wrecked more Bruin dreams than any other.

In 2006, the Bruins reached the national championship game, only to be dismantled by Florida, 73-57, in an event featuring eight current NBA players. One of those was Jordan Farmar, who tried to win it by himself and missed 13 of 21 shots.

In 2007, the Bruins returned to the Final Four, where, this time, Florida was waiting for them at the door. The Gators beat them in the national semifinals, 76-66, in a game that featured Arron Afflalo sitting the bench in foul trouble and finishing the night in tears.

In 2011, the Bruins were given only a one-game respite before meeting Florida in the tournament’s first weekend. This was the embattled Ben Howland’s chance to regain campus support. But the Gators gnawed at him again, winning, 73-65. At least this one sort of felt close, as UCLA pulled to within one point in the final 1 1/2 minutes, until Florida’s savvy shooters finished off the game.

As a final insult, this game not only ran the Bruins out of the tournament, but also convinced two of their best players to run from school. Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt combined for 27 points against the Gators, then both bolted early to the NBA, never to be heard from again.

So, yeah, to have a Florida team probably waiting for the Bruins in a Sweet 16 game in Memphis is not a pretty thing, especially this Florida team, ranked first in the country with only two losses, and none since Dec. 2.

Is there a chance the Gators won’t be there? No chance. They will dominate their opener against the winner of Albany-Mount St. Mary’s, then rack up a double-digit win against either Colorado or Pittsburgh.

Is there a chance the Bruins won’t be there? Yes, there is a chance, although it would require a complete reversal of the defensive energy and offensive aggressiveness that fueled their Pac-12 tournament championship journey that culminated with a win over fourth-ranked Arizona.

The Bruins should win their tournament opener Friday against Tulsa. It is the 20th anniversary of the memorable 112-102 upset victory by the Golden Hurricane over Jim Harrick’s Bruins in the first round, but that wasn’t an entirely bad thing, the loss serving as one of the inspirations for the Bruins’ national-championship run the following season.

The Bruins should beat Tulsa because Danny Manning is Tulsa’s coach, not one of its players. They should beat Tulsa because, despite its current 11-game win streak, the Golden Hurricane’s strength of schedule is 112th and its strength inside is negligible. You need to be play big to beat the Bruins, but Tulsa’s leading scorer and rebounder is 6-foot-3 guard James Woodard, and how exactly is he going to match up with Kyle Anderson?

The Bruins should also win their Sunday game, although not against who you might think. Their opponent will be probably be Stephen F. Austin, which should upset VCU, and not only because there always seems to be at least one No. 12 seed upsetting a No. 5 seed in this tournament.

The Lumberjacks, who play in the small East Texas town of Nacogdoches, are legitimately hot, having not lost since before Thanksgiving, racking up 28 consecutive victories. The Lumberjacks also legitimately dominated the Southland Conference tournament, winning the final against Sam Houston State by 19 points. They possess yet another critical asset in this tournament, veteran leadership, with a starting lineup featuring two seniors and two juniors.

The Lumberjacks are rolling enough to defeat a VCU team that bears only a faint resemblance to its Final Four team of 2011. VCU still has the coach with the cool name — Shaka Smart — but it just won’t have the manpower to survive what could be a Lumberjacks onslaught.

UCLA then beats Stephen F. Austin simply because of its athleticism and depth and the fact that the Lumberjacks have racked up their 31-2 record against the country’s 284th-ranked schedule. It will be a win which will fill San Diego’s Viejas Arena with plenty of eight-claps and optimism about another week of dancing.

Until, once again, Florida cuts in.

Twitter: @billplaschke