Gators’ climb to Final Four shifts to showdown with UCLA

Billy Donovan's Gators may have their hands full on Thursday when they try to contain the Bruins.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before practice Friday in Orlando, Billy Donovan called his team together on the Amway Center court. He wanted to talk about something.

Mountain climbing.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

For the next few minutes, Donovan talked of the adversities faced when mountaineering. Fatigue. Altitude. Temperature. Very real dangers, all of them, but there was another that was far worse than any other.

The urge, when stopping to rest, to feel satisfied enough to turn back.

That’s when he put the NCAA Tournament in context.

"If you guys think that Senior Day was fun, there’s nothing like advancing in this tournament," Donovan said.

A handful of Gators, of course, had experienced moving on in NCAA play before, but there’s no secret as to the bar this Florida team has set for itself after finishing one win shy of the Final Four each of the past three seasons. If the top-ranked and top-seeded Gators (34-2) finally are to punch that golden ticket this year, they’ll first have get past fourth-seeded and 20th-ranked UCLA (28-8) in Thursday night’s South Region Sweet 16 round at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

Nothing else on their ambitious scale up this treacherous and symbolic hill matters right now.  

"Every year, Coach D comes up with something to inspire us," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "He’s finding ways to get us going, and I think that’s a good analogy to use."

Analogy gave way to strategy Monday, as UF commenced working on UCLA and its uptempo style led by the backcourt of 6-foot-9 point guard Kyle Anderson (14.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game) and 6-5, 220-pound Jordan Adams (17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds).

Standing out

The Bruins are one of the nation’s most deadly offensive team, averaging 81.8 points and 17.2 assists per game, with a 1.173 adjusted offensive efficiency rating (points per possession) that ranks fifth in the nation (and fourth-best among the teams remaining in the field).

The Gators will counter with the nation’s No. 2 defense, allowing just .888 per possession, according to adjusted metrics. Only Arizona (.872), the top seed in the West, is better.

"They’re a tremendous running team and a tremendous passing team," Donovan said. "They’re also an extremely high steal team [9.25 per game]. When they get steals, they get turnovers and they get out on the break and then they’re playing to the identity of who they are."

Florida got away from playing to its identity by flailing about in the NCAA opener, a 67-55 defeat of Albany that Donovan felt brought out an uncharacteristic element of selfishness he had not seen from his team this season. It was confronted and dealt before the day was out and the Gators were back to their menacing defensive selves Saturday in putting it on Pittsburgh 61-45 to become the only program in the country to reach the Sweet 16 four straight years.

"I think that kind of woke us up," Yeguete said of the Albany game, which was tied at 39 with 15 minutes to play. "Hopefully going into the game, we’ll be ready from the get-go against a really good team."

A really high-scoring one.

The Bruins hit at least 90 points nine times this season (and three times eclipsed 100), while the Gators did not hit the 90-point mark once.

Then again, only one UF opponent scored 80 (that was Arkansas in  overtime). The Gators have held 13 of their last 21 foes under 60 points, and four of the last seven under 50 points.

"We’ve just got to get our style of play into the game," Scottie Wilbekin. "Hopefully, we can make UCLA do what we want to do."