You hear coaches and experts say it all the time: The NCAA Tournament comes down to matchups. And if you never quite believed them, UCLA offered a glaring example over the last 48 hours in Indianapolis.
In the NCAA Tournament semifinals against LSU, the Bruins looked like one of the greatest teams of the last quarter century, thoroughly dominating a big, athletic team on the way to an easy rout. But as good as UCLA looked Saturday, it looked that bad and worse Monday in the Championship Game against Florida.
Which looked like one of the greatest teams of the last quarter century.
Florida, the third seed in the Minneapolis Region and your new NCAA men's basketball champion, isn't one of the greatest teams of the last quarter century, the last quarter century including as it does a time when elite, NBA-bound players still spent four years in college as a matter of course. But the Gators are awfully good.
Not many people wrote "Florida" in that center box of their bracket sheets, but by the end Joakim Noah and company were a juggernaut. They simply blew UCLA off the court, as they'd done their other Tournament foes, with one exception. The game was in doubt at "and the rockets red glare," but not much later than that.
The Bruins, who had looked so calm and collected in tearing LSU apart, who had managed to gather themselves and rally against Gonzaga after a disastrous start, looked disorganized and jittery. They rushed, they fouled, they made stupid mistakes.
Only this time, they never got it together.
A couple of sequences in the middle of the first half not only defined the evening but helped give Florida the big lead it would carry most of the rest of the way.
Up 21-15, Florida's Lee Humphrey, who does nothing on offense but shoot threes, came off a screen by Noah on the right wing, took a pass from Walter Hodge and went up for the shot. UCLA's Cedric Bozeman, trailing Humphrey around the pick, leaped at Humphrey and bumped his arm as he shot. Bucket and a foul, Bozeman's second. Humphrey completed the four-point play for 25-15.
Almost two minutes later, the score now 27-17, UCLA's Lorenzo Mata took a pass in the left block and went up for an uncontested layup. But even with Florida's star shot blocker, Noah, on the bench, Mata appeared intimidated by defenders Adrian Moss and Chris Richard. They didn't even jump to stop him, but he went up awkwardly and missed the layup.
Mata got his own rebound and found himself underneath the basket with Moss all over him and Richard closing in for a double-team. With a fresh shot clock, his play was to find a teammate, but he forced up a shot, which Richard blocked.
Moss picked up the loose ball and Mata, compounding his offensive error, reached around Moss and committed a foul -- 86 feet from the UCLA basket. It was the third foul for Mata, a valuable reserve.
Don't get me wrong. Losing Lorenzo Mata to foul trouble was in no way a killing blow for UCLA. Even giving up a four-point play is something that can be overcome. But these were just the kind of frustrated, discombobulated, one-step-slow moves teams make when they're getting blown out.
But it's not as though UCLA was doing this to itself. Teams that play good defense make their opponents look bad, as UCLA's opponents have been learning lately, and Florida played great defense.
It wasn't just Noah setting a Championship Game record by blocking six shots -- how long have they been keeping that record, three years? -- it was Al Horford, as well as reserves Moss and Richard, helping to clog up the middle.
And it was Corey Brewer absolutely smothering UCLA's best offensive weapon, Arron Afflalo, turning him into a non-factor until the game had already been decided. Afflalo's first points came on a pair of free throws with more than eight and a half minutes gone in the second half. They trimmed a 20-point deficit to 18.
Almost exactly as he'd done against George Mason Saturday, Humphrey hit a pair of three-pointers early in the second half that served as daggers. He'd hit three of them against the Patriots. The shots, the first two baskets after halftime, turned Florida's assailable 11-point lead at the break into a 17-point runaway. UCLA never threatened again.
Though Noah was the deserving star of the show, a talented, excitable kid who plays to the crowd while also hustling and playing unselfish ball, it was hardly a star turn with interchangeable supporting players. Florida got contributions from practically everyone in blue and orange. Their passing was superb.
Point guard Taurean Green, who couldn't buy a bucket, missing eight of his nine shots including all seven three-pointers, nonetheless always seemed to be the first step in a tic-tac-toe series of passes that resulted in a slam dunk. He had eight assists to go with his two points -- and his one turnover.
This fantastic NCAA Tournament, so impossibly good through four rounds, ended with three routs. The law of averages must have caught up. Apparently, all the games can't be white-knuckle jobs.
But for all the upsets along the way, for the lack of No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, the Tournament spit out a worthy champion. Wind this Tournament up and play it again and you'd almost certainly get four different teams in Indianapolis.
But this time around, Florida was the matchup nobody could match. Except for Georgetown in the Sweet 16 round, nobody came close. UCLA sure didn't, a mere two days after the Bruins had looked like world-beaters.
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Mandel takes Pool o' Experts [PERMALINK]
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated is the winner of this column's fourth Pool o' Experts, the purpose of which, in case you've forgotten, is to remind you that the "experts" are as dumb as everybody else.
No offense to Mandel, who did some nice picking, relatively speaking. Relative to the rest of us, that is, who mostly sucked wind. Consider that a 3-year-old flipping a weighted coin finished in the upper division of a pool comprising some of the highly respected pundits who shape your worldview.
Mandel, who like this column had Villanova winning the title, got UCLA to the Championship Game, as did Tony Kornheiser and a certain 3-year-old. No one picked Florida and no one got more than one team to the title game or two teams to the Final Four. And not many did even that much.
The Pool o' Experts was founded in slightly different form in 2002 in response to the delusional hubris on display in the bracket filled out by Sports Illustrated's editors -- described as a "council of wise guys" -- and printed in the magazine.
Not only did the bracket feature little blurbs describing late-round games that would only be played in the unlikely event the magazine was right in the early rounds, but it was also advertised as "our surefire picks for ... who'll win it all."
Surefire, indeed. In the sense that the sun coming up in the northwest tomorrow is surefire.
Because of that beginning, I'm always interested to see how Sports Illustrated does in the Pool o' Experts. Generally, it doesn't do well. And this year was no different -- except, interestingly, in the case of Mandel. He won, and his co-workers lost.
Mandel was the only S.I. scribe in the top seven of the 13-entry pool, and four of the bottom six finishers were S.I. guys, including Grant Wahl, whose bracket was identical to the one published in the magazine. Apparently the council of wise guys has been downsized to just Wahl, who finished last.
And he didn't just finish last. He finished last with 10 more points than a 2-year-old earned last year with a bracket that had Creighton winning the championship.
Here are the final standings of the 2006 Pool o' Experts, the winner of which is entitled to dinner at my house, home cooking not implied. The winner is also not notified, the better to avoid having to award the prize:
1. Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated, 920
2. Gregg Doyel, CBS.SportsLine, 880
3. King Kaufman, Salon, 780
4. Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post, 760
5. Buster, Coinflip Quarterly, 740 (2)
6. WhatIfSports.com simulation, 720
7. Yoni Cohen, FoxSports.com, 690
8. Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated, 680
9. NCAA Selection Committee, 630
10. Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated, CBS, 590
11. CBS.SportsLine.com users, 550 (1)
12. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com, 530 (1)
13. Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, 490 (3)
1. Denotes past champion
2. Denotes 3-year-old
3. Just wanted to say hi
Previous column: Thanks, George Mason
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