(The Sports Network)
The third round of the Southeast Region kicks off Saturday afternoon from the St. Pete Times Forum as the second-seeded Florida Gators entertain the seventh-seeded UCLA Bruins.
Florida had few problems Thursday in dispatching the 15-seed UC Santa Barbara in its opener. The Gators built a 43-19 lead by halftime and shot better than 54 percent overall in the 79-51 rout. Florida utilized a balanced scoring attack with Erving Walker's 18 points leading the way and Chandler Parsons falling just short of a triple-double with 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Kenny Boynton added 13 points and Vernon Macklin had 10. It was a strong opening performance for a Florida team that lost the SEC Tournament title game to Kentucky, only the Gators' second loss in the last 13 games after capturing the conference's regular-season crown. UF is making its 16th appearance in the tournament and holds a solid 30-13 mark in such games just four years removed from back-to-back national championships under head coach Billy Donovan in 2006 and '07. The Gators' lone trip back to the NCAAs before this season was a one-and-done exit last year in a loss to BYU. Under Donovan, UF is 23-8 in the Big Dance with three Final Four appearances. Florida improved to 11-5 in opening-round games.
UCLA nearly let a 23-point second-half lead slip away in its opener, holding on to edge a feisty 10-seed in Michigan State for a 78-76 triumph. MSU's Keith Appling drilled a three-pointer with 4.4 seconds left to cut the Bruins' lead to 77-76. Malcolm Lee then made the first of two free throws for the Bruins, missing the second and forcing the Spartans to scramble for a final shot. But Kalin Lucas was called for traveling to seal the Spartans' fate. Lee and Tyler Honeycutt both finished with 16 points for UCLA, which notched its 100th NCAA tourney win in program history. Joshua Smith added 14 points to the win and Reeves Nelson came up with a dozen points to pair with a team-leading 10 rebounds. The Bruins' all-time record in this event stands at an impressive 100-36 making their 44th appearance at the Big Dance. UCLA trails only North Carolina and Kentucky for wins at this event with a record-11 National Championships and 18 Final Four appearances -- most recently making a three- year run in the Final Four from 2006-08.
The Gators and Bruins have met just twice previously, both times in the NCAA Tournament, with Florida winning both matchups including a 73-57 triumph in the 2006 National Championship game.
The Bruins have four players averaging in double-figure scoring, a balanced attack that nets 70.2 points per game -- good for fifth in the Pac-10. A 45.6 shooting percentage and 68.1 free-throw percentage are also middle of the road for the conference, while the defense normally does its part in yielding 66.1 ppg to rank third in the league. The sophomore Nelson heads the attack at 13.9 points per game and adds a team-leading 9.0 rebounds that ranks third in conference. His 57.3 shooting percentage stands fifth in the Pac-10. Lee checks in at 13.1 ppg while the versatile sophomore Honeycutt averages 12.8 points per contest, 7.3 rebounds and leads the club in both blocks (64) and three-pointers (52). Smith plays significant minutes to post 10.7 ppg and 6.3 boards and Lazeric Jones adds 9.2 ppg to the mix. The Bruins sit atop the conference in rebounding alongside Washington with a plus-4.6 margin at 37.4 per game but also hold the league's worst turnover margin at minus-2.76.
Florida has four double-digit scorers in the fold, and while none is considered a true star, the parity among the key contributors has the club poised for a deep run in the tournament. Walker tops the roster in scoring with 14.5 points per game while adding 3.4 assists and 72 three-pointers on 38.7 percent shooting. The standout sophomore Boynton leads the team with 73 threes on 33.2 percent shooting and stands second to Walker at 14.1 ppg. The versatile senior Parsons provides 11.5 ppg and team-highs of 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Macklin stands third in the SEC in field-goal percentage (57.8) and averages 11.3 ppg to pair with 5.5 boards. Alex Tyus also pulls down 5.5 rpg and adds 8.6 ppg to the mix. The Gators produce a nice balance on either end of the floor to place fourth in the conference in scoring offense (71.8 ppg) and second in scoring defense (62.7 ppg). Florida tops the conference in field-goal percentage (46.4) and is also the league's top rebounding team with a plus-6.2 margin with 37.4 per game in addition to ranking second in assists (14.0 apg) and third in assist/turnover ratio (1.1). One area of concern is free-throw shooting where the Gators place ninth (66.9).
Florida showed Thursday why it's worthy of a two-seed, using the club's wealth of scoring depth to overwhelm UC Santa Barbara. While the Bruins also played well, they let a struggling Michigan State squad back into a game that should have ended in a blowout. Both teams have the talent to make some noise in the Southeast bracket, but only one can advance to the Sweet Sixteen and the Gators are simply the better team here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 76, UCLA 69