Heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament, No.1 overall seed Florida was considered the clear favorite to win the national title. With the field down to 16 teams, the Gators remain the top team in the Big Dance.
On Thursday, the Gators will face their toughest test of the tournament, when they play No.4 UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. The winner will go on to face whomever comes out on top of the No.11 Dayton-No.10 Stanford matchup in the Elite Eight.
Florida continued their strong regular season play into the first weekend of March Madness, beating No.16 Albany and No.9 Pittsburgh, by an average of 14 points. The Gators' victory on Saturday made it 28 in a row on the year. Not only has the team been unbeatable, but they’ve had success against elite competition. During that streak, they have seven wins over tournament teams, including two schools that are still alive. Florida’s only losses came to Wisconsin and Connecticut, who are also in the Sweet Sixteen.
UCLA has had an easy route to the second week of play, as well. They handled No.13 Tulsa by 17 points, and went on to beat No.12 Stephen F. Austin by the same margin. Like the Gators, the Bruins won their conference tournament, giving No.1 seed Arizona just their fourth loss of the season, in the title game. The Bruins have been largely consistent in 2013-2014, suffering back-to-back losses only once. They may not be playing as well as Florida, but they are one of the hottest teams remaining, having beaten three tournament teams in three days, right before the field of 68 was selected.
At 34-2, Florida is the most complete team in the field. Led by two-time national championship winning head coach Billy Donovan, the Gators don’t have a roster of future NBA stars. Only Patric Young is projected as a possible draft pick, and there’s a good chance he won’t get taken in the first two rounds. However, they are an experienced group, with four seniors in the starting lineup. In addition to his 13.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, guard Scottie Wilbekin’s leadership earned him SEC Player of the Year honors.
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While the Bruins have had some missteps this season, their talent can’t be denied. Head coach Steve Alford’s group has three potential first-round picks. Sophomore Jordan Adams is UCLA’s leading scorer, averaging 17.4 points per game on the season. In his second year, Kyle Anderson might be the most complete player that’s made his way to the Sweet Sixteen. In addition to scoring 14.7 points per game, he’s grabbing 8.7 rebounds and dishing out 6.5 assists per contest.
The inexperience of UCLA, though, could be exposed against Florida. Freshman Zach LaVine, who had been projected by many to be a first-round pick, has disappeared, down the stretch. In his last four games, the freshman has just six total points on 12 shot attempts. He had been a key contributor off the bench.
The betting odds at most Las Vegas casinos have Florida as 4.5-point favorites. UCLA has been one of the best teams at covering the betting line, ranking second in the country with 23 wins against the point spread.
Prediction: Florida over UCLA, 68-61