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Are the Florida Gators tough enough for the UCLA Bruins?

UCLA’s 6-10, 305-pounder, Josh Smith, blocks Adreian Payne’s shot during the win over Michigan State. Florida coach Billy Donovan said his team hasn’t faced a player like Smith this season.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

UCLA’s 6-10, 305-pounder, Josh Smith, blocks Adreian Payne’s shot during the win over Michigan State. Florida coach Billy Donovan said his team hasn’t faced a player like Smith this season.

TAMPA

Over the course of a 27-win season, you may have noticed this about the Florida Gators.

They are quick enough. They are deep enough. They are focused enough.

Ah, but are they tough enough?

On their way to a sweatfree opening victory in the NCAA Tournament, you might have picked up on this about the Gators, too.

They are talented enough. They are unselfish enough. They are hungry enough.

And again, you wonder.

Are they tough enough?

For the Gators, this is a familiar question. Can they bang enough? Can they pound enough? Can they muscle enough? When the game gets brutal underneath the basket, when the players transform into linemen on third and 1 at the goal line, can the Gators swap enough pain to match their opponent?

And if they cannot, can they sur­vive another round?

As questions go, this one has been asked of the Gators before. Except for the championship years, when Al Horford knocked any notions of softness into the third row of the bleachers, the Gators have often been asked about their toughness.

Perhaps some of that has been because Florida has had so many lean players who hung around the perimeter and shot 3s. Perhaps it has been because of the old notion of Billyball. And perhaps it has been that some of Florida's lesser teams haven't exactly been ruthless.

And perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with Josh Smith, that office building that UCLA plays in the low post.

Know this: The Gators are going to get bumped around today. Between Smith and Reeves Nelson, UCLA coach Ben Howland finally has the inside game he has been missing for many of his years with the Bruins. Oh, UCLA tried to be physical, but in most years, the players mainly beat each other up in the grind house that has been Howland's practices.

Now? Now they have Smith, who is so large that when he sneezes, the Weather Channel reports a new front rolling out of the West.

Smith is 6 feet 10, and no one seems to be able to mention his listed weight of 305 without laughing out loud. When the other large players of college basketball get together, Smith is the guy they call large.

"He's a mountain," is the way Florida coach Billy Donovan puts it.

"He's a freight train. I would say that every game Josh Smith goes into, he has a physical advantage. I think if our team is going to rely on Vernon (Macklin) or Patric (Young) to lock up and bang back and forth with him, I don't know if our team is going to win that battle. I think we've got to be able to provide help to our post."

Physical game, basketball. Remember in 2003, when the Gators were also a No. 2 seed, also in Tampa. That year, they played seventh-seeded Michigan State, and the Spartans simply wore them down all afternoon in winning an upset.

Now think back to the last meetings between Florida and UCLA, in the 2007 NCAA semifinals and the 2006 national title game, and much of the difference was that the Bruins couldn't mosh with the Gators. In their last meeting, Florida outrebounded UCLA 43-26.

"When we played Florida, we had no one like Josh," Howland said.

The result has been that UCLA is a tougher team inside. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team lost to UCLA on Thursday, says that Howland has brought "smashmouth basketball" to the West Coast. And it's true. There is something about the Bruins that warns opponents to watch their mouths.

"I think Josh is special," Howland said.

"He's just scratching the surface of where he can go with his talents. He's got such great hands, and his feet are so good. He has outstanding touch."

Yes, the Gators have played big players before. Donovan mentions Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli (6-11, 255) and Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney (6-10, 270). Then Donovan gives up.

"He's nothing like Ezeli or Sidney," Donovan said. "I mean, this guy is on a different level physically.

"We've not seen anything like it."

So how does Florida survive? It survives by winning with its guard play. It survives by getting Smith into foul trouble. It survives by having a bit of an inside presence itself.

Are the Gators tough enough?

"We're going to find that out," Donovan said.

In the NCAA, that's always the option. Either a team plays the hard way or it learns the hard way. Today, the Gators will make a muscle or they will make their way home.

Are the Florida Gators tough enough for the UCLA Bruins? 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 10:43pm]

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