TAMPA — UCLA freshman center Josh Smith was the center of the media attention on Friday afternoon, and while his inside presence will clearly be a factor when Florida and UCLA meet in today's third-round NCAA Tournament game, the outcome may rest heavily with the backcourts.
Florida starting guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and UCLA guard Malcolm Lee and forward Tyler Honeycutt could play pivotal roles. With the battle inside expected to be extremely physical between the Gators' big men and 305-pound Smith, Florida hopes to capitalize on its speed, ability to put pressure on UCLA's shooting guards and its outside shooting.
"I think we have some of the fastest guards in the country," UF senior center Vernon Macklin said. "So I think UCLA is going to have a job on their hands guarding our offense, our pick-and-roll offense because we have some great guards that play for us."
UCLA coach Ben Howland acknowledged that guard play is critical.
"Boynton and Walker are very, very good guards," Howland said. "They make so much happen with their ability to put the ball on the floor and create for others as well as themselves."
The Bruins are well known for their physical brand of basketball, and their ability to control the tempo and scoring. UCLA has held 93 opponents under 60 points in the Howland era. Expect Florida to try to speed up the tempo while putting extra pressure on UCLA's backcourt. UCLA averages 15 turnovers and 14.6 assists per game, eighth in the Pac-10 in assist to turnover ratio entering the tournament.
"We're definitely going to press more than we ever have this season," UF sophomore guard Kenny Boynton said. "They have showed in the past that they kind of turn the ball over. Their guards have a negative assist to turnover ratio, so we definitely want to try to get turnovers."
Honeycutt acknowledged that UCLA has had problems with small guards, and realizes it's imperative to play strong transition defense and take care of the ball.
"We've had games where we've gotten killed in transition defense, so that's one of our main focuses, getting back in transition defense," Honeycutt said. "That's a theme we keep repeating to our guards, stopping the ball early, don't let them get a head of steam. That's one of our main focuses defensively. It's on our guards to be able to stop the break. We can't let the guards get too deep in the paint or start kicking out."
Lee, who is playing with a cartilage tear in his knee, is the Bruins' second-leading scorer and has 20 double-figure games this season.
Boynton said he expects to guard Honeycutt, while Walker will guard Lee.
"Basically we've got to get back on defense because we know they are going to push it on us every time they get it — on made shots and misses," Lee said. "We know that we're going to have to find our man, and the bigs are going to have to get up and down the court, too, because their big (men) like to run as well.
"We're going to have to find them in transition early and stop them earlier."
Honeycutt has 22 double-figure games and is second on the team in assists. So the way the Gators figure it, there's one good way to go about it.
"Pressure," Walker said. "We want to get up under them and create. We don't want them to get into a flow offensively. We want to create the tempo."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.