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2007 NCAA Championship Game Preview

by David Mihm | April 1st, 2007

Despite two relatively lackluster semifinal games, the battle for the 2007 NCAA Championship has the potential to be an epic. The experience-laden Gators look to claim their second straight national title against a young but explosive Buckeye squad.

Semifinal Supremacy:
Ohio State kept Georgetown out of synch in its offensive sets all night long, making Jeff Green a non-factor. Roy Hibbert did the bulk of his damage while Greg Oden was on the bench with foul trouble at the end of the first half and was neutralized as the game wore on. Offensively, the Buckeyes capitalized on a surprising number of Hoya turnovers, and Mike Conley, Jr. played one of his best games of an already stellar year, consistently breaking down the Georgetown defense with his penetration. Oden was a monster on the glass and in the post in the second half, and his defensive presence was a key reason that the Hoyas attempted so few of their patented back-door cuts.

Florida manhandled UCLA inside from start to finish. Though neither Joakim Noah nor Al Horford had a terrific offensive game, their complete domination of the defensive glass limited the Bruins’ second chances, and Chris Richard’s offensive putbacks seemed to break UCLA’s spirit as the second half wore on. Corey Brewer, underappreciated by most of the national media, showed why he is such a highly-regarded NBA prospect by shutting down Arron Afflalo and stretching the Bruins’ D with several three pointers.

Last Time Out:
Florida jumped out to an early 14-7 lead at a neutral site game in Glendale en route to…wait, wrong sport. But try telling that to the legions of Buckeye fans who have made the trip to Atlanta, including OSU head football coach Jim Tressel. The Scarlet & Gray will be out for revenge against the team that denied them a precious football title earlier this year.

The basketball Gators have already handled the Buckeyes this year, too, throttling Ohio State 86-60 in a home rout on December 23. Florida shot a blistering 60% from the field in that game, and Oden was just returning from an off-season injury to his main shooting hand. Offensively, Taurean Green had one of his best games of the year, carving up the Buckeyes for 24 points on 9-12 shooting, and Florida’s perimeter D kept everyone in lockdown mode except Jamar Butler. Of note: although Horford didn’t start the game due to a gimpy ankle, he still managed a double-double against Oden and Othello Hunter. Florida outrebounded OSU 37-23 for the game.

The Players:
If you haven’t noticed yet, Conley is something special. There may not be a better penetrator in any class, let alone the freshman class of 2006, and even his gaudy 2.8:1 assist: turnover ratio may underestimate the quality of his decision-making. A significant chunk of Green’s NBA draft stock is riding on this game, at least at the defensive end, in the same way Roy Hibbert’s was in the Hoyas’ semifinal.

There will also be plenty of scouts watching the three-way inside battles between Oden, Noah, and Horford. Oden showed tremendous touch with some soft 8-10 hooks against Georgetown, and we could see more of the same if Billy Donovan decides to put the shorter but stronger 6-9 Horford on the Buckeyes’ big man. If the Gators go with Noah at the defensive end, Oden’s power may overwhelm (and frustrate) the lanky, excitable Gator. Regardless, one hopes that we as fans get the chance to see Oden for more than three minutes in the first half, as was the case against Georgetown.

How Ohio State wins:
The Buckeyes will win if they can hold their own on the boards and out-shoot Florida from the perimeter.

Ohio State simply cannot afford a repeat of the -14 rebounding disparity in the teams’ first matchup this year. Oden was in early foul trouble in that game, and he must stay on the floor for more than three minutes of the first half as was the case against Georgetown. Matt Terwilliger and Othello Hunter need to give Thad Matta solid minutes off the bench by standing their ground in the paint against the Gators’ big men, and the Buckeye wing players (Ivan Harris, David Lighty, Daequan Cook) need to get a little dirty inside, too. Florida’s 42-25 advantage on the boards against UCLA signals that their rebounding form may be the best it’s been all year.

If Oden staying out of foul trouble means allowing Noah and Horford a few early dunks, so be it—his presence at the offensive end of the floor prevents perimeter double-teams on OSU’s three-point specialists. Ron Lewis was one of the few Buckeyes who didn’t play to his potential against Georgetown (1-8 from the field), and Ohio State desperately needs his scoring and confidence to improve against Florida. The Gators have been vulnerable to the outside shot at times this year (Vanderbilt and Tennessee losses, Butler close call) and the Buckeyes’ best shot to win will come with the long ball.

How Florida wins:
The Gators will win if Oden plays fewer than 20 minutes and Brewer is as outstanding as he was against UCLA.

Donovan should take a page from John Thompson III’s notes and send the ball inside against Oden early and often to pick up some quick fouls. The less he’s on the floor, the more opportunities Horford, Noah, and Richard will have for second-chance putbacks against the relatively undersized Buckeyes. On the defensive end, without Oden to worry about, the Gator big men can stay at home and protect against Conley penetrations.

Brewer had one of the best individual performances of the Tournament against UCLA. The Gators’ wing was 5-7 from the field, including 4-5 from three-point range, in addition to an unbelievable defensive effort on Arron Afflalo. Donovan will no doubt switch Brewer to whichever Buckeye is hot in the early-going, and may even try him once or twice against Conley. But he’ll have an even bigger advantage on offense, where his 6-9 length will allow for shots over the top of the smaller Buckeye defenders. Lighty may be Matta’s best option in a man-to-man, but with all of the unbalanced defensive matchups, look for the Buckeyes to try even more zone against Florida than they did against Georgetown.

Prediction: Florida 75, Ohio State 70.
Ohio State has improved dramatically since its early-season loss, and the Gators lose the homecourt advantage they held in that first meeting as well. As Thad Matta said during halftime of the Florida-UCLA game yesterday, Florida’s defense is indeed underrated, but I look for Mike Conley to have another tremendous game. The Buckeyes will come out of the gate hot from the outside, but Donovan will make some adjustments to limit their perimeter looks in the second half. Noah, Horford, and Oden will all have double-doubles , but with another clutch performance, Brewer will win the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, and the Gators will win their second straight title.

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