MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Scottie Wilbekin has defended the 6-foot-6 Harrison twins of Kentucky and seen his share of tall guards during his four seasons at Florida.
Yet nothing really has prepared the Southeastern Conference player of the year for UCLA’s Kyle Anderson.
The sophomore plays point guard for UCLA despite being 6-9, tall enough to play forward or center on any other team. Anderson can stretch his arms out 7-3, allowing him to simply pass over or around any defender in his path helping the Bruins average 81.5 points a game.
Wilbekin will be giving up 7 inches Thursday night to Anderson in the South Regional semifinal at the FedExForum.
“Yes, it’s going to be tough,” Wilbekin said. “He’s definitely a unique cover.”
The Gators have been one of the nation’s stingiest defenses all season and now must slow down Anderson and the Bruins in the South Regional semifinal Thursday night to extend the longest winning streak in school history to a 29th game. Another win puts the NCAA tournament’s overall top seed into a fourth straight regional final.
“Every game you get a chance to win, it becomes more difficult,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It becomes more challenging, it becomes harder.”
The Gators (34-2) have won with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses all season, holding opponents to an average of 57.5 points a game that puts them third nationally. They like to press while smothering teams, and the Gators have held 26 opponents to 61 points or fewer. They advanced to their fourth straight regional semifinal by holding Pittsburgh to 45 points last weekend.
In Steve Alford’s first season, the fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) scoring more points than they have in years. Alford said they will have to keep scoring against Florida.
“If the game’s in the 50s, that’s probably not favoring UCLA,” Alford said. “We need the thing to be a little bit more up-tempo than that.”
Anderson is the do-everything guard for UCLA, averaging 14.7 points and grabbing a team-best 8.7 rebounds per game. He also leads the Pac-12 with 6.5 assists a game. But he has plenty of help, and the other Bruins are big too. Jordan Adams leads UCLA with 17.4 points a game, and he’s a 6-5 guard. Norman Powell is their shortest starting guard at 6-4.
“They’re a unique basketball team,” Gators forward Casey Prather said. “They have guards that post up and bigs who can shoot. They do a great job in transition. They’re very good on offense so we’ve just got to do a good job of meeting the challenge.”
The Gators have scored more than 80 points only five times this season and only twice since the end of November. That makes ratcheting up the defensive intensity a must to contain Anderson.
“We just have to build walls, help each other, and try to keep him out of the lane,” Wilbekin said.
UCLA can play some defense as well. The Bruins held opponents to 70.1 points a game, and they rank third nationally in steals averaging 9.3 per game. That allows them to get running back the other way for lots of easy buckets.
“They’re very fast,” Donovan said of the Bruins. “They’re a great passing team. They’re an unselfish team. Certainly missed shots, turnovers, loose ball turnovers in the middle of the floor, they’re great at taking those plays and turning them into points.”
The Bruins turned the ball over only three times in beating Stephen F. Austin in the third round. They are expecting the Gators to press, and Anderson said they just have to match their intensity.
“I do think we’re the team to take on that press,” Anderson said.
This will be the fourth game between these programs with plenty of national championship history. Florida’s two titles have come under Donovan, while Alford is busy embracing all that UCLA means at the university where John Wooden dominated with his 10 straight championships.
But UCLA has yet to beat Florida and Donovan who beat the Bruins in the 2006 national championship and again at the 2007 Final Four and in 2011.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges with Florida, so everybody might as well throw in the history too,” Alford said. “I don’t know if the history’s going to play much into the game, but it’s just one more challenge that we try to get over.”