Rick Pitino nailed it last week when the Louisville coach said a “lack of offense” keeps teams from winning an NCAA championship. So far, Florida hasn’t had to worry about its offense being mostly erratic through two tournament games.


That could change significantly Thursday night when the national championship favorite meets UCLA, the top-scoring offense (81.5 ppg) among the Sweet 16 participants, at Memphis’ FedEx Forum.

It’s the only matchup that could torpedo what seems like a Final Four lock for the Gators. It’s likely going to take somebody with a lethal offense, and an arsenal of 3-point shooters, to eliminate Florida. The teams that best fit that profile are Louisville and Michigan State, but UCLA isn’t far behind.

The Bruins are exceptional at forcing opponents into high-scoring games, something UF has avoided all season except in two-point wins over Memphis and Arkansas. UCLA’s potent offense, led by guard Jordan Adams and 6-foot-9 matchup nightmare Kyle Anderson, scored 75 points in both meetings with No. 1 West region seed Arizona, the nation’s fifth-ranked defense (58.5 ppg).

Facing UCLA will be a stark contrast for the Gators’ defense-first mentality. What that means for Florida is this: it must find a way to upgrade an offense that struggled for the first 26-30 minutes against Albany and Pittsburgh.

The Gators can’t rely on point guard Scottie Wilbekin to go on another Jordan-like tear, as he did in the last eight minutes against Pittsburgh. Billy Donovan’s offense isn’t designed for one player to take on that burden.

Florida functions best as a balanced diet, when multiple players are puncturing defenses at various intervals. Sometimes, it’s Michael Frazier or Wilbekin knocking down threes from the wing. Or maybe center Patric Young, a Providence High product, making jump hooks in the lane.

When those options are taken away, then UF needs Casey Prather slashing to the basket or Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill coming off the bench to spark the offense.

If the UCLA game is played for a significant time at the Bruins’ pace, which means lots of running and points in transition, the Gators have to answer Steve Alford’s team during those track-meet moments.

Florida has to make a decent percentage of those open 3-point shots, not go a combined 8-for-32 as it did for two games in Orlando. UF’s offense has been known to hit dry spells, and the Gators may get away with that against somebody like Stanford or Dayton on Saturday. But UCLA is a different ballgame.

Thanks mostly to Anderson, the Bruins are an excellent passing team. Adams also gets a lot of steals to create extra possessions. Just as UCLA has seen few teams like Florida, the Gators have seldom dealt with this type of firepower. The Gators faced only three top-50 offenses — Arkansas, Kansas and Memphis — and won those games by a combined 10 points.

Florida prevailed in its last six Sweet 16 games under Donovan and is 3-0 in the tournament against UCLA. The Gators should survive this test, too.

But they better bring more than just a lockdown defense.

Gene Frenette: (904) 359-4540