BIG GAME PREVIEW: Sticking with my bracket, OSU pulls off upset

After 62 Tournament games and countless millions of brackets up in flames, we've finally arrived at the Holy Grail of the college basketball season: The national championship game. That it involves more great storylines than Law and Order -- the defending national champs playing for the first repeat in 16 years, two teams that held the No. 1 spot in the rankings for most of the season, two schools that just met for the BCS championship -- just adds to the fun.

Here's how I see it breaking down.

No. 1 Ohio State (35-3) vs. No. 1 Florida (34-5)

Line: Gators by 4.5.

TV: 6:21 p.m. PDT, CBS (Ch. 7/107 in Seattle area).

Media releases (all in PDF): OSU gameday release, Florida gameday release

How the Buckeyes got here: After surviving a number of close calls throughout the Tournament, the Buckeyes proved just how formidable they can be in dispatching Georgetown, even with manchild center Greg Oden spending about half the game on the bench. Mike Conley Jr. was especially impressive with 15 points, five rebounds and six assists. He completely controlled the tempo, perhaps proving that he -- not Oden -- is the team's most valuable player.

How the Gators got here: After being accused of sleepwalking through portions of the season -- and the Tournament -- Florida dismissed UCLA in the national semifinal with startling efficiency. The Gators, who returned intact for 2006-07 with the sole purpose of defending their crown, looked like a team that finally caught a glimpse of its prize. Forwards Joakim Noah and Al Horford were virtually unstoppable inside, and the Gators' sharpshooters made the Bruins pay every time they did try to stop Noah or Horford with a doubleteam. Long story short: This looks like a team on a mission.

Keys to the Game

  1. Greg Oden vs. the referees: There's little doubt in my mind that Oden can handle Noah and Horford from a physical standpoint. After all, we're talking about the guy who's likely to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, should he choose to come out. The question is, can he stay on the court long enough to make a big difference? Unfortunately, the referees in this Tournament have chosen to call it tight whenever Oden's around. Has Oden learned from the easy fouls he gave up against Georgetown? He has a huge opportunity to singlehandedly neutralize the players that drive Florida. Will he lose some aggressiveness in order to stay on the floor?
  2. Florida's 3-point shooting: The Gators picked apart UCLA by feeding the post and kicking the ball out to open shooters when the Bruins double teamed. Those kinds of open shots probably won't be there as frequently tonight for Florida, since Ohio State won't need to double team when Oden's on the floor. That said, if Humphrey, Brewer and Green knock down the open shots when they get them, Ohio State will be stretched beyond what it likes to do.
  3. Florida's defense on Mike Conley Jr.: Few freshman point guards in memory have played as well in the Tournament as Conley has. He's proved positively unflappable at every turn this year, and has elevated his play even as the stage has gotten bigger. There's no reason to believe the spotlight will begin to affect Conley now, but that said, the big stage has done some strange things to great players -- see Webber, Chris. Florida's got a long track record the last two years of playing great defense on good guards, and the Gators have proven they can handle all types with their rangy perimeter play -- see Afflalo, Arron; Collison, Darren. Conley's been better than both Afflalo and Collision; can he keep it up?

Prediction: All the momentum seems to be favoring Florida. The Gators looked as focused as humanly possible against UCLA, like everything they've worked for since the end of last season is finally within their grasp. Meanwhile, Ohio State continues to fly under the radar, discounted at every turn. A lot of people are expecting tonight to be something of a coronation, but I just can't shake the feeling that the Buckeyes are going to figure out a way to win this game, just as they have all through the tournament.

I have to believe the referees don't like the bad press the OSU/Georgetown game received, and that they'll let Oden, Noah and Horford play the way they play. That benefits Ohio State. And don't forget about that 26-point loss by the Ohio State to the Gators earlier this season; I guarantee the Buckeyes haven't. Unlike last year's championship, this one will go down as one of the all-time classics as Ohio State avenges its football loss. Ohio State 72, Florida 71.

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