TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – UCLA center Josh Smith sat crouched in his locker, shoulders touching both walls and people crowded around him. His presence hardly seemed imposing.
Then he stood up, giving everyone a clear view of his 6-foot-10, 325-pound frame.
Smith was the center of attention Friday — in the Bruins’ locker room, in two news conferences and especially in Florida’s team meeting room.
“It’s not like I’m like the Hulk or anything,” Smith said.
Uh, Florida disagrees. The No. 2 seed in the Southeast region is focusing on Smith heading into Saturday’s third-round game. With good reason, too.
The freshman from Kent, Wash., the one simply nicknamed “Big Josh,” was a major factor in No. 7 seed UCLA’s opener in the NCAA tournament. He had 14 points, three rebounds, two steals, an assist and a block.
His numbers were only part of the story. Smith dominated the paint, forcing Michigan State to settle for jumpers and 3-pointers.
“He’s a mountain,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s a freight train. I would say every game that Josh Smith goes into, he has a physical advantage. I don’t think there’s any question about that. … I don’t think that necessarily any of our frontcourt players are just going to line up and move him around.”
UCLA coach Ben Howland moved Smith back in the starting lineup against the Spartans after bringing him off the bench since early January. The reason?
“He changes the game when he’s in there because he’s a low-post threat,” Howland said. “There’s so few guys that are really good in the low post, or anywhere, whether it’s in the NBA or college basketball. When you find one and you have one, it’s important to take advantage of it.”
Howland and Donovan know that as well as anyone.
Florida beat UCLA in the Final Four in consecutive years in 2006 and 2007. The Gators had a significant size advantage inside, with 6-foot-10 Al Horford and 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah in the starting lineup and 6-foot-9 Chris Richard coming off the bench.
Horford, Noah and the Gators dominated both meetings, winning 73-57 in the title game in 2006 and notching a 76-66 victory in the semifinals the following year.
“A lot of UCLA fans have texted me saying, ‘Hey, get revenge on the Gators for what they did to us,”‘ Smith said. “I don’t really have an effect on that, though. I was still in high school watching the games. I remember what Horford and Noah were doing to us and they just kind of beasted us.
“We’re going to use that as motivation — the team that knocked us out of the championship game and the Final Four the last two years we were in it.”
Howland and Donovan downplayed those past games.
“We don’t need what happened in the past to motivate us any more than we’re motivated,” Howland said. “This is the NCAA tournament. If you don’t win, your season is over.”
Donovan took it a step further, saying he wanted his players to approach the game as the first time the teams have ever played.
“What happened two, three, four, five years ago, really to me has nothing to do with this game,” Donovan said. “This is a new, separate challenge for our team to go out and to play against a very talented and athletic UCLA team. And I would say the UCLA teams, personnel-wise, today are totally different than the ones we played four and five years ago.”
That’s mostly because of Smith.
Although he’s averaging only 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, Smith changes the way teams attack the basket. He laughed at the thought of Florida point guard Erving Walker, generously listed at 5-8, driving into the lane. He also showed off scrapes and bruises on his elbows from taking charges.
Smith grew up playing shortstop on baseball teams, which explain his soft hands and smooth footwork, and even played offensive tackle as a high school senior.
“Coach Howland would call me after every practice, after every game,” Smith said. “It was funny. He came up to about four of our games just to make sure (I was healthy).”
Smith kept getting into early foul trouble during his first few games, so Howland starting bringing him off the bench. The moved paid off. Smith has fouled out just once in the last 17 games.
“He’s just going to get better and better,” Howland said. “Josh is a very good passer, very skilled. … I think Josh is special. I think Josh is just scratching the surface of where he can go with his talents.”
Smith arrived on campus around 370 pounds, but has been shedding weight ever since.
He checked in at 323 pounds a little more than a week ago. The Gators haven’t faced anyone like him. Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli and Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney are loads, but they pale in comparison to Smith.
So how will Florida’s frontcourt — center Vernon Macklin, forward Alex Tyus and reserves Patric Young and Erik Murphy — fare?
“It’s going to be a different look,” Macklin said.
Added Young: “It’s going to be a real tough challenge. I’m 245; he’s (325). I’m going to be giving it all I’ve got and he’s probably going to be chilling.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)