UCLA center Josh Smith was the center of attention Friday — in the Bruins' locker room, in two news conferences and especially in Florida's team meeting room.
TAMPA, Fla. — 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.
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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 Kentwood High School in Covington, 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 three-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.
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).”
• President Barack Obama got off to a perfect start to the second full day of the NCAA tournament.
Obama was 8-0 for the early games Friday after filling out a bracket for ESPN for the third straight year. He was 22-2 overall going into the day’s late games.
Obama correctly predicted the one upset of Friday’s first eight games, 10th-seeded Florida State’s victory over seventh-seeded Texas A&M.
Obama selected Kansas to win it all.