GAINESVILLE, Fla. — By the time Florida tips off with Wisconsin on Friday night in the teams’ Sweet 16 matchup in New York City, the Gators will have gone through their usual extensive scouting routine, film study and a handful of practices to get ready for the Badgers.
But coach Mike White added in a new wrinkle to the preparation process this time — Wikipedia.
“You talk about success and momentum and consistency, I got on their Wiki page and just looked at some of the recent history,” White said Tuesday. “I may have read it wrong, but it was like 16 straight years they’ve finished in the top four in the Big Ten. That is unbelievable. It’s just crazy. Sixteen straight years in that league to finish in the top four, this is their fourth straight Sweet 16. What a senior class they have. Just incredible consistency.”
White’s research is correct, and more to the point, Wisconsin is the only program in the country that has reached the Sweet 16 each of these last four seasons (and six of the last seven years, for that matter).
What the No. 4-seeded Gators (26-8) lack in postseason experience, the No. 8 Badgers (27-9) have in abundance.
Senior forward Nigel Hayes and senior point guard Bronson Koenig have played in two Final Fours and are the active national leaders in NCAA tournament points scored — 166 for Hayes and 159 for Koenig. The Badgers start four seniors in all, including forward Vitto Brown and guard Zak Showalter.
Florida, meanwhile, is back in the Big Dance after a two-year absence and senior point guard Kasey Hill was the only Gator with any NCAA Tournament experience prior to last week.
NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
When | 9:59 p.m. ET Friday
Where | Madison Square Garden, New York City
TV | TBS
White said he doesn’t usual work Wikipedia into his scouting process, but he wanted to better familiarize himself with a Badgers program that has made a seamless transition from longtime head coach Bo Ryan to his chosen successor Greg Gard.
“No, this one was a little bit different. I think that’s the first time I’ve had that,” he said. “I wanted to become more familiar with their history. I just, I know it seems like they’re way up there. We’ve been in Ruston, (La.) and now we’re way down here in Gainesville. Just not quite as familiar. We’ve been playing in the NIT when Wisconsin’s whipping up on people. I knew they had a great run. When I think of Wisconsin the past couple years, I think toughness, skill level, high-level defensive team, really consistent. I didn’t know it was quite to that extent, 16 years, my goodness, that’s a heck of a run.”
Many felt Wisconsin was slighted by the selection committee in receiving that No. 8 seed after reaching the Big Ten championship game with 25 wins.
The Badgers have since furthered that argument by opening the tournament with an 84-74 win over Virginia Tech and a 65-62 upset of No. 1 seed and defending national champion Villanova.
Koenig leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game and is averaging 22.5 so far in the tournament. Hayes averages 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game overall, but he’s averaged 17.5 points and 9 rebounds in the team’s first two tourney games.
And then there is 6-foot-10 sophomore center Ethan Happ, who has averaged 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors.
“Their skill level’s off the charts. The best frontcourt we’ve played all year,” White said. “Koenig’s one of the best guards we’ve played all year, and they’re eighth in the country, by the way, in defensive efficiency so they’re just really, really good.”
Much has been discussed about Florida’s thin frontcourt depth since losing starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL last month.
Sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes averaged 7 points and 4.5 rebounds in Florida’s two NCAA tournament wins last week, while 6-foot-11 freshman Gorjok Gak provided some productive minutes off the bench. After playing in only one of the Gators’ previous 10 games, Gak chipped in 10 points over 17 minutes across the two tournament games.
But as for how the Gators will try to counter the challenge Wisconsin presents inside, White isn’t quite sure yet.
“We don’t have it figured out yet. There’s not going to be one answer I can give you. I think we might have to try different things,” he said. “Going into the game our biggest issue is going to be how we defend on the interior. I think Wisconsin knows that, we know that. Of course it’s going to be difficult scoring against them as well. We’re going to have difficulties defending Koenig and Showalter and these other guys as well, but their frontcourt, both of those guys can pass, dribble, shoot, drive it, draw fouls. They just present so many issues for us and we’ve struggled with that here a little bit, as we all know, in the past 6-8 weeks.”
Florida has plenty of momentum behind it at the moment, though.
After using a strong second half to finish off an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State last Thursday, the Gators played their most impressive game of the season Saturday night in a 65-39 evisceration of No. 5-seeded Virginia.
Much was rightfully made of Florida’s turning in a better defensive effort than a Cavaliers team that ranks as the best defense in the country. The Gators will hope to sustain that effort Friday night against Wisconsin.
“They’re going to be disciplined, they’re going to fight hard just like we are. So we’ve got to come out there with the same mindset we come out every game that we have to out-tough them, out-battle them and want it more, play harder,” junior point guard Chris Chiozza said.
Said junior forward Devin Robinson: “It’s going to be tough. They’re really similar to us. They have a lot of guys who can have a breakout night and it’s a great match-up with Nigel Hayes. He’s one of the top players in the country and they have other great guards, Bronson. It’s going to be a tough defensive battle for sure.”