NEW YORK CITY — For the second time this season, the Florida basketball team will be center stage in a marquee matchup inside historic Madison Square Garden.
They got a taste of it in December in an early-season showdown with Duke. It wasn’t such a pleasant taste as the Blue Devils bested by them by 10 points, but all that matters now is what they do this time.
The No. 4-seeded Gators (26-8) get another chance at the Garden under an even bigger spotlight Friday night at approximately 10 p.m. ET in a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 8 Wisconsin (27-9).
“Anytime you get to play in an arena like this, the mecca of basketball, it’s a great feeling. So getting to play here two times in one year, it’s like unbelievable,” Gators point guard Chris Chiozza said inside the team’s locker room Thursday. “People dream to play here just once in their life. It was a dream of mine to play here as well.
“So being here now the second time, it’s a bigger stage in the Sweet 16 than it was in December. And when you look back, (I’m) like, ‘Man I don’t think it could be a bigger stage than December,’ but we’re here now.”
Florida coach Mike White has said he doesn’t think experience in the venerable old arena will be of any particular advantage to his players.
That point is underscored by the fact that Wisconsin also played a game in the Garden this season, defeating Rutgers 61-54 in late January.
“It’s always neat to play up there, to play in that city, to play in the world’s most famous arena, of course,” White said. “If we had won up there and played really well against Duke and hit a bunch of shots, it might be an advantage for us. But the fact that we came out on the short end, I don’t think gives us any advantage having played up there a few months ago at all.”
No, but his first point — as Chiozza also summed up so well — is the more significant one.
Several players reiterated the allure of playing in the historical venue before a Thursday shoot-around.
After all, the Garden proudly boasts itself as “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and basketball has been a driving force behind that stature.
The NIT was established at the Garden’s previous location in 1938 when it was the sport’s biggest showcase. The NCAA Tournament started the next year and moved its championship game to New York City’s premier arena in 1943. Kentucky won its first national championship here in 1948 while becoming one of college basketball’s preeminent powers.
The Garden saw its last NCAA championship in 1950, though, and later went 53 years between NCAA Tournament games of any kind. When the tournament returned to the arena in 2014 after that long absence, the New York Daily News and New York Times both explained that extended separation as being lingering fallout from a point-shaving scandal among several local teams playing in the building as well as Kentucky, Bradley and Toledo.
In between, though, there were plenty of historic NBA moments, legendary boxing matches and everything else.
And although the current building opened in 1968, Madison Square Garden’s historic connection to college basketball endures in the minds of players today.
“It’s the mecca of basketball, it’s everybody’s dream to play in Madison Square Garden so for us to have the opportunity is just a blessing,” Gators forward Devin Robinson said.
Said center Kevarrius Hayes: “Kind of does add a special feeling being here after so many greats have passed through. Now we can finally be here to try to add our name to that list.”
Again — but with a better outcome this time, they hope.