ORLANDO, Fla. — After Florida’s resounding 65-39 evisceration of Virginia in its second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday night, Gators forwards Devin Robinson and Justin Leon were asked their reaction to seeing a top seed in their path fall earlier in the day.
No. 8 Wisconsin upset No. 1 Villanova prior to Florida’s tip-off, and the No. 4 Gators will now matchup with the Badgers in New York City on Friday.
Before his players could answer that question, coach Mike White cautioned them to think about their response.
“Be very careful with that,” he said.
While Florida’s path may have been ostensibly helped with that upset, a matchup with a Wisconsin team that many felt was slighted in the first place with its No. 8 seed isn’t exactly a gift.
The Badgers (27-9) reached the Big Ten Tournament championship game and entered the NCAA Tournament one win better than No. 5 seed Minnesota, a conference foe that it beat twice.
They then sent a statement to the selection committee with their 65-62 win over Villanova on Saturday afternoon.
“I watched the game, but I wasn’t worrying about any other team but trying to come out here and win the game,” Robinson said. “So I mean, it doesn’t matter who we play. Just going to play our basketball, Florida basketball basically.”
Said Leon: “Just kind of like what Devin said, I watched the game as well, but really I think we were all just focused on tonight’s game, our own game, and just trying to get a win for us and not really concerned about other games.”
While the Badgers scored one of the marquee wins of the tournament so far in topping the defending national champion Wildcats in Buffalo, N.Y., the Gators would follow later in the evening in Orlando with a head-turning performance of their own.
They used a 21-0 run heading into and coming out of halftime to blow past a No. 5-seed Virginia team that came in with the top-ranked defense in Division I.
Florida is now in the Sweet 16 for the first time since a Final Four run in 2014. More to the point, the Gators have announced their return to the national stage in White’s second year as head coach.
Next up is a Badgers team that has won five of its last six games — and one that has a penchant for being a pest in March.
Wisconsin has been on quite a run the last several years, reaching the Final Four along with the Gators in 2014, following that with an appearance in the national championship game in 2015 (losing to Duke), and then upsetting a No. 2-seeded Xavier team as a No. 7 seed to reach the Sweet 16 last year.
The Badgers are led by senior point guard Bronson Koenig (14.5 points per game) and 6-foot-8 senior forward Nigel Hayes (13.8 PPG, 6.6 rebounds per game), who were key contributors during those aforementioned tournament runs, along with 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.8/9.1).
In the glow of a momentous win Saturday night, Florida’s players hadn’t yet had time to think much about their next opponent.
“Probably watching the Villanova-Wisconsin game is probably it, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get back tomorrow or Monday and lock in on them,” Leon said.
As for the setting of that game, it marks a return to Madison Square Garden for the Gators after they visited the venerable venue back in December for a clash with Duke. They lost that game, 84-74, and are hoping for a more memorable experience this time around.
“Hopefully we (get) a different outcome than we had in December,” point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We’re going to come out there and play like it’s any other game, any other arena. We’ll come out there and battle and leave it all on the court.”