NEW YORK CITY — This being Mike White’s first Sweet 16 berth as a head coach, let alone the continuation of his first NCAA Tournament appearance, he admitted he doesn’t have all the answers for his Florida team regarding how to navigate the mounting pressure that comes with the bigger spotlight this week.
So, he’ll keep the emphasis the same as he did last week — and that seemed to work pretty well.
“This is our first time through it, so I don’t claim to have all the right answers,” White said Thursday. “My personal answer, our answer as a staff has just been the next one. It’s not about the basketball down the road, it’s not about the bracket and who we may play, and where we may be next weekend. It hasn’t been from the start of the tournament with us. …
“It’s been Wisconsin all week and that is it. We’re just hopeful that we can play well enough to be competitive and to have a chance at the end. And we’ll take it from there. That’s it.”
The No. 4-seeded Gators (26-8) tangle with No. 8 Wisconsin (27-9) on Friday night in a Sweet 16 matchup at Madison Square Garden.
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The Badgers are the only team in the field that has reached the Sweet 16 each of the last four years. They are led by a pair of seasoned seniors in point guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes who have been part of two Final Four teams and bring unmatched postseason experience to the floor in this game.
“There’s benefits of that. But you also, watching it is one thing and seeing your teammate go through it is one thing, having to actually have your hands on the wheel yourself as a leader in the locker room is a little different,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “And those two guys specifically have had to learn a different role over the last two years of that leadership quality.”
It seems they’ve answered that call just fine.
Koenig scored 28 points in Wisconsin’s first-round win against Virginia Tech, while Hayes added 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Badgers then upset No. 1 seed and defending national champion Villanova, 65-62, as Hayes had 19 points and 8 rebounds and Koenig 17 points.
Florida, meanwhile, was busy making its own statement.
After handling East Tennessee State in the opening round of the tournament, the Gators thumped No. 5-seed Virginia by a commanding 65-39 margin.
That Florida did that with its two leading scorers having quiet offensive games is even more impressive.
Veteran forwards Devin Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Justin Leon (14 and 10) led the way against the Cavaliers, while guard KeVaughn Allen went 2 of 10 from the field for just 4 points and guard Canyon Barry had a relatively silent 7 points on 1-of-4 shooting.
Robinson has been terrific so far, averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds in the two wins, but the Gators need to get Allen going. He’s just 3 for 21 from the field in the tournament.
“I’ve just got to keep shooting it no matter whether I’m hitting it or not,” Allen said. “Just keep shooting it and shoot with confidence.”
Said Robinson: “He’s handling it pretty well. He goes to work every day, gets extra shots. He’s sticking to the process and I feel it in my gut that he’s going to have a breakout soon. If he gets out of that, we’re going to be in good shape.”
What time is tip-off?
The game is set to start at approximately 9:59 p.m. Friday, though it could be delayed depending on when the South Carolina-Baylor game finishes.
What TV channel is showing the Florida-Wisconsin game?
TBS is televising the game and it can be streamed online here.
Who is calling the Florida-Wisconsin game?
Verne Lundquist is on the play-by-play call, Jim Spanarkel is the analyst and Allie LaForce is the in-game reporter.
Looking at Wisconsin
Many felt the Badgers were slighted by receiving a No. 8 seed despite reaching the Big Ten championship game with 25 wins.
They’ve proven once again to be one of the toughest obstacles in March, led by those two clutch seniors.
And, yet, it was 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore center Ethan Happ who received the highest accolades this season, receiving first-team All-Big Ten honors. He averages 13.8 points and a team-high 9.1 rebounds.
With Happ and Hayes, White said the Badgers have the best frontcourt the Gators have seen all season. That’s a sizable challenge for a Gators team that hasn’t been the same inside since losing starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL last month.
“I think that it’s a pretty big challenge, especially with those two high-level players,” Florida forward Justin Leon said. “But I mean without Egbunu I think we have done our fair share of the job, because we got here without him, so I feel like I think we showed that we can play interior defense without him. Obviously, he would be a great help, but I think that we can do it without him, too.”
Wisconsin’s most glaring flaw is that it ranks 332nd nationally in free throw shooting, making only 64.3 percent from the line.
White was asked if he’d consider exploiting that and he dismissed any ideas of intentionally sending the Badgers to the stripe.
“We’re not going that way. We’re not. The big concern is foul trouble, because we’re already thin up front, of course, without John and we have got to be really physical, we have got to use physicality and legality at the same time,” White said. “We have got to show our hands, we got to be very smart; those guys just really understand how to draw fouls. You mentioned Happ, he’s a really good player. I don’t anticipate him going 4-10 from the foul line. I do anticipate, regardless of how good of a job we do on him, he’s going to get to the foul line. He just understands how to do it.”