NEW YORK CITY — As Wisconsin seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes fielded question after question from reporters Thursday, about their considerable NCAA Tournament experience, about their social media practices and whatever else, redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ waited next to them.
Eventually the moderator asked if anyone could please direct a question to Happ.
“First off, thank you for the pity question,” he said, beginning his response.
But while Koenig and Hayes are stealing most of the spotlight this week as they play in their fourth Sweet 16, Happ might just be Florida’s primary concern.
The 6-foot-10 first-team All-Big Ten standout is exactly the kind of matchup problem the Gators aren’t fully equipped for at this point.
In losing starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL last month, the Gators lost not only their best interior defender but also considerable depth inside. And now they have to contend with what coach Mike White says is the best frontcourt they’ve faced all season with Happ and the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Hayes.
“I think that if they pressure the wings and they give us one-on-one in the post, Nigel and I like our chances in isolation. Regardless of who we’re playing,” Happ said.
Happ comes into the teams’ Sweet 16 matchup Friday night at Madison Square Garden averaging 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. He also leads the team in assists (2.8 per game), steals (66) and blocks (43).
Florida sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes will have the bulk of the responsibility of defending him.
“Basically keeping him off the block as much as possible, trying to limit his close touches to the basket and whenever I can make him score over instead of giving an angle,” Hayes said of his plan.
It’s not going to be all his responsibility, though. It can’t be.
“We’ve just got to help our bigs,” forward Devin Robinson said. “The guards have to help our bigs out because if we don’t help, these bigs are capable of getting 20, 28 each and it’s going to be a long night for us. We’ve just got to play team defense and just all help each other a little bit more than we usually do.”
White said recently as he referenced Egbunu’s absence yet again that eventually the Gators would stop talking about that void, but the fact remains it was a significant blow the team wasn’t fully equipped to overcome.
Gorjok Gak, a 6-foot-11 freshman, played some encouraging minutes last week in Orlando and could help against the Badgers.
Regardless, though, this is the sort of matchup that plays right into the Gators’ vulnerability.
For his part, Kevarrius Hayes said he’s confident they can find a way to handle it.
“Having (Egbunu) here would be a huge help. He’s definitely the more physical part to our defense, but we can’t sell ourselves short,” Hayes said. “Even without having him, we played pretty good interior defense so far and I feel like we can still come out on top.”