The Wisconsin Badgers are heading to the Sweet 16 and will take on the No. 4 seed Florida Gators on Friday night at Madison Square Garden for the right to advance to the Elite Eight for the third time in four seasons.
To get the inside scoop on the Gators, we asked Landon Watnick of InsidetheGators.com to break down what Wisconsin fans should know ahead of the big game. Our questions and his answers are included below.
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It's been a while since these two teams last played - and both programs have new head coaches since the Gators came up to the Kohl Center in 2013. What does Florida's new head coach Mike White bring to the table compared to Billy Donovan? Was that a major change or has it been a smooth transition?
Landon Watnick: Through two seasons, the 40-year-old White has done an exceptional job coaching up the Gators given the amount of time he’s been at the helm. His first season on the job was a bit of a rollercoaster – the Gators failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season after four straight Elite Eight trips and a Final Four berth in 2014 – but eventually players started buying into his system and believing in what he preached.
2015-16 was a down year, but this season has more than certainly made up for it for the Florida faithful. Florida finished second in the SEC regular-season standings after going for winning streaks of seven and nine games, and now the Gators are off to a fifth Sweet 16 bid in seven years after outscoring East Tennessee State and Virginia 145-104.
Maybe the biggest change is from a recruiting standpoint, as White doesn’t have the “brand name” of a Billy Donovan. However, the transition otherwise has been smooth. White is an intelligent up-and-comer who knows how to adapt to his players’ strengths. He’s a compassionate coach who really cares about his players, but he’s not afraid to get vocal whether it’s in practice or in a game-situation.
So far, all of my interactions with him have been positive – and I’ve enjoyed his press conferences and interviews, as he answers questions with genuine insight and rarely ever sidesteps them (a practice all too common obviously in the college football spectrum, especially at UF). White is honestly one of the nicest coaches I’ve ever covered.
Who are Florida's key players this season? Who do they lean on to make their offense and defense click?
Landon Watnick: Florida’s rotation is pretty balanced, but KeVaughn Allen is undoubtedly the standout on the roster. The sophomore guard leads the team with 13.4 points per game on 44% shooting (37.7% from three) and has 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game to go along with that. Last weekend, however, wasn’t the greatest offensive outing from Allen, as he went just 3-of-21 from the floor (1-of-13 from three). Still, he stepped up on the defensive end of the floor and made an impact there. It wasn’t that he was taking bad looks offensively – shots just simply weren’t falling.
Then there’s Canyon Barry, the SEC’s sixth man of the year. The graduate transfer guard is second on the Gators in scoring (11.8 PPG) but hasn’t been nearly the same since suffering an ankle injury at Mississippi State in February. Last weekend, Barry went just 2-of-8 from the field.
While those two struggled on offense, junior forward Devin Robinson had one of the best basketball weekends of his life in all areas. After tying a career-high with 24 points against ETSU last Thursday, he recorded 14 points and 11 rebounds against Virginia. After discovering a stress fracture in his foot, Robinson opted to return to school for the 2016-17 season. If he keeps it up throughout the remainder of the tournament, Robinson may be able to spark some NBA interest.
Point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza also play a key part in what the Gators like to do. Both guards have done a good job this season of rebounding the ball and generating turnovers – and in turn pushing the ball in transition for good looks. While Chiozza’s shooting has notably improved throughout the second half of the year as a junior, Hill has blossomed into a lockdown defender during his senior season en route to All-SEC defensive team honors. Hill is the only player on the roster remaining from Florida’s Final Four in 2014 that saw the team win 30 straight games before falling to UConn.
It’s really tough to just single out one player here, since so many contributors in the rotation have played such important roles this year.
In that same vein, who is one under-the-radar player who could make a big difference in the game on Friday?
Landon Watnick: You have to point to freshman center Gorjok Gak, an August enrollee who found out right before the regular season that the NCAA had changed its decision on his eligibility and cleared him to play right away. The 6-foot-11, 231-pound Gak has put on some weight since arriving in Gainesville, and that size will be put to the test Friday night against Wisconsin’s bigs as he and Kevarrius Hayes will defend the interior. After playing a minimal role throughout the regular season and also missing some time with a sprained foot, Gak has emerged in the postseason, with 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting and three rebounds while proving effective on defense in 17 combined minutes on the floor against ETSU and Virginia. His role may increase Friday night, especially after two promising outings.
What's Florida's biggest strength this season and what's their biggest weakness?
Landon Watnick: The Gators have been a great defensive team this year, but they certainly been effective at defending the arc and forcing turnovers. Opponents have shot just 30.4% from three-point range against Florida this season, while Florida has forced opposing teams into turnovers on 21.1% of their possessions (32nd nationally, per KenPom.com).
A weakness now is Florida’s depth in the interior, with starting center John Egbunu suffering a torn ACL against Auburn on February 14. Vanderbilt’s Luke Kornet and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo didn’t have much trouble scoring at the rim and grabbing rebounds against the Gators’ bigs before the NCAA Tournament. Florida wasn’t tested much in the interior during the Big Dance’s opening weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see how it fares against Wisconsin’s frontcourt.
In all fairness, Florida’s rotation as a whole has amped up its intensity on the glass and defending at the rim since Egbunu went down, but losing a lane-clogger in the 6-foot-11, 255-pound big man – especially when the 6-foot-9, 218-pound Hayes and 6-foot-11, 231-pound Gak don’t compare in stature – is definitely a blow.
Finally, what's your pick for this game? Who moves on to the Elite Eight and why?
Landon Watnick: I see this being a close game, with Wisconsin’s frontcourt giving the Gators the most trouble they’ve had defending the interior in the NCAA Tournament up to this point. However, my gut just tells me that Florida may pull out this one. Despite losing three games to Vanderbilt, which seemed to have the Gators’ number, Florida’s other losses this year have come against quality teams (Gonzaga, Duke, FSU, South Carolina and Kentucky). The Gators have won against the latter two and haven’t lost this season by more than 10 points.
It seems like Florida is starting to rekindle the momentum it had went it broke off for nine straight wins from late January to mid-February. It lost three of its next four, but one came at Rupp Arena and the other two to a gritty Vandy squad. The two wins in the opening rounds of the tournament were a national statement.
The Gators shot 47.11% from the field (34.9% from three) against ETSU and Virginia – the latter an elite defensive team – and that was with Allen and Barry struggling. If at least one of those two can turn it on and the rest of the roster can keep it up, I see Florida presenting Wisconsin some challenges Friday night.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball, and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.