The Florida Gators and Wisconsin Badgers have been here before. Not in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and not in the Sweet Sixteen and pitted against each other (9:59 p.m., TNT or March Madness Live), but they’ve been here before.
For Wisconsin, that “been here before” is really more like “been here and beyond” before. Seniors abound on Greg Gard’s team, and they advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament when Wisconsin was Bo Ryan’s team. Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Zak Showalter were freshman role players when Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, and Frank Kaminsky carried the Badgers to the Final Four in 2014, and more integral parts of the Wisconsin rotation — especially Hayes and Koenig — when Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament final in 2015.
Those seniors have 13 NCAA Tournament wins, exactly as many as Florida’s fabled 2014 senior class and the legendary Oh-Fours racked up in their collegiate careers, and they could still have as many as four more games to play.
But this Wisconsin team depends on sophomore Ethan Happ as much or more as any of those seniors — only Koenig, and only arguably, does more — and was not as good in Gard’s first or second season as in Ryan’s pentultimate and ultimate campaigns. Hayes has not recaptured the form he found as a sophomore, and Koenig is only about as good as he was, not better. Happ has been one of the nation’s best players, but is not as good as Kaminsky was — and hasn’t had a 20-point game since mid-February.
That’s part of how Wisconsin went 4-6 to enter the NCAA Tournament, dropping five of its last eight regular-season contests before losing in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. And while good Big Ten teams gave the Badgers some of their losses over that span, so did NIT participants Iowa and Ohio State. So it was a significant surprise for the Badgers to get by Villanova, even though they had impressed by beating Virginia Tech one round prior.
In both of those senses — this experienced team being different from the one that made a deep March run before it, and NCAA Tournament success making up for a dismal close to the pre-Madness season — we can see a reflection of Florida in Wisconsin.
Only one player remains from the Florida roster that made the Final Four in 2014, and that player — Kasey Hill, who has a 6-1 record in NCAA Tournament games — is a long distance from where he was. Hill was a freshman sensation of sorts in 2013-14, a change of pace to Scottie Wilbekin who dazzled with a 10-assist game in the Sweet Sixteen against UCLA that put him in the same breath as Magic Johnson.
Now, he’s Florida’s sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-brilliant starter, and little better than he was on offense then. Chris Chiozza is the change-of-pace point guard, and Justin Leon and Kevarrius Hayes are the undersized big men inside who play indefatigable defense to compensate for their limits on offense, and Canyon Barry is the Casey Prather figure, a scorer who can shoot rather than a shooter who can score.
But most other parallels to the Gators of 2014 are false equivalencies. KeVaughn Allen had no equal on that team, and Leon and Devin Robinson are both more like Dorian Finney-Smith than Will Yeguete. Hill drives as a blur and cannot shoot worth a lick, inverting Wilbekin’s offensive skillset, while Hayes is so much slighter than Patric Young that the comparison is hardly fair to either player.
And despite having Billy Donovan’s players, Mike White’s Florida has been a different sort of team that plays ferocious defense and compensates for offensive limitations by forcing turnovers. Those Gators could lean on Wilbekin up front and Young behind; these Gators have multiple guards ready to harass perimeter players, and liabilities in individual post defense who make up for their flaws with effort and by leaning on help.
Yet while Florida has come to this point because of that defense — larcenous against East Tennessee State and murderous against Virginia, allowing a program-record 39 points — it has become a new team in this tournament because of its offense, which has leaned on Robinson and then Leon as Allen and Barry have struggled. If all four of those scorers can be great at once, and Florida can maintain its intensity and efficacy on the defensive end, it’s hard to say there is a team that the Gators can’t beat in this tournament.
If even a couple of those players show out, and the defense remains resilient, Florida will be a tough out — even against leather-tough Wisconsin.