On paper, you look at the Wisconsin Badgers (27-9) and two things jump out at you: size and experience. Then you look at the Florida Gators (26-8). They aren’t nearly as tall nor do the Gators have anywhere close to Wisconsin’s experience.
Wisconsin’s four seniors have been a part of 116 wins in their careers and they know what it’s like to play in the national championship game (lost to Duke, 68-63, two years ago). Wisconsin has only one player shorter than 6-3 on the entire roster and eight players are 6-8 or taller.
Kasey Hill made a Final Four when he was a freshman four years ago. Up until last weekend when the Gators stuffed East Tennessee State and Virginia to advance to tonight’s Sweet 16 matchup of the NCAA East Regional at Madison Square Garden, Hill was the only player on the UF team who had ever played in an NCAA game. The Gators aren’t a small team, but they don’t have nearly the height of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is big but the Gators have been compensating for size all season long by dictating the pace and outquicking opponents. If the Gators can force Wisconsin into an up and down game, it should work to their advantage. If they can force turnovers with their press and score some points in transition, the Gators are capable of running Wisconsin into the ground. If the Gators can force tempo and stay out of foul trouble, you like their odds of advancing to the Elite Eight game.
If there is a big concern, it has to be poise. With all the experience of the last four years, Wisconsin is likely to look at this game and think been there and done that. With the exception of Hill, who knows what it’s like to win an SEC regular season title, an SEC Tournament and make it to the Final Four, there isn’t a Gator on the roster who’s ever played in a college game of this magnitude.
Watch the first few minutes of the game. If the Gators are focused and showing no signs of jitters, their odds taking one step closer to a Final Four will get a substantial boost. If the Gators have a bad case of the shakes when the game begins, they better get over it in a hurry. You can’t count on Wisconsin getting rattled.
Five keys to a Florida win
1. Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza have to push the tempo: Wisconsin doesn’t have a lot of quickness but the Badgers compensate by controlling the tempo. For Florida to move on to the Elite Eight, Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza are going to have to accelerate and force the Badgers to play faster than they want. Virginia tried to keep the tempo under control last week in Orlando and did a good job until the final three minutes of the first half. After that, Hill and Chiozza turned the game into a track meet and Virginia couldn’t keep up.
2. Protect Kevarrius Hayes: Hayes is Florida’s last line of defense and he can’t spend any length of time on the bench. The Badgers, who go 6-10, 6-8 and 6-8 up front, are the biggest team the Gators have faced since Kentucky. UF beat Kentucky in Gainesville but that was with Hayes and Egbunu teaming up in the middle. Without Egbunu, the Gators lost to Kentucky in Lexington. Wisconsin will certainly try to pound it inside to try to get Hayes in foul trouble so Florida has to use its quickness to keep the Badgers out of the paint. This is the kind of game where Devin Robinson and Justin Leon will have to offer up some off the ball shot blocking help. If Hayes can give the Gators 30-33 minutes, UF should win this game.
3. Beat the Wolverines with quickness on the wings: Florida’s offensive strategy should be attack from the wings where KeVaughn Allen and Devin Robinson should be able to drive the ball. Allen has been in somewhat of a shooting slump so he needs to go to the rack where he’s likely to get fouled. There’s nothing like free throws to get a jump shooter untracked. Over on the other wing, Robinson should be able to get just about any shot he wants. Unless he’s really feeling it and hitting everything he throws up, he can’t afford to get enamored with the long ball. Wisconsin will have problems defending him if he puts the ball on the deck and drives.
4. Get in Bronson Koenig’s shorts and stay in them: Against Virginia Tech, Koenig was feeling it from the 3-point line. He launched 17 3-balls and nailed 8 of them. In his last seven games, Koenig is 29-61. He’s the one guy Wisconsin has that can carry the team on his back, particularly when he gets hot from the outside. He’s 6-4 and 210 so he will be able to shoot over the Florida guards. Koenig is going to take his shots. The key for the Gators is to use quickness to force him to take shots he’s not comfortable shooting.
5. Gorjok Gak and Keith Stone must contribute: Gak’s contributions in Orlando were huge. He was active on both ends of the floor and contributed 4 off the bench against East Tennessee State and followed that up with a career high 6 against Virginia. If Gak can give the Gators 7 or 8 productive minutes off the bench, Florida’s chances of a win are seriously elevated.
Prediction: The Gators will take Koenig out of his comfort zone and that will stagnate the Wisconsin offense. At the other end of the floor, Allen and Robinson will come up big and Canyon Barry will come off the bench, hit some shots and get to the foul line early and often. Florida advances to face … South Carolina. I’m calling it an all-SEC Elite Eight game.
PITCHING SHOULD DOMINATE THIS WEEKEND
Hitting might be at a real premium this weekend when 4th-ranked LSU (17-5, 3-0 SEC) comes to McKethan Stadium to face the 11th-ranked Gators with three pitching matchups that might be as good as it gets anywhere in the nation. The Gators, who are night and day different at home (12-2 home, 1-0 neutral, 1-6 on the road), will go with Alex Faedo (3-1, 2.93 ERA) Friday night, Brady Singer (2-1, 1.74 ERA) on Saturday and Jackson Kowar (3-0, 2.93 ERA) on Sunday while LSU will counter with hard throwing Alex Lange (3-1, 5.04 ERA) Friday, lefty Jared Poche (5-0, 0.25 ERA) Saturday and Eric Walker (3-0, 2.67 ERA) on Sunday.
The Gators come into the game off a 9-8 win in 11 innings over Stetson in DeLand Tuesday night. In that game the Gators pounded out 13 hits with JJ Schwarz, Deacon Liput and Mike Rivera combining for 7 hits. That’s important because all three were hovering either just above or below the Mendoza Line. Even though Stetson doesn’t have nearly the pitching staff it had last year, the fact the Gators had any kind of awakening at the plate had to be encouraging for UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Florida is hitting just .243 on the season but this is a veteran lineup and you have to figure at some point they’ll break out. Maybe the Stetson game was just the start.
The question is can they do it this weekend against that tough LSU pitching staff? Florida desperately needs to win the series after starting the SEC portion of the schedule with three losses last weekend at Auburn.
CRITICAL EARLY SEASON SERIES FOR UF SOFTBALL
Although it’s still early in the season, this weekend’s softball series between #1 Florida (27-1, 5-0 SEC) and #6 Auburn (27-3, 2-1 SEC) could have long range implications in the SEC race. The Gators haven’t lost since February 18 and come into the game riding a 19-game winning streak with six shutouts in their last seven games.
The Gators come into the game leading the nation in ERA (0.54) and fielding (.991). The Gators have pitched18 shutouts in 27 games and have committed only 6 errors. At the plate, the Gators are hitting .328, led by All-American Kayli Kvistad, who’s hitting .435 and has an on base percentage of .654. Kvistad has 27 hits this season but she’s been walked 38 times and hit by a pitch another three.
Auburn, which made it to the NCAA championship series last year in Oklahoma City, dropped an SEC game to LSU in its first series of the season. The Tigers have won their last six games.
The 3-game series begins Saturday evening with Florida expected to send lefty Delanie Gourley (11-1, 0.82 ERA) against Auburn’s Kaylee Carlson (15-0, 0.93 ERA).
Other UF sports:
The Gators remained #1 in the ITA Women’s Tennis poll despite losing at home last week to Georgia. The Gators are on the road this weekend at #18 Arkansas today and at Missouri on Saturday … Florida’s 3rd-ranked lacrosse team (7-1, 1-0 Big East) will host #13 Denver (7-1, 1-0 Big East) Saturday in a battle for the top spot in the Big East Conference standings … The Gators are third at the NCAA Men’s Swimming Championships which will run through Saturday in Indianapolis.
Through the first two games Thursday night, we still didn’t have a single buzzer beater or overtime game in this year’s NCAA Tournament but Oregon’s 69-68 win over Michigan in the Midwest and Gonzaga’s 61-58 win over West Virginia in the West were perhaps the two most exciting games of the entire tournament to date.
Two days after he was hired by UMass, Pat Kelsey is back in his old job at Winthrop. Just 30 minutes before his official welcome press conference at UMass, Kelsey asked for a release from his contract. Shortly thereafter, Winthrop announced that Kelsey will return to the job he held the previous five years, where he is 102-59.
Georgetown is looking for a new coach after firing John Thompson III on Thursday. Thompson was 278-151 in 13 years but 15-18 and 14-18 in the last two seasons.
Per documents obtained by ESPN.com, the NCAA isn’t backing down from allegations that Louisville coach Rick Pitino failed to monitor a former assistant who arranged adult entertainment and sex for recruits. The failure to monitor charges are Level I and will likely result in a multi-game suspension for Pitino next season. Failure to monitor charges against Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and SMU’s Larry Brown resulted in 9-game suspensions.
Washington granted a release to Larry Porter Jr., one of the top prospects in the country. It is anticipated that Porter’s dad will become an assistant for Cuonzo Martin at Missouri and that Larry Jr. will sign with the Tigers. It’s also thought that younger brother Jontay, will graduate early from high school and join father and brother at Mizzou. Asking for his release from Washington is 6-8 forward Noah Dickerson, who averaged 12.5 points and averaged 8.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Dickerson is from Atlanta and there is a very good chance that he will land at Georgia if he’s granted his release.
Mark Sanchez is living proof you don’t have to be a very good quarterback to stick around a long time and collect an NFL paycheck. The Chicago Bears signed him as a backup. If the Bears want fans to think highly of departed Jay Cutler, all they need to do is put Sanchez in the game. He’ll make the Bear fans dream of the days when Cutler was throwing interceptions.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Colin Kaepernick is still an unsigned free agent even though a lot of teams have quarterback issues. Is the problem the price tag or the baggage that Kaepernick brings? Or is he simply way overrated and NFL owners think there are better options?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
On the recent (early February) Keeping the Blues Alive (KTBA) Cruise, Joe Bonamassa performed a full show dedicated to the music of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Today’s music is the full show of that concert.