When it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament over the past four seasons, no team has been more consistent than the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are the only team in the NCAA to have made four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, plus Wisconsin has won 13 tournament games during that time, which is also the best mark in the NCAA.
During that time period, the Badgers have been in the Final Four twice and the NCAA title game once.
When the 27-9 Badgers take on the 26-8 Florida Gators at Madison Square Garden in their Sweet 16 matchup, the Wisconsin will have a huge edge in terms of NCAA tournament experience.
Going into this tournament, only one player (senior guard Kasey Hill) for the Gators had put in some playing time in games during the Big Dance. Hill played in five games on the Florida team that reached the Final Four in 2014 before losing to Connecticut.
Compare that to just the seniors on the Badgers. Before the 2017 tourney started, guard Bronson Koenig had played in 16 tournament games and started 11. The same numbers held true for forward Nigel Hayes.
Zak Showalter played in 13 tournament games and started five. Vitto Brown had played in 11 games and also started five.
In the two games in this tournament, all of the seniors have played a big role for the Badgers, but especially Koenig and Hayes.
Koenig has been like an assassin draining key three-point shots (11-23), as he has scored 45 points in the victories over Virginia Tech and Villanova.
While most of Koenig’s points come from the outside, Hayes likes to take the ball inside and create three-point opportunities by getting to the foul line after making a shot. Hayes has scored 35 points in the two Badger wins in the tourney so far, which included the game-winner against Villanova, when he made a nifty reverse-layup via his left hand.
All in all, Koenig and Hayes have played in 16 NCAA Tournament games apiece and Wisconsin is 13-3 in those games.
Koenig has scored 159 points in four years of tournament play, which includes draining 31 three-point attempts.
Meanwhile, Hayes has chipped in 166 points in that time, plus has gotten to the free throw line 61 times, where has has made 41 of those charity stripe shots (67%).
Still, the game against the Gators should be like the first two games in the tournament were for the Badgers. A close game which will come down to making clutch plays in the end.
Both teams play very good defense. The Badgers were ranked 11th in the country (first in the Big Ten) in defense during the season, as they only allowed 61.8 points per game.
The Gators meanwhile, were ranked 37th in the country (third in the SEC), as they allowed 65.7 points per game.
Florida was magnificent on the defensive end in the their second-round victory over Virginia, as they only allowed the Cavaliers 39 points in that game.
Both teams like to shoot the three, as the Gators made 263-of-728 (36.1) in the regular season, while the Badgers made 276-of-772 (35.8).
So far in the two games in the tournament, the Gators have attempted 43 shots from three-point range, hitting 15 (34.9), while the Badgers have made 19-of-49 (38.8).
Besides the seniors, the player to watch on the Badgers is center Ethan Happ, a redshirt sophomore. Last year, Happ was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. This year, Happ was named first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American by The Sporting News.
In the regular season, Happ averaged 13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game, 2.8 assists per game and 1.2 blocks per game.
In the two games in the tournament thus far, Happ has 22 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, had five assists and also five blocked shots.
The real good news for Happ is the way he is shooting free throws much better as of late. In the last four games, Happ has made 12-of-19 free throws (63%). That’s much better than the 49.4 mark he had in the regular season.
In terms of the Gators, they may not have a lot of NCAA tournament experience, but they have some very talented players.
Their leading scorer in the regular season was guard Kevaughn Allen, who averaged 13.4 points per game. But in the two games of the tournament, Allen has hit just 1 of 13 three-pointers and 3 of 21 shots overall. But the Gators still won both games.
Why? Mostly defense. Hill (9.7 points per game), the only tournament-experienced Gator coming into this year’s Big Dance, plus junior guard Chris Chiozza (7.1 points per game), are the two defensive stalwarts in the backcourt.
The Gators can also get some points from both guard Canyon Barry (11.8) and forward Devin Robinson (11.4). Robinson also averaged 6.3 rebounds per game.
Robinson has had a great postseason thus far, as he has 38 points in two games, plus has hauled in 16 boards as well.
The Gators caught a bad break back in February, when center John Egbunu suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Up until that point, Egbunu had six double-figure rebound games and was averaging 7.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
That injury will hurt the Gators versus the Badgers. Wisconsin loves to shoot the three, but unlike Virginia, the Badgers can pound teams with their inside game as well. Against Villanova, Hayes and Happ combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds and hit 13 of 23 shots.
Both coaches are in their second seasons with their respective teams. Mike White has a 47-23 record over that period for the Gators, while Greg Gard of the Badgers has a 42-17 record. White has won his only two postseason games thus far, while Gard has a 4-1 record in the tournament.
In terms of the game between the Badgers and the Gators, expect another close contest on Friday night at the Garden. The winner of this game will have a real opportunity to move on to the Final Four with a victory.
In a game like this, you have to give the edge to the team with a big advantage in tournament experience and who also have players (Koenig and Hayes) who have been clutch at crunch time in the tournament.
Bottom line, I see the Badgers moving on to the Elite 8 in a hard-fought victory over the Gators.