After upsetting the top team in the Tournament, the Badgers are riding high.
Wisconsin has been an underdog this entire year, as exemplified by their low seeding, but that hasn’t stopped the Badgers from reaching their fourth straight Sweet 16.
Florida, on the other hand, hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2014 after four consecutive trips to the Elite 8. The Gators have been overshadowed by Kentucky’s success for the past few years, and were just as much of an underdog to reach the Sweet 16 this year as Wisconsin was.
The Badgers have clearly been executing down the stretch, but here are ten keys for Wisconsin to take down the Gators:
1. Stay out of foul trouble.
As much fun as it was to see Bronson Koenig emerge from the bench and knock down a few clutch shots against Villanova, the Badgers were forced to play around nine minutes in the second half against the best team in the country without their senior point guard because he picked up his fourth foul on a reckless drive to the basket. Ethan Happ also missed out on big minutes in the first half with two fouls, and he finished with four in the game. Foul trouble is nothing new for the Badgers, as Zak Showalter fouled out in their previous game against Virginia Tech, and Happ added four fouls of his own. Ethan Happ has only averaged 25 minutes per game in the tournament, which needs to change if the Badgers want to stay alive.
2. Make free throws.
The Badgers rank 332nd in the NCAA in free throw percentage, shooting just 64.3 percent on the season. This is unusual for a Wisconsin program which used to pride itself on being near the top of the NCAA in the same category, and now has two of its best players, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, shooting under 60 percent on the year. Wisconsin went just 7/16 from the line against Villanova, meaning they missed out on nine easy points that could have changed the game. While the Gators may not shoot free throws as well as Villanova, they still shoot 72.6 percent, meaning they are much better of from the line than the Badgers. Free points come in handy in close games, and could make the difference in crunch time.
3. Feed Ethan Happ.
The Badgers’ best all-around player needs to step up his game against Florida, who is without their 6’11” big man John Egbunu, whose season was ended in February with a knee injury. While Devin Robinson and Justin Leon have played solid basketball as of late, the Gators still miss their top rebounder and shot blocker. Robinson and Leon are both just 6’8″, and will struggle to guard Happ one-on-one. Happ is averaging just 11 points per game so far in the Tournament, but will have a great opportunity next game to prove his worth. Even if he may get double-teamed when he gets the ball, Happ is as good enough passer to find the open man, so getting him the ball is a necessity.
4. Limit turnovers.
Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers were constantly given praise for their ability to limit turnovers, as they were consistently near the top in the league in doing so. Wisconsin still ranks 26th in the NCAA, turning the ball over just 11 times per game, but against Villanova they struggled to hang onto the ball in significant moments. 14 turnovers is too many for a fundamentally sound Badger team. Florida plays scrappy defense and has averaged forcing 14 turnovers per game in the tournament so far. If Wisconsin can keep their turnovers to within single digits, they will give themselves a huge advantage against the Gators.
5. Score from the inside-out.
The aforementioned necessity of Ethan Happ to be a factor is obvious, but the Badgers need players like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig to contribute by driving and making plays in the paint, rather than relying on the three ball. Florida is arguably the top defensive team remaining in the tournament after they held Virginia to just 39 points last game. Virginia tried to simply out-shoot the Gators with a smaller lineup, but connected on just one of 15 threes taken. The Badgers have been prone to relying on the three point line, but that could lead to their demise if Florida continues to lock down defensively. By getting penetration or post looks, the Badgers can look to exploit size matchups, and also kick out for open threes, rather than isolating players and hoisting up difficult shots.
6. Slow down Devin Robinson.
Florida doesn’t have a single player that averages over 13.5 points per game (the Badgers have three). This is partially due to the depth of the Gators, as eight of their players score over six points per game. It’s also because Florida’s best players are not consistently dominant scorers. KeVaughn Allen is their most noteworthy player, but he has been quiet so far this Tournament, shooting just 1/11 from the field in their first game and 2/10 against Virginia. Devin Robinson, on the other hand, who averages 11.4 points per game on the season, has been the Gators’ most reliable player. He carried them in their matchup against East Tennessee State, scoring 24 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Robinson went on to score fourteen points against Virginia, which tied for a team high, and also recorded a double-double with 11 rebounds. Robinson is a versatile 6’8″ forward that can play any spot on the court due to his athletic ability, his length, and his shooting touch. If Florida’s guards continue to struggle to shoot, Robinson could be the driving force for the Gators once again.
7. Don’t count out KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry.
While Allen was First Team All-Conference and Barry was the Sixth Man of the Year in the SEC, these accolades have meant little to nothing so far in the NCAA Tournament. Neither player scored in double figures in either of their two games. While it would be ideal if both of these players would continue to struggle to shoot the ball, the odds are that one of the two will find their stroke. Allen has been a streaky player all season, as he has followed up a game where he scored one point by scoring 29 the next game. He lives and dies by the three ball, as he shoots over five of them per game. In a similar fashion, Barry comes off the bench and hoists up 3.7 threes per game, but hasn’t scored more than 20 points in a game in over a month. Keep an eye out for his under handed free throw form, which has been extremely effective all year. If either of these two guards can get out of their shooting slump, this Gator team could be very dangerous.
8. Bench scoring would be helpful.
Outside of Khalil Iverson’s eleven point performance against Virginia Tech, the Badgers’ bench has been unable to contribute in the tournament. Against Villanova, Wisconsin’s bench scored just three points the entire game, and the top bench player and (likely) future starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice played a very limited factor in the game. In fact, he has only scored six points in the last two games, shooting just 2/9 from the field. Wisconsin needs him to be a factor off the bench, especially if Koenig were to get in foul trouble again.
9. Nigel Hayes’ consistent play and leadership need to continue.
Despite all the foul trouble issues the Badgers have had over the last two games, Nigel Hayes has been the most consistent player on the court due to his ability to stay on the court. He has led the Badgers in minutes in tournament play, as he played all but one minute against Villanova. While he may be 0/2 from the three point line in the last two games, the Badgers don’t need him to be setting up shop outside the arc. Against Virginia Tech, it was his consistency from the free throw line that helped out the Badgers, as he went 8/9, while his defense and play near the rim won the game for Wisconsin against Villanova. At times last game, Hayes was leading the team without Happ or Koenig on the court, and was able to keep the Badgers within reach. Wisconsin has missed out on this sort of play from Hayes all season, as he was projected to be an All-American this year, and he failed to even make the Big Ten All-Conference team. If Hayes can continue this consistency, the Badgers have a good chance against a stingy Gators team.
10. Bronson Koenig needs to continue to hit clutch shots.
Arguably the most clutch player in the league after his buzzer-beating shot in the tournament last year, Koenig had an up-and-down season on his standards. But come tournament time, the Wisconsin point guard has only been trending up. Against Virginia Tech, he broke the school record by hitting eight threes. Even more impressive were his two clutch three pointers in the last three and a half minutes of the game against Villanova. While he hopefully won’t have to be in the situation of taking a last second shot to win the game, the Badgers need him to make shots down the stretch, especially against a Florida team that just sucked the life out of Virginia. It would be surprising if the game turns out to be a shootout, as both teams play tough defense, so the Badgers will need Koenig to hit shots when no one else can.