Last Updated: 2017-03-20
A tournament at Madison Square Garden without Villanova was thought to be a long shot, but the Wildcats were bounced by the underseeded Wisconsin Badgers this past weekend. The Florida Gators were a trendy pick to get upset on the first round by East Tennessee State, but they rolled past the Buccaneers and dominated the Virginia Cavaliers. Two blue-blood programs now meet in the Sweet 16 on Friday with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line. Oddsmakers have installed the Gators as a 1.5-point favorite early in the week.
Wisconsin now sits at 27-9 on the season and 17-16 against the spread. The Big Ten was laughed at for being a weak conference during the season, as everybody seemed to beat everybody, but Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan are all among the last 16 teams left standing. The Badgers struggled late in the regular season and lost five of their last seven games, but put it together for a pretty impressive blowout win over Minnesota and a run to the Big Ten Conference Tournament final before losing to Michigan. Their prize for that late-season Jekyll and Hyde act was a #8 seed. Now, they’re laughing at everybody else.
The Florida Gators didn’t get much press heading into the NCAA Tournament. Coming out of the lowly SEC had something to do with it, but the Gators have locked it down defensively in their first two games to advance to the second weekend. Florida is now 26-8 straight up and 19-13 against the spread after knocking off Virginia. It will be interesting to see how Florida adjusts to Madison Square Garden after having a Gator-heavy crowd in Orlando with the short trek from Gainesville. Florida’s disappearing act in the SEC Conference Tournament hasn’t affected them one bit in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators, unlike the Badgers, were one-and-done in their league tournament with a 72-62 overtime loss to Vanderbilt.
Wisconsin’s basketball success in the 2000s has been extremely impressive. The Badgers don’t have a title to show for it, but this is the 10th Sweet 16 experience since Y2K for Wisconsin. They were the national runner-up in 2015 and have three Final Four appearances. Bo Ryan never intentionally put Greg Gard in his shadow, but it just sort of worked out that way because the two had worked side-by-side for a long time. Now, Gard is writing his own legacy. Ryan stepped aside nine games into the season last year and Gard went 15-8 with the Badgers. They were bounced in the Sweet 16 by Notre Dame in a 61-56 game. With two wins this year, the Badgers are now 13-3 in their last four NCAA Tournament appearances. The Selection Committee certainly didn’t do Villanova any favors, but the Badgers still had to step up and win the game and that’s precisely what they did.
Veteran leadership means a lot this time of year. It’s rarely enough to overshadow talent, but having guys that aren’t going to be overcome by the moment is a really nice luxury, especially for a relatively inexperienced coach in Gard. Having senior leaders that also have a lot of talent is a godsend. The Badgers relied on all of it against the Wildcats. Nigel Hayes had 19 points and eight rebounds. Bronson Koenig was limited to 27 minutes of action with foul trouble, but he had 17 points. Vitto Brown added 10 points. Sophomore Ethan Happ had 12 points and eight boards. Wisconsin got 62 of its 65 points from the five starters. It felt like the Badgers needed to move the ball around and get some more easy looks after settling for 31 three-point attempts against Virginia Tech. That happened, as Wisconsin only attempted 18 three-pointers. The Badgers were 20-of-31 inside the arc and pulled down 12 offensive rebounds. It felt like their recipe for success against the Hokies was unsustainable. They didn’t have to find out against Villanova.
Another second-year coach gets a crack at the Sweet 16 on the other sideline. Mike White is making his first appearance there in what is his first taste of the NCAA Tournament. White was a terrific hire to replace Billy Donovan when he jumped to the NBA. White had been with Louisiana Tech and had taken the Bulldogs to three straight NIT berths. The Gators went to the NIT in the first year under White, but here they are having success in the NCAA Tournament. Florida actually missed the NCAA Tournament in both 2015 and 2016, so this is a nice breath of fresh air. In terms of years with NCAA Tournament berths, Florida has made it at least this far in each of its last five appearances. The Gators have made the Elite Eight in each of their last four NCAA Tournament appearances. That doesn’t carry predictive value here, with different personnel and a different coach, but it does show just how strong this program has been this decade.
Last weekend, Florida “out-Virginia’d” the Cavaliers. Virginia is known for its defense, but the Gators held the Cavaliers to 16-of-54 from the field and 1-of-15 from deep. Florida never really wavered, much like the previous game against ETSU, with a 14-point lead at the intermission and a 26-point win when it was all said and done. Once again, Florida advanced without a big game from Canyon Barry or KeVaughn Allen. The two leading scorers for the Gators have been ice cold in the tournament. Allen was 2-of-10 from the floor and Barry only had seven points after a 1-of-11 performance against ETSU in the opening round game. Devin Robinson and Justin Leon each had 14 in the win. If Florida keeps playing defense like this, the Gators won’t need much more than 60 points to advance. Even though Barry and Allen were just 3-of-14, the rest of the team was 20-of-36 from the floor. Scoring depth certainly helps at this time of the year.
College Basketball Free Pick: Wisconsin Badgers +1.5
The Badgers will get a taste of Madison Square Garden, which is the host for next year’s Big Ten Conference Tournament. At some point, Florida is going to need a big game from its two top scorers. Wisconsin is already getting big games from its most important pieces and the Badgers are more than capable of stacking up defensively with Florida. Wisconsin has a great chance to move to the Elite Eight here and to catch them at this number is a pretty good play. Both teams can adjust and match up and Gard has been tutored by one of the best throughout his career, so that should create a bit of a coaching edge for the lower seed.