On a rainy December night, Florida players and coaches left Madison Square Garden following an 84-74 loss to perennial powerhouse Duke that exposed some weaknesses.
The Gators were competitive, though. So there was the thought that if Florida could shore up some issues on the backboards and challenge shots better, it could return to the same building in New York in March for the Sweet 16.
Fast-forward four months and fourth-seed Florida enters its East Region Sweet 16 matchup at Madison Square Garden on Friday night with eighth-seed Wisconsin as a more complete team. The reason? Florida is playing at a higher level defensively. The Gators are coming off a 65-39 win over fifth-seed Virginia in the Round of 32, giving up the fewest points in an NCAA Tournament game in school history.
"This has been a group that really, since that point, has played for each other defensively and on the glass and has bought into being held accountable, too," UF coach Mike White said. "We've handled that with a lot more maturity ... it's why we continue to improve, even this late in the year, on the defensive end."
In the Duke loss on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic, Florida was outrebounded 35-32, gave up 14 second-chance points, and allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 52.5 percent from the field and 41.2 percent (7-17) from 3-point range. Duke guard Luke Kennard had the hot hand, scoring 29 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. Florida was late on some defensive rotations and unable to pick up Kennard on the perimeter.
"We had some live ball turnovers and the press exposed us a little bit in that game," White said. "I'm not sure we emphasized defense any less then and I don't think we've held our guys any more accountable. The buy-in has probably gradually continued to increase throughout the year."
Even with the loss of leading rebounder and starting center John Egbunu for the year with a torn ACL, Florida has been able to hold its own on the backboards in NCAA Tournament play. The Gators outrebounded 13th-seed East Tennessee State 38-32 and Virginia 29-23. In the two wins, the Gators are allowing an average of 10.5 second-chance points.
Junior forward Devin Robinson has stepped up on the boards in Egbunu's absence, finishing with 24 points and seven rebounds against ETSU and posting a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) against Virginia.
"Of course, John is not there to take some of my rebounds," Robinson said. "Just being more aggressive and I know that, I gotta do it. Somebody has to do it and I just took the initiative."
White said he doesn't see any advantage of returning to play in Madison Square Garden a second time after playing in the same building earlier in the season. Wisconsin also played in Madison Square Garden in December, beating Rutgers 72-52 on Dec. 27 in a Big Ten game.
"If we had won up there and played really well against Duke and hit a bunch of shots, it might be an advantage for us," White said. "But the fact that we came out on the short end, I don't think gives us any advantage having played up there a few months ago at all."
There could have been a rematch with Duke, but the East Region second-seeded Blue Devils were upset by seventh-seed South Carolina 88-81 in the Round of 32. As a result, White won't have another reunion with his father, Kevin White, who is the athletic director at Duke. Florida and South Carolina could meet for the third time this season if the Gators win and the Gamecocks continue their run with a win over No. 3 seed Baylor in New York City.
"Huge win for South Carolina," White said. "Happy for [South Carolina coach] Frank [Martin]. Obviously disappointed for the Dukies. I watched it with my mom the other night. She was screaming at the television. You know, again, great for the league, but as far as the rest of the bracket, we're happy to be in the Sweet 16 and we know we need to play really, really well against Wisconsin to have a chance"
For now, White is trying to concoct a plan to limit Wisconsin's inside scoring, while staying honest on Wisconsin senior guard Bronson Koenig on the perimeter. Koenig scored 17 points, senior 6-foot-8 forward Nigel Hayes scored 19 points and sophomore 6-10 center Ethan Happ scored 12 points in Wisconsin's 65-62 upset of top-seed Villanova last Saturday.
Florida junior point guard Chris Chiozza said he's looking forward to another trip to New York City and a second game at The Garden with higher stakes.
"It was a great experience the first time, although we didn't get the win," Chiozza said. "Hopefully it will change this time. The atmosphere there, just being in Madison Square Garden, it's going to give you a little bit more energy.
"It's going to be great to be in there again. A lot of people don't get the opportunity to play in there once. You get to do that twice in the same year. It's a great experience and we're in the Sweet 16 so it's even better."
This article is written by Kevin Brockway from Gainesville Sun and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.