The Florida Gators basketball team gets a rare opportunity on Friday as it will take the court at Madison Square Garden for the second time in a single season.
Following Florida’s 84-74 loss to Duke in its first game at The Garden back in early December, it was a question as to whether the Gators would be a strong enough team to return to New York in March for the Sweet 16 or not.
Florida did not play a bad game there the first time, but it didn’t exactly play that well either. Duke picked Florida’s defense apart, finishing with the second-most points scored against the Gators all season long.
Three Blue Devils outscored Florida as Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson and Jayson Tatum combined for 74 points. The Gators were outrebounded 35-32 while giving up 14 second-chance points. Duke shot 52.5 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three.
The Gators return to the world’s most famous arena with a chance at redemption as the four-seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament taking on the eight-seed Wisconsin Badgers in the Sweet 16.
Florida will not be the same team it was nearly four months ago when it played Duke. Despite the loss of starting center John Egbunu, the Gators are much stronger now defensively than they were early on, and that will be the biggest difference.
“I’m not sure we emphasized defense any less than and I don’t think we’ve held our guys any more accountable,” said Mike White. “The buy-in has probably gradually continued to increase throughout the year.”
The recommitment from the players to playing defense at a high level is arguably the reason Florida is now in a position to compete for a championship.
When the team recommitted to defense following the first loss to Vanderbilt midway through the season, it was like a new team took the court. There were no more personal agendas, just a group of guys playing for each other.
Florida faced a few bumps in the road late in the season, but is now back on track and playing some of its best defense of the year. The Gators are coming off of convincing wins in the first two rounds of the tournament in which the defense shined.
The Gators outrebounded both East Tennessee State and Virginia while allowing an average of 10.5-second chance points without the presence of Egbunu. Florida flipped the script on Virginia’s defense, holding the Cavaliers to the fewest points scored against the Gators in NCAA Tournament history in a 65-39 win.
“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,” White said. “We’ve handled that with a lot more maturity. In the last three months, it’s been, ‘I’ve got you, coach. You’re right. I didn’t do that right. I know that’s my job’. It’s been really a mature group in that regard. It’s been a fun group to work with. It’s why we continue to improve, even this late in the year, on the defensive end.”
While the constantly improving defense might give Florida an advantage, White does not believe the experience in Madison Square Garden will give the Gators any advantage in the game. Wisconsin might even be more confident playing there, as it defeated Rutgers 72-52 in its previous trip to The Garden this season.
“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,” said White. “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.”
Even if it is not an advantage, it is second shot to shine at Madison Square Garden. Florida is a hungry team in general right now, but returning to New York with a chance to come out with two wins and a trip to the Final Four makes the hunger for redemption even stronger.
“I’m excited to get back in there,” said junior guard Chris Chiozza. “It was a great experience the first time, although we didn’t get the win. 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.”