Fans of the Wisconsin Badgers (No. 19 USA Today, No. 20 AP) have been patiently waiting for the opportunity to see their team exact revenge from the Florida Gators (No. 10 USA Today, No. 11 AP) since Florida obliterated the Badgers 74-56 one year ago in Gainesville. Wisconsin will need to feed off the home crowd’s energy to overcome Florida — easily the more talented team — and the Kohl Center will be abuzz with fans eager to contribute to a win.
Talk of the matchup with the Gators dominated discussions of the Badgers’ non-conference schedule, which is being hailed as the toughest lineup in recent history.
The season-opening jaunt to South Dakota for a tussle with a St. John’s Red Storm team that will be a serious threat to make the NCAA Tournament is on ice. Forget about a home contest against the despised Marquette Golden Eagles. Put off thinking about dealing with the Virginia Cavaliers, St. Louis Billikens and potentially the West Virginia Mountaineers. Tonight’s game is the one that will set the tone for Wisconsin’s season.
Florida is more athletic, has a better coach, and has gone deeper in recent NCAA tournaments than any team listed above. Wisconsin players are aware that they are going to be smaller and slower than the Gators, and they should know that Billy Donovan‘s team will look to exploit the traditional weaknesses of Bo Ryan-coached teams, which are a glaring lack of out-of-bounds plays, an inability to defend set inbounds plays, the full-court press, poor screening and aggressive offensive rebounding.
While an 86-75 win over the aforementioned Red Storm was a solid start to the season, it was one that was expected against a team that has been wildly erratic in recent years. That game introduced viewers to the Badgers’ redshirt junior Duje Dukan, a 6-foot-8 forward that missed last season due to a bout with mononucleosis. His 15 points and five rebounds as a substitute were a steadying influence for a team that saw an 18-point lead whittled to just four with eight minutes remaining.
Dukan will be an integral component to Wisconsin’s success against Florida, as he will be one of the players tasked with guarding the Gators’ duo of 6-foot-8 bulldozer Will Yeguete and 6-foot-9 cement mixer Patric Young. Dukan’s teammate, 6-foot-11 junior Frank Kaminsky, failed to have a discernible impact in the interior against St. John’s, and 6-foot-7 freshman Nigel Hayes was simply in over his head.
That leaves Dukan, who weighs a mere 220 pounds, to bang down low for rebounds with the more physically imposing Gators.
In order to win this game, Wisconsin must take advantage of the new rules in college basketball this season that limit the hand contact defenders can make with ball-handlers. The new rules have led to an astronomical increase in fouls, which in turn has meant that free throw shooting will be paramount to the success of any team this season.
If Wisconsin is willing to probe the defense and attack the basket instead of passively moving the ball around the perimeter, the Badgers will force officials to penalize Florida’s hyper-aggressive defensive style. Those fouls will help Wisconsin avoid crippling droughts that prevent underdogs from unseating more talented teams like Florida.
Wisconsin was able to recover from a 2-5 performance from the line in the first half by forcing St. John’s to foul in the second half, which allowed the Badgers to make 23 out of 25 second-half freebies despite a passivity-fueled offensive approach. The Badgers will need a similar effort from the charity stripe to defeat Florida.
The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. ET as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon.