I really can't remember a time when Wisconsin has had such a big basketball game this early in the season. Connecticut in the 2008 Paradise Jam (game #5) is probably the closest. As the Badgers travel to Gainesville, Fla., today, they prepare to face the extremely talented No. 10 Florida Gators tomorrow night in just their second game of the season.
It's a shame this game comes during football season, because it deserves more attention. No one knows the large shadow cast by football better than Florida blogger Andy Hutchins, managing editor at the fantastic Alligator Army site at SB Nation. Andy graciously agreed to be interrogated by yours truly.
B5Q: Describe what it was like to watch essentially 20 minutes of high-level exhibition action Friday against Georgetown in the Navy-Marine Corps Classic. Were you just crossing your fingers that nobody got hurt on the slick court?
Andy: It went from the coolest thing ever (walking up to, then on to the boat was cool; getting platform lifted from one deck to another was cooler; seeing the Gators run by just as I was getting to where the stands were was cooler still; watching Florida play uninspired ball was ... not as cool) to a cool thing with an unsatisfying resolution. I think Florida was better than Georgetown, and was going to pull away, and the slickness of the court really wasn't an issue until right around halftime; certainly, no one in the stands thought it was going to scuttle the game until it did. I'm glad I went (I got tickets through Florida's really awesome UAA and a really, really awesome friend), and I'd go to another one in Jacksonville if the organizers who vowed to make it happen next year put the Gators on a boat again.
B5Q: Wisconsin has been snakebitten by injuries early on, and Florida is no stranger to unexpected absences this season either. Will point guard Scottie Wilbekin (suspension) or wing Casey Prather (concussion) play Wednesday? If not, what's the toll and how do the Gators compensate?
Andy: Wilbekin won't. His suspension was briefly called a four-game suspension on the team's official website before being amended to indefinite. Prather probably won't either, because we haven't heard anything about his readiness since before Georgetown and he didn't play against Alabama State. Without Wilbekin, Florida will use Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Braxton Ogbueze at the point, and probably will look to slash a bit more than it would with the steadier hand Wilbekin provides at the point ... but the Gators might be more explosive as a result. Prather's a question mark even if healthy, so his minutes going to Will Yeguete, as is likely, might be good for the Gators.
B5Q: Are fans in Florida anticipating this matchup like the big game that it is? What will the atmosphere be like at the O'Connell Center? Does anyone pay attention to hoops with football still going strong?
Andy: I think they are, but there was not nearly the amount of excitement for the Georgetown game that I expected, given the original burst of interest that accompanied the announcement earlier this year. There was a good crowd in the O'Dome on Sunday, with maybe 7,000 people turning out for a home opener against a bad team, and I'd expect five digits for the Badgers, but the priority in Gainesville is football until football is done, and only the occasional huge home hoops game (Ohio State two seasons ago and during the 2006-07 season) packs the arena before the holidays. I hope fans realize that Wisconsin is that huge home hoops game this year.
B5Q: What's your take on Florida's 6'9", 250-lb junior forward Patric Young? Will he always be more of an imposing figure than dominant basketball player? It seems like his talent has brought only maddening inconsistency, so what's the missing piece with him?
Andy: I think Pat will go as far as his mind and legs take him. He's certainly the best athlete on this Florida team, and has one of the strongest upper bodies in college basketball, but I wonder about his conditioning and mindset. He really needs to be bigger down low, both in a physical sense and in his play, and he could do that this year, but he could also check out if Boynton takes over this team and destroys the non-conference schedule like he did last season. Pat always seems to do better when he's fed early and often; I hope Billy D reminds his guards of that early and often, too.
B5Q: In my opinion, not much can be learned from Wisconsin and Florida tuning up with equally impressive blowout wins Sunday. But breakdown briefly where you seeing Florida having an advantage and where Wisconsin might have an edge?
Andy: Florida's got an advantage in the backcourt, especially with Josh Gasser out, but I think things might be even in the frontcourt. If whoever Young is matched up on can pull him away from the basket, good things could happen for Wisconsin.
B5Q: Expectations are high in Gainesville this season, with a Top 10 preseason rank. Billy Donovan brought in a good recruiting class this year and is bringing in a pair of potential one-and-doners for next fall. So what are Florida fans more excited for: this season in particular or just the general return of a Gator hoops juggernaut in the next few seasons?
Andy: I think fans are more excited for 2013 (when Kasey Hill and Chris Walker and maybe one or two other studs come to Gainesville and Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris are eligible) than this season, because I see and hear more talk about that, and I'm fine with it.
But Florida fans are always good at looking ahead, and the lesson of football in 2009, not taken to heart like it should have been, is that savoring what you have in the moment is worth doing, too: I'd put Boynton, Young, and Erik Murphy up with pretty much any trio of upperclassmen in the country, and they've all suffered painful Elite Eight failures in the last two years. College basketball as a whole appears to be down a bit in 2012, too, so there's no reason Florida couldn't be one of the Final Four teams if things break right. Florida fans should be looking ahead to 2013 -- but to March.
(Note: Andy is right -- Florida hit the absolute jackpot in the transfer market this summer. Finney-Smith and Harris are legit.)
B5Q: Hop in the DeLorean for a second, back to April 1, 2000: Michigan State beat Wisconsin for the season's fourth time in a dreadfully low-scoring Final Four matchup. Meanwhile, Florida beat Duke early, then North Carolina in the Final Four before falling to the Spartans in the National Championship game. But after befuddling NBA talent-laden teams from Arizona and LSU in that tournament, some Badgers fans can't help but wonder what might have been if UW could have just gotten past Michigan State. Go on and burst our bubble -- if Wisconsin had somehow finally solved Michigan State, tell us why the Gators would have been celebrating the title that weekend instead of the Badgers? Could Florida really have cracked Dick Bennett's pack-line defense? (As an aside, I attended the Final Four that year -- major kudos to your school's dance team talent, which we ran into outside the stadium one night.)
Andy: I'm gonna make you feel old here, but: I had turned 10 two weeks before that Final Four, and was gripped throughout that Tournament, and I really, really wanted Wisconsin to get past Michigan State. Florida had done the beating blue-bloods thing already, and I thought the Gators would be able to shoot their way past Wisconsin. Instead, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson kept the Spartans just beyond those Gators' grasp, as my dad informed me the morning after that game, which I missed in part because I had to go to sleep with school at Hans Christian Andersen Elementary the next day.
Also: I believe Erin Andrews was a Dazzler (that's what we call the dance team) that year, so, uh, you're welcome? They are attractive and athletic women, and the prevalence of little kids at basketball games always makes their high-energy halftime performances a little awkward.
B5Q: Thank you Florida. And thank you Andy for maybe me feel just a tad bit old at this moment. Finally, care to make a prediction?
Andy: Florida, close. 75-71?
Thanks again to Andy for hopping on board to preview this huge game. You can find Andy over at Alligator Army on the SB Nation network and on Twitter @AndyHutchins. Those of you who are born-and-bred Wisconsin (ie: Packers) fans will enjoy his avatar.
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