After the Florida Gators knocked off Virginia on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16, Kasey Hill couldn’t help but think back to three years ago.
He was a freshman, coming off the bench as the senior-laden Gators rolled through to the Final Four.
Now a senior himself -- and the only player on UF’s roster who had NCAA Tournament experience under his belt -- Hill wants to go even further in his last run as a student-athlete after failing to even make the Big Dance the last two seasons.
And the senior point guard has had no qualms saying this year’s team under second-year coach Mike White has a chance to out-do that.
The next step for the fourth-seeded Gators (26-8) is Friday night’s late matchup against eighth-seeded Wisconsin (27-9) in New York City with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line. Tipoff from Madison Square Garden is set for 9:59 p.m. following the conclusion of No. 3 Baylor’s matchup with seventh-seeded South Carolina.
“All year I've been saying that I think this team is better than that team, honestly,” Hill said. “... I think this team can go as far as we take it."
The main factor Hill points to with this year’s success is depth. The Gators have been able to roll up to nine players out during any given game and receive productive minutes out of each of them. Offensively, Florida has six active players averaging at least seven points and 20 minutes of action per game. That list doesn’t include center John Egbunu, a 6-11 post stuffer who averaged 7.8 points and 22.3 minutes before suffering a season-ending torn ACL against Auburn on Feb. 14. It also doesn’t include sophomore Kevarrius Hayes, the swift 6-9 forward/center hybrid who has logged more than 20 minutes in all but one game since Egbunu’s injury.
Defensively, White said the team has invested in being more unselfish as the season progressed. Players stopped thinking about individual goals and switched their mindset to focusing on what would benefit the team.
And it’s worked. In the past 15 games, Florida has held all but five opponents under 70 points.
“In the last three months,” White said, “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.”
And White knows Florida will need to keep improving even ahead of its matchup against Wisconsin, a veteran team that has reached the Sweet 16 each of the past four years. This time around, the Badgers made it by breezing past Virginia Tech, 84-74, in the opening round of action before upsetting defending national champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova 65-62 in a nailbiter on Saturday.
Wisconsin’s senior class, a group that includes multi-dimensional forward Nigel Hayes (13.8 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game, 98 total assists), sharpshooting guard Bronson Koenig (team-best 14.5 points per game and 100 made 3s) and lengthy big man Vitto Brown (6.8 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, 7-3 wingspan), is 13-3 overall in NCAA Tournament action and reached the title game in 2015. All three losses were by no more than five points.
“They know exactly what to expect,” White said. “They've been there. They've not only been there, but they've been there and had success there. They've gotta be extremely confident.”
Florida players are confident, too, after their opening weekend -- an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State and a 65-39 rout over Virginia to get to New York City.
And they’re ready to take another step on Friday.
“We’re winning. Everyone’s playing together. It’s a loose and free atmosphere and everyone’s focused on one goal,” junior forward Devin Robinson said. “It’s just enjoying it, you don't get that many opportunities like this in a lifetime, so just to be put in this position is a great thing.”