By JIM O’CONNELL
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The folks at Madison Square Garden were drooling at the thought of a Duke-Villanova regional final. Two schools that consider the Garden a home away from home in a No. 1 seed vs. No. 2 seed dream matchup that would make MSG the place to be this weekend.
Instead, there are four football schools fighting for a berth in basketball’s Final Four.
Tonight, eighth-seeded Wisconsin plays fourth-seeded Florida, while third-seeded Baylor meets seventh-seeded South Carolina.
No team left in the NCAA Tournament is as used to being in the Sweet 16 as Wisconsin. The Badgers are in their fourth straight regional semifinal, a feat no other team can claim. They have also been in the round 16 six of the last seven years.
Florida is making its fifth straight Sweet 16 appearance, but it’s over a seven-year span. Baylor is making its fourth regional semifinal appearance since 2010.
South Carolina? The Gamecocks won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1973. Last year, South Carolina was mistakenly told on Selection Sunday that it was in the field.
“Privately, in my own home with my wife, when I spoke to my mom, when I spoke to guys that raised me, I let them know, ‘This ain’t right, these kids deserve to be there,’” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Thursday. “But being around guys like [Sindarius] Thornwell allowed me to understand, I got a responsibility here to get them in for the next opportunity. It’s here and it’s been an unbelievable ride. I’m happy they’re experiencing it right now.”
The Gamecocks came into the NCAA Tournament having lost two straight and five of seven. Now they’re on a roll that includes wins over Marquette and Duke.
“It means a lot. For us, for our first time and our last time playing at the university means a lot, because when we came in our ultimate goal was to make it to the tournament,” said Thornwell, the Southeastern Conference player of the year. “We didn’t get that chance our first three years and for us to get this opportunity this year heading out is a blessing for us, and it’s good for the basketball program, and also for us to still be playing and make it to the tournament. Making a run is huge for everybody.”
Wisconsin, which many felt was underseeded as a No. 8, comes in having just beaten the overall No. 1 seed, Villanova.
“They had a great year. We never talked about in preparation for Villanova about playing the defending national champions,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “We just talked about playing a really good team and that we were going to have to play really well in order to have a chance in that game.”
And now the Badgers are back in the Sweet 16.
“You have to be playing some of your best basketball late,” Gard said of the four-year run. “I think having upperclassmen, as our program has predominantly been in that position where we’ve relied on upperclassmen leadership. Sometimes you have star power and upperclassmen leadership. Sometimes it’s just matter of guys who’ve had experience. You draw on that and you have to play well. You can’t afford an 8- or 10-minute stretch of inconsistent basketball and I think our guys have handled that the right way.”
Some things to consider about the East Regional:
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: South Carolina played at Madison Square Garden this season and the Gamecocks have to hope the result is different Friday. They lost 67-66 to Seton Hall on Dec. 12. It was South Carolina’s first loss of the season and started the Gamecocks on a stretch when they lost three of five.
“Definitely I think it’s good for us that we have played in this arena before,” South Carolina’s PJ Dozier said. “I think that it works in our favor. But first game, second game, third game, I feel like you’re always going to be kind of nervous playing here, just due to the history of basketball in this arena.”
JOHN WHO?: Florida lost starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL on Feb. 14. Egbunu was averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds and was becoming a real force in the middle for the Gators. Sophomore Kevarrius Hayes was called on to replace Egbunu and since he moved into the starting lineup he has averaged 5.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the SEC’s leading shot blockers.
BAYLOR’S BENCH: During the season Baylor’s bench accounted for 20.2 points per game. That number has shot up to 33.5 points in the two NCAA Tournament games.
EXTRA TIME: Wisconsin has won eight straight overtime games and only one of them has been at home.