Sweet 16 preview: Southeast’s top players, champ

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The details: The East Region might be “tougher,” but the Southeast features four teams with legitimate shots to reach the Final Four, which makes it the most entertaining of the bunch. Both Sweet 16 matchups figure to be entertaining and close, while the regional final has compelling storylines no matter what teams are involved. Can Butler get to another Final Four? Will Bo Ryan reach his first? Is Florida back to elite status? And how far can Jimmer carry BYU? Everything’s gold. Plus, the basketball will be good, too.

Thursday’s matchups

No. 2 Florida (28-7) vs. No. 3 BYU (32-4)
Time: 7:27 p.m. ET on TBS

No. 4 Wisconsin (25-8) vs. No. 9 Butler (25-9)
Time: 9:57 p.m. ET on TBS

Team to beat: Wisconsin

The Badgers aren’t the top seed remaining, but that’s a detail I’m willing to overlook. They have the region’s top offense, an underrated defense and two players capable of taking over a game in guard Jordan Taylor and forward Jon Leuer. They’ve ditched the lingering taste of scoring just 33 points in a Big Ten tournament loss to dispatch the Big Dance’s most underseeded team (Belmont) and a Kansas State squad that harassed Taylor into one of his worst shooting performances. They also get the benefit of playing the region’s lowest seed remaining in Butler … though that’s not always a good thing.

Team with nothing to lose: Butler

The Bulldogs are playing with house money. They’re in the Sweet 16 a year after an improbable run to the title game, and did it with two last-second wins, one of which came against the region’s top seed. Anything after this is gravy. That doesn’t mean Butler’s going out quietly, though. Brad Stevens’ teams don’t do that in March.  

Players to watch

Kenny Boynton, Florida: The 6-1 guard sprained his left ankle against UCLA, but will start and is expected to guard BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. How Boynton fares on the nation’s leading scorer is – by far – the most crucial aspect to the Gators’ chances. It’s impossible to stop Fredette. But if Boynton can make him work for shots and keep him off the free-throw line, Florida’s in good shape.

Jimmer Fredette, BYU: He’s averaging nearly 35 points a game since center Brandon Davies was dismissed and burned the Gators for 37 in last year’s NCAA tournament win. How he adjusts to Florida’s defense pressure and switches – shoot or pass? – dictates BYU’s offensive flow. The more attention he commands, the better it is for the Cougars.

Shelvin Mack: The streak shooter was on vs. Pitt (30 points on 16 shots), but not vs. ODU (15 points on 14 shots). His performance isn’t essential to the Bulldogs’ chances, but someone needs to stretch Wisconsin’s defense. Ronald Nored will be all over Jordan Taylor, leaving Mack free to focus on offense.

Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin: Can Taylor avoid two straight sub-par games? He’s facing the prospect of Ronald Nored sticking to him all game, raising the possibility of another 2-for-16 game. The Badgers run everything through Taylor, which leaves it up to him to avoid forcing shots and finding teammates like Jon Leuer  or Keaton Nankivil.

Coach under pressure: Billy Donovan

This is a small stretch, but I had to pick one. Donovan’s experienced, balanced team is the highest seed remaining in the region and should have a solid fan contingent in New Orleans. But turn all that around and it means the Gators should win, right? Plus, there’s the daunting aspect of losing an NCAA tourney game to BYU for the second straight year. That’s not a happy thought for an SEC champ. Florida loses and Donovan will hear catcalls that he’s not the same coach who won back-to-back titles. That’s completely bogus, but I’m fairly certain that’s what would happen.

Outcome: Even before Pitt lost, the region was up for grabs. It wouldn’t be a shocker for any of these teams to win, including Butler. (Do you want to pick against Brad Stevens?) But someone’s gotta win, and I’m going BYU.  The Cougars are playing their best defense since Davies was in the lineup. They’re rebounding, challenging shots and hitting shots. Plus, they have Fredette.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.