No. 2 Florida (29-7) vs. No. 8 Butler (26-9)
Tip-off: 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
At stake: A spot in the Final Four, duh! No but seriously, the Bulldogs are playing with house money right now, and have got to feel loose and care free as they enter a regional final for the second consecutive year. They boast experience and poise that Florida simply does not. This ain’t no thang for them, while the Gators entire roster is waking up this morning with the most important game of their lives just hours away.
If the Gators advance, I suspect a few of their players may deem their mission as fairly accomplished, and strongly consider going pro while their stock remains high. If Brad Stevens’ kids march on, you could argue that there’s a real opportunity for Butler to get a look from every elite high school player from the Hoosier state going forward. Two straight trips to the Final Four and a sharp and respected coach who looks like he’s in this for the long haul; a seismic shift could be taking place a the college basketball hotbed.
Florida wins if: They can control Shelvin Mack, and I say that because it’s a big if. I’m confident that the three-headed monster of Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and Patric young will fluster Matt Howard and limit his production, but I’m not sure they can do the same on Mack. The Bulldogs junior guard is streaky on offense, but in seven games where he scored 23+ points this season, he shot above 50 percent or better in six of them. That’s pretty efficient, and he’s got confidence that’s tough to crack when he’s rolling.
Butler wins if: Matt Howard stays out of foul trouble, and Ronald Nored can shut down Kenny Boynton and Ervin Walker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – that’s a near impossible task I’ve assigned here, but with the number of offensive weapons the Gators possess (averaging 78 points in their three tournament games) the Bulldogs have to keep this in the 60s if they expect to win. Much easier said than done, but I’ve been miffed by them many times before, so perhaps it could happen.
Key matchup: Matt Howard vs. Florida’s Big Men – A major advantage the Gators have is three frontcourt players who can give Howard problems. That coupled with the Bulldog’s penchant for slapping and hitting means he’s going to have to be extra careful on both ends of the court. It appears that Andrew Smith will give it a go despite tweaking his ankle against Wisconsin, but it’s unclear how effective he can be. A lot rests on the shoulders of Howard.
X-factor: Patric Young – The Gators prized freshman recruit only averaged 3.6 points this season, showing flashes of his potential. Perhaps he gets into a groove off the bench early and Billy Donovan lets him play more than 15 minutes this afternoon. I’d love to see this kid show off his athleticism and have a breakout game
Winner: Florida. The Bulldogs are Gator Bait.