(The Sports Network)
A Southeast Region champion will be crowned Saturday at New Orleans Arena as the No. 2-seed Florida Gators take on the upset-minded No. 8- seed Butler Bulldogs to determine the 2011 NCAA Tournament's first Final Four team.
Florida faced its toughest bout yet in this year's tournament Thursday, but fended off a surging No. 3-seed BYU in overtime to claim an 83-74 victory and a spot in the Elite Eight. Alex Tyus was huge for the Gators, scoring 19 points and pulling down a career-high 17 rebounds, while Florida was able to shut down Cougars' star Jimmer Fredette down the stretch to help avenge a 99-92 double-overtime loss to BYU in the first round of last year's tournament. The Gators held BYU to just two field goals in the extra session after missing out on a golden opportunity to end things in regulation. Chandler Parsons was granted a final runner that missed its mark after Florida held the ball for the final 48.5 seconds thanks to a clutch rebound by Erving Walker. Parsons finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while the backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Walker donated 17 and 16 points, respectively. Fredette ended his prolific career at BYU with a game-high 32 points, but shot just 11-of-29 from the field, 3-of-15 from three-point range and was held scoreless over the final 7:53. The Gators previously downed the Southeast's No. 7-seed UCLA and the 15-seed UC Santa Barbara to reach Saturday's game and have now won 13 of its last 15 games. Both losses came to Kentucky, which defeated the regular-season champion Gators in the SEC Tournament title game. UF is making its 16th appearance in the tournament and holds a solid 32-13 mark in such games just four years removed from back-to- back national championships under head coach Billy Donovan in 2006 and '07. Under Donovan, UF is 25-8 in the Big Dance with three Final Four appearances.
It wasn't the dramatic finish Butler's been accustomed to this March, but the Bulldogs continued a thrilling run through the bracket for a second straight Elite Eight appearance Thursday by handling No. 4-seed Wisconsin in a 61-54 final. Butler's relentless defense tired down the stretch as Wisconsin nearly erased a 20-point deficit with a late run, but the Bulldogs ultimately held their ground in a game they controlled nearly throughout. Wisconsin was held to 30.0 percent shooting and the Badgers' leading scorer Jon Leuer ended with only three points. Meanwhile, Matt Howard scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and Shelvin Mack added 13 points, including a critical step-back jumper in the final minute to secure the Bulldogs' 12th straight win. Butler's previous four NCAA Tournament games were decided by two points or fewer, the most recent coming in a 71-70 upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh last Saturday in a ridiculous foul-filled ending. In the Bulldogs' 2011 tourney opener, Howard banked in a buzzer-beating put-back to finish off a wild back-and-forth 60-58 win over Old Dominion. Butler is back in the tournament after a stirring and memorable run to the championship game in 2010, famously falling inches short on Gordon Hayward's failed half-court heave at the buzzer against Duke. The last two years have boosted the Bulldogs' tournament record to 16-10 all-time in this its fifth consecutive appearance on college basketball's biggest stage.
Florida and Butler have met just twice previously with both encounters coming in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators won on both occasions in the midst of runs to the Final Four, most recently in the 2007 regional semifinals in a 65-57 final. Florida's first win came back in 2000 when Mike Miller nailed a running jumper at the buzzer to cap off a thrilling 69-68 overtime victory in the opening round.
Butler's latest Cinderella run has hinged on the play of the returning standout senior Howard and junior Mack. Howard leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game and rebounding with 7.8 per contest. He shoots a crisp 49.2 percent from the field and is second to Mack with 51 three-pointers on 44.0 percent shooting. Mack averages 15.6 ppg and has dropped 74 threes at a 34.3-percent accuracy while adding 4.3 boards and a team-high 3.6 assists, also good for fifth in the Horizon League. Howard's point and rebounding totals stand third in the conference. Andrew Smith adds 8.9 ppg, 5.4 boards and leads the conference with a 62.2 shooting percentage. Shawn Vanzant adds another layer to the Bulldogs' scoring depth, checking in at 8.1 ppg. Overall, Butler averages 72.1 points per game and connects on 44.5 percent of its field goals, standing third in the league in both categories. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the Horizon in free-throw percentage (73.1), second in three-point field-goal percentage (35.9) and third in rebounding margin (plus-3.0) with 34.5 per game. A strong defensive effort nets the Bulldogs a third-place ranking in conference, allowing 64.3 ppg.
Florida has four double-digit scorers in the fold, and while none is considered a true star, the team-first approach has the club once again poised for a run to the Final Four. Walker tops the roster in scoring with 14.8 points per game while adding 3.4 assists and 78 three-pointers on 39.4 percent shooting. The standout sophomore Boynton leads the team in threes with 79 but at a 33.1-percent accuracy. He stands second to Walker at 14.1 ppg. The versatile senior Parsons provides 11.5 ppg and team-highs of 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Center Vernon Macklin stands third in the SEC in field-goal percentage (58.4) and averages 11.2 ppg to pair with 5.4 boards. Tyus pulls down 6.1 rpg and adds 8.9 ppg to the mix. The Gators produce a nice balance on either end of the floor to place fourth in the SEC in scoring offense (72.1 ppg) and second in scoring defense (63.1 ppg). Florida tops the conference in field-goal percentage (46.5) and is also the league's top rebounding team with a plus-5.9 margin with 37.5 per game in addition to ranking second in both assists (14.2 apg) and assist/turnover ratio. One area of concern continues to be free-throw shooting where the Gators place ninth (66.5) in the SEC. They were just 10-of-22 from the charity stripe against BYU.
It's hard to pick against a Butler team as hot as any in the tournament, especially with its penchant for dramatic hard-nosed play. That being said, Florida garnered a two-seed for a reason and is among the tournament's most balanced and deep teams. The Gators' noted ability to crank out a new star performer on any night gives opposing teams fits on defense and may very well carry it to the Final Four and beyond in 2011.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 71, Butler 68