NEW ORLEANS -- Breaking down the Southeast Regional final:
What’s at stake: Butler is attempting to go back to the Final Four for the second consecutive season. The last time a team from a mid-major conference went to back-to-back Final Fours was in 1990 and ’91 when UNLV pulled it off.
Florida is looking for its fifth Final Four appearance. The Gators are 4-0 in regional finals, winning in 1994 (when Lon Kruger was the head coach), 2000, 2006 and 2007, the final two times resulting in national titles.
Rich history: Florida and Butler have met twice before in the Big Dance, and the Gators won both. In 2000, 5th-seeded Florida beat 12th-seeded Butler on a Mike Miller overtime buzzer-beater in the first round, en route to finishing as national runner-up to Michigan State. In 2007, the top-seeded Gators beat 5-seed Butler by eight in the Sweet 16. That matched UF's smallest margin of victory in the tournament, as the Gators won their second straight national title.
Hot streak: After a humbling loss to Youngstown State on Feb. 3, Butler hasn't lost since, winning 12 straight. The Gators have won 13 of their last 15.
Path to the Elite Eight: Butler beat Old Dominion (60-58) and Pitt (71-70) on last possessions before opening up a 20-point lead on Wisconsin and the holding on for the 61-54 win. Florida coasted past UC Santa Barbara (79-51), outlasted UCLA (73-65) and then beat BYU in overtime (83-74).
Experience: Florida returned all five starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, which lost in the first round to BYU. Butler has four players who played significant minutes on the national runner-up team last season.
Remarkable stat: Florida hasn’t had a player foul out this season -- the only Division I team that can make that claim in 2010-11.
“Erving Walker is definitely a lot smaller than Jordan Taylor, but he’s so quick,’’ Nored said. “He can get by you and finish over you at his size. He can shoot the ball really well. In some ways, they’re similar but their sizes are a little different, so you can guard Erving with a hand in the face and make him shoot quicker.’’
“He’s very difficult to guard,’’ Parsons said. “He’s one of the most physical players in the country and he plays smart and just relentless and he doesn’t stop and he’s got a really good motor. So a guy like him, he just battles for 40 minutes and you’re not going to get anything easy with him just because his effort is off the charts.’’
Injury update: Butler center Andrew Smith writhed in pain, clutching his left knee late in the Bulldogs' win over Wisconsin. He said after the game that his left knee was swollen, but he would play Saturday. But on Friday, the Bulldogs said it was his ankle, not his knee. Regardless, he was held out of Friday’s practices and Butler will assess his status for Saturday’s game prior to the tip. But he’s planning on playing in some form.
X-factor: Of course, Butler’s Shelvin Mack and Howard have to score and board, Nored must defend on the perimeter and Smith will need to do the little things up front. But the difference could end up being Khyle Marshall, the freshman forward off the bench. He scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds, blocked a shot and came up with a steal in 18 minutes against the Badgers. Marshall’s length and athleticism will be needed against the Gators’ frontline. UF has scored 100 points in the paint in three tournament games, while Butler has yielded just 52 points inside.
The Gators will get the requisite production out of their starting five. But keep an eye on the production from two reserve forwards. Newcomers Patric Young and Will Yeguete will be significant factors in this game if they can get key offensive putbacks and defend Howard inside. They offer up a combined 10 fouls to offset Macklin and Tyus, and Young is probably the strongest of the group that can handle the scrappy Howard.
Reality check: For everyone constantly wanting to put the Bulldogs in this tidy little box and say how cute and cuddly it is that they are about to reach the Final Four again, just think about the experience in this moment for both teams.
“Butler has been here before and this is our first time here overall,’’ Florida guard Kenny Boynton said. “They are a physical team and I think it’s going to come down to the wire. We have to play hard for the full 40 minutes.’’
Added Walker, “This is a dream, but you can’t get caught in it. You have to be awake. Butler is a great team we have to come out and play our game. We don’t expect it to be easy and it should be a tough challenge.’’
And from the Butler side:
“This is business,’’ Mack said. “You want to get back to that stage and try to enjoy it.’’
“Last year was more of a whirlwind because we hadn’t done it before,’’ Howard said. “Having been there before, at least to this point, you learn how to manage it and deal with it.’’