Butler is back. And while this version of the Bulldogs is not blessed with the defensive ability of its predecessors, it has powerful March magic on its side, perhaps because it's coached by a young, bespectacled wizard (Brad Stevens). How else to explain the offensive rebound that fell perfectly into Matt Howard's hands, setting up his buzzer-beater at the end of the second-round win over Old Dominion? Or the way Shelvin Mack was bailed out after committing what he called "the dumbest foul in Butler history" at the end of the third-round win over Pitt, when Nasir Robinson followed it by committing an even more inexplicable foul? Wild things happen at the end of Bulldogs games in this NCAA tournament, and they tend to happen in the Bulldogs' favor.
There are distinct differences between this Butler team and the one that went to the Final Four in 2010. This club is centered around Howard, who used a team-high 28.5 percent of possessions in the Pitt game and quietly put up All-America-level numbers all season while re-transitioning from role player back to star. And remember how the Bulldogs' trademark during last season's tourney run was holding opponents to under 60 points and less than one point per possession? They limited ODU to 58 and 1.00 PPP on Thursday, but gave up 70 and 1.19 PPP to Pitt -- and still won -- on Saturday. The reason: Their supercharged offense scored 1.20 PPP in that game, which was the third-most efficient performance by any Panthers opponent this season.
The sideline savvy in the Butler-Wisconsin Sweet 16 game will be off the charts; Badgers coach Bo Ryan is a strong Hall of Fame candidate for what he's done at UW-Platteville (four Division III national titles) and Wisconsin (three Big Ten titles, nine NCAA tournaments in nine years), and Stevens will be a lock if he continues on his current trajectory. Lost in the chaos at the end of the Pitt game was the fact that he drew up a perfect open look -- on a Shawn Vanzant drive-and-dish to Andrew Smith -- that would've gone down as the winning bucket had the foul insanity not followed. Stevens later capitalized the victory with a flying back-bump in the locker room that may be the YouTube moment of the tourney thus far. If Ryan wants to match him in that department, he may have to perform a Hambone Reprise in front of UW's bench.
THE UNDERDOG: Butler
The next-lowest seed is No. 4 Wisconsin, but consider the Badgers underdogs at your own risk. They're the most efficient team left in the region, ranking No. 5 overall on kenpom.com, and they have the nation's most efficient offense, scoring an amazing 1.25 PPP. Belmont, Michigan State, N.C. State, Northwestern and Ohio State have all felt the wrath of Jordan Taylor and the UW offense -- each of their worst defensive performances of the season (by points per possession) came against the Badgers. On Saturday I called them the new favorite for the Final Four out of the Southeast, following two confidence-inspiring victories in Tucson. In addition to Taylor, they may have the most underappreciated, versatile frontcourt in the nation, in sweet-shooting (and stitched-up) starters Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil and always hustling, carrot-fro'd reserve Mike Bruesewitz.
BURNING QUESTION: Can Erving Walker steal the show?
A certain BYU gunner will be there -- I'm forgetting his name -- but Florida's pint-sized (5-foot-8) point guard has been on a tear in the Gators' first two NCAA tournament games. After scoring 18 points on 4-of-6 three-point shooting (and dishing out six assists against one turnover) in an opening-round win over UC-Santa Barbara, Walker went off against UCLA, hitting an amazing runner over gargantuan Bruins center Josh Smith that's One Shining Moment material, and then scoring Florida's final seven points in a 73-65 win. Walker finished with 21, and seems to have put his 3-of-10, eight-point showing in the SEC title game against Kentucky out of his mind. Don't be shocked if he delivers a few moments of brilliance in the Big Easy. As Gators reserve guard Scottie Wilbekin said on Saturday, "He's Big Shot Erv."
GAMEBREAKER: Jimmer Fredette, BYU
The Jimmer Show relocates from Denver (where there was an I'm Proud to Be a Jimmerican sign) to New Orleans, after he scored 32 in the second round against Wofford and 34 in the third against Gonzaga. Is it wrong for us to want more out of Fredette after two 30-point efforts, to hope he has one of those 52-against-New Mexico or 47-against-Utah-type games before the Cougars bow out of the dance? Fredette has toned down his shooting a bit -- he took 40.9 and 39.9 percent of BYU's shots in the first two tourney games, after taking an average of 46.0 in the five games prior -- but he may turn it back into high gear with a Final Four in his sights.
INTRIGUING MATCHUP: No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 BYU
When BYU (as a No. 7) and Florida (as a No. 10) met last season in the first round, the results were phenomenal, as the two teams waged the tournament's best battle other than Duke-Butler or Kansas State-Xavier -- a 99-92 double-overtime win by the Cougars in which Fredette scored 37. Both teams are significantly better this season, and The Jimmer has grown significantly as a gunner ... suggesting that we could be in for one excellent encore in the Sweet 16.
HOME COOKING: None
Florida fans will travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl ... but will they go there en masse for a Sweet 16? That's TBD. Unless the Gators represent in a big way, there's no major geographic advantage in the Southeast. But the neutral fans, one imagines, will be easily won over by The Jimmer, if they haven't been already through his exploits on TV.
NUMBERS TO PONDER: 4.2 ... 1.5 ... 1.4 ... 1.2.
Those are the assist-to-turnover ratios of the four point guards left in this region: Wisconsin's Taylor, Butler's Mack, Florida's Walker and BYU's Fredette, respectively. The disparity here is yet another reason I like the Badgers.
THE PICK: Wisconsin
This is Ryan's year to break through to a Final Four, as he finally has a big-game point guard (Taylor) surrounded by a stellar crew of shooters, hustlers and interior battlers. No team values every offensive possession like the Badgers do, and while they don't have a lockdown perimeter defender to bottle up The Jimmer in the Elite Eight, the Cougars don't have the size to deal with the Leuer-Nankivil-Breusewitz-Berggren quartet, either. Preseason polls suggested that it was feasible for the Big Ten to get two teams to Houston ... but expected those two to be Michigan State and Purdue. It turns out that the better picks were Ohio State and Wisconsin.
More NCAA Tournament Region Breakdowns:• East Region: Can anybody knock off Ohio State?• West Region: Duke will survive brutal competition• Southwest Region: Pressure rests squarely on Kansas Jayhawks