Looking vulnerable: Butler
You want me to say Florida, right? Sorry, can't do it. I know the champs have struggled in the first halves against Jackson State and Purdue, but all signs are trending upward for the Gators as they head to St. Louis. It certainly helps that they have the easiest regional of any No. 1 seed -- and the only one in which the No. 2 seed (Wisconsin) is already out. So let's state the obvious: Butler is looking awfully vulnerable heading into its regional semi against Florida. The Bulldogs have performed admirably in beating Old Dominion and Maryland, but the Gators just have too much talent and too many options.
For those of us who grew up on a diet of Gucci Row with Tark, LJ, Moses Scurry's screams, Greg Anthony and Richie the Fixer, it's strange to see a UNLV team with so much mystery about it -- and one that, in a strange twist of karmic payback, may have the chance on Sunday to derail a favorite's quest for a repeat national title. (I can almost hear Anthony's wry laugh about that one.) But there's plenty to like about these Runnin' Rebels, from Wendell White's steady wing play to Kevin Kruger's crunch time poise to Wink Adams' perimeter explosiveness. (Plus coach Lon Kruger knows how to get to a Final Four.) The biggest unknown may be Adams' health: he bruised his tailbone and missed most of the second half against Wisconsin. He says he's at 60 to 65 percent right now, but will need to be near 100 percent to slow down Oregon's Aaron Brooks on Friday.
Clutch player: Aaron Brooks, Oregon
Brooks has scored the game-winning or tying points in the final minute or in overtime six times this season and will almost surely be called on again if the Ducks are to make a surprise Final Four run. At one point during the regular season I went so far as to write about a whisper-campaign for Brooks as national Player of the Year. But while Kevin Durant made that a moot point, it's worth pointing out that a standout weekend by Brooks wouldn't surprise any of us who've been watching games all season.
Home cooking: Butler
No. 7-seed UNLV may be the lowest seed remaining in the tournament, but there's no denying that fifth-seeded Butler will be the little guy that all the neutral fans will cheer for in St. Louis. It just so happens that Butler should have plenty of its own supporters in attendance too as the only one of these four schools that's based within shouting distance of the Edward Jones Dome. The Bulldogs will need all the help they can get against Florida, of course, but maybe they can turn the dome into a western version of their own home gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse -- the site of the final scenes in Hoosiers. And who knows? Maybe A.J. Graves can turn into a latter-day Jimmy Chitwood. For all the talk of big-conference dominance in this tournament, the mid-majors will have plenty of strong representation this week in Butler and Southern Illinois.
Best matchup: Florida vs. Oregon in a potential regional final
I don't root for anyone, but I do want to see entertaining basketball, and the matchup that would provide the best bang for your buck would be Gators-vs.-Ducks. Both teams like to run, and both can light it up from three-point range. For Oregon to pull off the upset, Ernie Kent's guys would have to stay hot from behind the arc (this means you, Brooks and Tajuan Porter), contain Al Horford and Joakim Noah (paging Maarty Leunen!) and continue the defensive renaissance that has been one of the nation's most unexpected developments in February and March.
The pick: Florida.
All indicators are pointing to a return trip to the Final Four for the Gators, who have the opportunity (against Butler and potentially Oregon) to show they have the chops to win at completely different tempos. That's the mark of a great team -- and one that's just four games away from college basketball immortality.