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March 20, 2007

SCS.comGoing into the NCAA Tournament, the Midwest region was widely considered to be the easiest region for the top seed. So far, that has proved to be true for Florida. The Gators had trouble in their second round game, but they advanced to face a mid-major in Butler in the Sweet Sixteen. On the other side, two of the hotter teams in the country, Oregon and UNLV, will match-up. Which team will continue their recent stretch? Itís going to be a very interesting region to watch. Be sure to tune in to all the action in St. Louis.


(1) Florida (31-5)

How They Got Here: The Gators had moments of struggles in both games, but their experience and talent gave them the win in the first two rounds. Jackson State gave them a run for most of the first half, but UF destroyed them in the latter half. In the second round, Purdueís slow-down style and physical game was difficult for Florida, but the Gators pulled away down the stretch.

The Coach: Billy Donovan: Donovan is one of the best coaches in the country, and proved that by winning the national title last year. He had the stigma of being an underachiever in the NCAA Tournament, but last year ruined that thought. He has done a terrific job this season of juggling egos and keeping the defending champs focused on the crown.

The Star: Al Horford: Despite the fact that Joakim Noah gets most of the accolades, Horford is the teamís best player. He is an absolute beast on the inside, both offensively and defensively. He can control the boards, and is very difficult to stop once he gets the ball in the paint.

The Supporting Cast: Florida had the best starting five in the country, with all five returning starters from last yearís National Champion. Joakim Noah is an emotional inside performer, while Corey Brewer is one of the best two-way players in the country. Lee Humphrey can stroke the three, and Taurean Green is a terrific point guard.

Why They Could Advance To Atlanta: Florida is the most complete team in the country. They excel both offensively and defensively, and can play at multiple speeds. The Gators can beat you on the perimeter or in the paint, and are very difficult to defend. If you can shut down one player, there are several others waiting to step up. If this team stays focused like they did in the SEC Tournament, they might not lose.

Why They Might Not: Itís always very difficult to repeat, and the Gators are trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to do it. What can get in the way of Florida getting their second straight title? Their lack of a go-to-guy. While they have terrific balance, there is no player that has shown the ability to consistently get baskets late in the game for the Gators. Moreover, athletic teams that can match the Gators personnel-wise can beat them.

Three Key Factors:

[1] Focus: The Gators seemed to lose a little focus late in the regular season, and they might not have the same hunger they had last year.
[2] Balance: They have five starters that average in double-figures, and can beat you on any given night. It makes them very difficult to defend.
[3] Can they repeat? The Gators are trying to become the first team since the 1992 Duke squad to be repeat national champions. How will that weigh on them?

(3) Oregon (28-7)

How They Got Here: The Ducks dominated the Pac-10 Tournament, and have been very good in the Big Dance. They struggled in the first-round against the slow-down style of Miami (Ohio), but they escaped late in the game. They dominated Cinderella hopeful Winthrop in the second round, getting off to a hot start and continuing that in the second half.

The Coach: Ernie Kent: One of the most surprising stories of the season, Kent was on the hot seat heading into the year. However, the Ducks got off to a hot start, and overcame mid-season struggles to get a 3 seed in the Dance. Kent is officially off the hot seat. His decision to go to a fast-paced style was the difference this year.

The Star: Aaron Brooks: Brooks had not lived up the hype heading into his senior year. However, he took control of the reins right off the bat this year, and has been one of the best players in the country. He can shoot the three, drive to the basket, and is a very good passer. He is also one of the best late-game players in the country.

The Supporting Cast: The Ducks are very perimeter-oriented, with several guys that can shoot the three and penetrate to the basket. Malik Hairston is a multi-talented forward, while Bryce Taylor and Tajuan Porter have been two high-scoring gunners on the wing. Maarty Leunen is the main post player on the team, but he can also step out and shoot the jumper.

Why They Could Advance To Atlanta: If they hit shots like they did in the Pac-10 Tournament, the Ducks can beat anyone in the country. They have terrific guards who can spread the floor and get points from the perimeter or in the lane. Aaron Brooks is a terrific point guard, and Maarty Leunen provides some inside balance. Unless they go cold from behind the arc, the Ducks have the talent and perimeter players to beat anyone.

Why They Might Not: The Ducks lack size inside and are sometimes too reliant on the perimeter shot. They donít have a go-to post presence, and can be one dimensional at times. Forcing them to take it to the basket is key to beating the Ducks. They would rather spread the floor and force teams to come out and guard them, but if they go cold from outside, they are very beatable. Defensively, the Ducks are small so they arenít very good against teams with two good big men.

Three Key Factors:

[1] Shooting: When the Ducks are hitting their outside shots with efficiency, they can beat anyone in the country. Will they keep up their hot shooting?
[2] Size: The Ducks start four guys 6-6 or smaller, and their center is only 6-9. Can they hang with bigger teams on the glass and in the paint?
[3] Aaron Brooks: Brooks struggled at times during Pac-10 play, but he has the ability to carry this team to the promised land.

(5) Butler (27-6)

How They Got Here: The Bulldogs werenít hot coming into the Tournament, and were a popular upset pick in the first round. However, they controlled the game against Old Dominion for the most part, and used their slow-down tempo and outside shooting to knock off Maryland in the second round. They handled the Terrapinsí press well, and didnít turn it over when it counted.

The Coach: Todd Lickliter: One of the major candidates for coach of the year, Licklitter took a team that was supposed to finish in the bottom half of the Horizon League to the Sweet Sixteen. He preaches a slow but efficient half-court offense that is tough to stop when the Bulldogs are hitting their outside shots. Defensively, the Bulldogs get after you and donít allow you to get open shots. Credit that to Lickliter.

The Star: A.J. Graves: Graves was the big story of the early part of the season, having big games en route to wins over several high-quality teams. He struggled down the stretch of the regular season, but has the ability to carry the Bulldogs. He is a terrific shooter.

The Supporting Cast: Butler is not explosive offensively, but they have several options on that side of the ball. Mike Green can do-it-all at both ends, racking up points, rebounds, and assists. Pete Campbell is one of the best shooters in the country, especially given his size. Brandon Crone is a good inside-outside player that can cause match-up problems.

Why They Could Advance To Atlanta: If the Bulldogs hit perimeter shots and lock down defensively, they can beat anyone they play. They arenít overly athletic, but they are disciplined and fundamentally sound. A.J Graves can carry them offensively, and their defense keeps them in games. Teams that get frustrated by their style of play and physical defense, like Maryland, will lose. Butler is tough to beat when they get the tempo they desire.

Why They Might Not: The Bulldogs have several weaknesses they could be exposed against a team like Florida. Butler doesnít have a lot of height, and are not dominant in the paint or on the boards. They donít have a lot of athleticism or quickness, and could be vulnerable against a team that can exploit that. The Bulldogs arenít a great scoring team, either. If the tempo gets up-and-down, Butler is in trouble.

Three Key Factors:

[1] Defense: The Bulldogs play terrific half-court defense, and really force teams out of their normal offensive sets. They need to slow down the game.
[2] A.J Graves: Graves was a big story early on, but had been up and down late in the year. He needs to hit his outside shots and set the tone for the Butler offense.
[3] Offense: Do the Bulldogs have enough offense to win? They arenít explosive, but they run a disciplined half-court set.

(7) UNLV (29-6)

How They Got Here: The Runniní Rebels were drastically underseeded heading into the Tournament, and have proved that so far. They got off to a great start against Georgia Tech, and made big plays down the stretch to pull out the victory. They did the same thing against Wisconsin, knocking off the #2 seed. They have used their quickness and athleticism to win their two games, forcing turnovers and turning them into points.

The Coach: Lon Kruger: One of the more underrated coaches in the country, Kruger is leading his fourth team in the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels werenít supposed to do much in the Mountain West this season, but his team has improved throughout the year. He has turned the Rebels into a pressure team that loves to force turnovers and play in transition. UNLV isnít big, but they cause match-up problems, and can shoot it.

The Star: Wendell White: White has been an outstanding player so far in the Big Dance. He is averaging 20.5 points per game in the first two rounds, and has been the go-to-guy down the stretch of games. He is undersized for a power forward, but his strength gives him the ability to score inside. He is very difficult to stop once he gets the ball inside.

The Supporting Cast: UNLV is a perimeter-oriented group that loves to shoot the three. Wink Adams has been solid in the NCAA Tournament, while Kevin Kruger can knock down three pointers and run the show. Michael Umeh can hit three-pointers with consistency as well. Inside, Joel Anthony is a terrific shot-blocker, while Gaston Essengue provides scoring and rebounding down low.

Why They Could Advance To Atlanta: If the Rebels hit their outside shots offensively and force turnovers defensively, they are very tough to beat. UNLV turns those turnovers into transition points, making them difficult to stop. Moreover, the Rebels have been terrific from behind the arc in the opening rounds, opening up space on the inside for White. When he can get baskets and draw fouls inside, it forces teams to double-team him. Once that happens, the shooters for UNLV get open shots all day long.

Why They Might Not: UNLV thrives on defensive pressure and forcing steals. When they are turning teams over, they are forced to play a half-court offense. While they have the options to get points in that sort of setting, they are much better off getting out and running in transition. Moreover, they are not a big team, meaning teams with quality big men can give them a lot of trouble. If you can get the ball inside against them to exploit that, you have a better shot at winning.

Three Key Factors:

[1] Shooting: When the Rebels are knocking down their three-pointers, they are tough to beat. They have plenty of guys that can shoot the ball.
[2] Steals: UNLV thrives on turnovers, and wins when they can get points off of steals. If they can't force turnovers, they have a tough time winning.
[3] Wendell White: He is their go-to-guy, and he has made a name for himself this March. His strength and athleticism inside makes him very difficult to guard.


Despite the fact that there might not be any teams on Floridaís level, talent-wise, donít overlook this region. Florida has looked complacent at times, and there are some quick teams left in the region that can exploit that. Moreover, there are plenty of talented players left in St. Louis. If you havenít seen A.J. Graves or Wendell White yet, be sure to watch.

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