Much of the pregame focus will be on Butler's plans to stop Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer and the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team's plans to stop Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack.
But two coaches who know both teams extremely well believe the X-factor in the NCAA tournament Southeast regional semifinal matchup between fourth-seeded UW (25-8) and eighth-seeded Butler (25-9) Thursday night in New Orleans will be Badgers senior forward Keaton Nankivil.
"I think for the first time Butler will have to make a decision about how they are going to guard the 5-man (center) away from the basket," said UW-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter regarding how the Bulldogs must defend the post player's accurate 3-point shooting.
Jeter, whose team defeated Butler twice during the regular season but lost to the third meeting 59-44 in the Horizon League tournament championship in Milwaukee with an NCAA tournament berth on the line, said the Bulldogs have players who are capable of defending Nankivil in the post and moving out to stop him to the perimeter.
"But they haven't had to do it all season," Jeter added. "There isn't a team in our league who has a 5-man who steps out and shoots on the perimeter like Keaton."
Illinois-Chicago coach Howard Moore, who, like Jeter, is a former UW assistant coach under Bo Ryan, said the Bulldogs' problems with Nankivil could be compounded because fellow senior forward Jon Leuer is also a capable perimeter scorer.
"To have two post men who can step out and shoot from the perimeter, that's something Butler hasn't seen, either," Moore said. "It will be interesting to see how they handle that."
Both coaches are excited about the matchup between two programs they respect.
The Badgers are in the tournament for the 13th straight year and are making their fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in Bo Ryan's 10 years with the Badgers. Butler reached the NCAA title game last year and lost to Duke in a thriller, 61-59.
"Both teams are going to be patient. Both teams are going to defend. Both teams have tournament experience. Both teams are very comfortable playing a game in the 50s or playing a game in the 80s. Both teams will take care of the ball and both teams can rebound," Jeter said.
Despite its mid-major status, Butler was picked by some pundits to be a top-10 team throughout this season and make another run to the NCAA title game. But the Bulldogs struggled to a 14-9 record and endured three losses in a row before they turned it around.
The Bulldogs certainly missed Gordon Hayward, who left school early and was a first-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in last June's NBA draft. But Moore said they also missed graduated senior Willie Veasley, who could guard just about every position and always came up with the big rebound or loose ball.
Finally, after losing to lowly Youngstown State 62-60 on Feb. 3, the intensity returned to the Bulldogs' defense and they've been unstoppable ever since. Moore could see it during Butler's 79-52 thrashing of UIC in Chicago on Feb. 19. The Flames also lost 72-65 at Butler earlier in the season.
"They just imposed their will on us that second game," Moore said. "You could see the intensity was a lot higher, their emotional pitch was a lot higher, they were locked in defensively. They just looked like a totally different team the second time we played them. And that's what you're seeing now."
Moore and Jeter both said the Badgers will win if their supporting cast plays as well as it did during their wins over Belmont (72-58) and Kansas State (70-65) this past weekend in Tucson, Ariz. "They have a chance to win the national championship if the supporting cast keeps making shots," Jeter said.
But if Leuer and Taylor have to carry most of the load and the Bulldogs' supporting cast plays well, both coaches believe the game will go down to the wire.
"I think it will be a matter of who can get to the free throw line more," Jeter predicted.
Moore and Jeter will be pulling for the Badgers for obvious reasons. UW coach Bo Ryan is Jeter's mentor. He played and coached for him for much of his adult life. Moore has been mentored by Ryan, too, and coached most of the current Badgers. He's also a UW alum.
"If you are a basketball purist and you love the game for the way it's supposed to be played, then this will be a great game to watch," Moore said.