It is obvious that throughout the grind of an entire season, the success of a team falls solely on the shoulders of its star players—the well-known commodities glamorized by the media.
The players expected to carry their teammates each and every game will bear the majority of the brunt, win or lose. They maintain an effort to keep the entire group focused on the one goal that each program has its sights set on—an NCAA Championship.
However, we would be naïve to think that each game throughout the season was decided exclusively by one or two players from each team.
There often comes a time when someone unexpectedly steps up to preserve a victory or prevent a loss. And there is no better time for that to occur than now, because the next loss by Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State or Louisville signifies the end of the season.
While the nation is familiar with Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger and Peyton Siva, here are the X-Factors for each of the remaining Final Four teams.
We all know that Peyton Siva is the heart and soul of this team and that Gorgui Dieng is a rebounding and shot blocking force in the middle. Each of these players, along with guard Kyle Kuric (leading scorer) will have to do every bit of their part if the Louisville Cardinals have a shot at beating Kentucky.
But the most important player for Rick Pitino on Saturday, will be guard Russ Smith.
Despite coming off the bench, Smith is the Cardinals’ second-leading scorer, playing just 21 minutes per game. His explosive ability on the offensive end, coupled with his on-ball defensive prowess will most certainly need to be on display to give any hope of Louisville advancing.
Smith, who can score in bunches, will be the key for defensive-minded Louisville to keep up with the extremely talented Kentucky team that throws guys at you from every spot on the floor.
National Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger, along with point guard Aaron Craft (considered one of the best on-ball defenders in the country) and senior guard William Buford give Ohio State one of the most well-rounded group of players in the country.
Each of these players does their part within the structure of their team as good as anyone in college basketball. But the reason the Buckeyes are in the position they are can be rooted back to the mismatch that forward DeShaun Thomas creates for other teams.
The 6’7” Thomas (second leading scorer behind Sullinger) is an athletic lefty that can extend the defense to the three point line or blow by it with a quick first step. The fact that he shoots 53 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc means that if he is on, Kansas is in for a long day, even if Thad Matta isn’t able to recognize the triangle and two.
If not for National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshaun Taylor (one of the better scoring point guards in the country), the Kansas Jayhawks definitely aren’t a National Title contender.
Throw in center Jeff Withey, whose length has the capability of bothering Jared Sullinger enough to keep him tame, and the Jayhawks have a legit shot for a chance to cut down the nets.
The key for Bill Self and the Jayhawks will be their ability to mask the mismatch that DeShaun Thomas will create for them in the scoring column. And other than Robinson and Taylor, the only Jayhawk with the ability to put the ball in the hoop at a good enough rate is guard Elijah Johnson.
Johnson, averaging 13.5 points per game on 51 percent shooting in the tournament, will need to continue to capitalize on his touches in order for Kansas to compete with the consistency that Ohio State will display throughout the game.
It may be difficult to find an X-factor on a team with so many guys that have stepped up all season. With six players averaging double figures in scoring, led by freshman Anthony Davis (front-runner for National Player of the Year), you could say that this group of young players head coach John Calipari has assembled has finally bought completely into his system.
But we can point to one reason why this has worked out as well as it has, and that is senior guard Darius Miller.
Miller agreed to come off the bench for his senior season to accommodate the horde of young talent that comprises this Kentucky team.
Although not a slouch when it comes to filling the stat sheet himself, Miller’s leadership intangibles are what will keep this gifted group of players grounded en route to potentially handing Calipari his first National Title.