After five rounds of NCAA tournament play, there’s little question as to which players are going to be in the spotlight in Saturday’s Final Four matchups. Big names such as Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Thomas Robinson of Kansas have lived up to their billing in leading their teams deep into the postseason.
Even with so much star power around, though, less-heralded players will have to step up for any of these teams to realize their championship aspirations.
One player positioned to be a hero on Saturday is Ohio State guard William Buford, whose three-point shooting prowess could help loosen up the fearsome interior defense of the Kansas Jayhawks.
Herein, a closer look at Buford and seven more non-stars who will have a lot to say about which team cuts down the nets in New Orleans.
The focus of the Louisville frontcourt is 6’11” center Gorgui Dieng, a magnificent shot-blocker who serves as the heart of the Cardinals’ matchup zone. On offense, though, the player facing the biggest imperative to produce will be freshman Chane Behanan.
The 6’6” Behanan has a daunting task, trying to create points over a Kentucky frontcourt loaded with taller shot-blockers.
Still, if he can use his strength and quickness to keep the Wildcats off-balance, he’ll be a vital element in keeping the Cardinals’ sputtering half-court offense afloat.
“Mediocre” would be too kind a description for the postseason performance of Ohio State’s bench.
The Buckeye reserves are averaging a pitiful 4.3 points a contest during the tournament, and Evan Ravenel has gone scoreless twice in four games while totaling just five rebounds.
Even if Jared Sullinger manages to avoid foul trouble—no easy task against the massive Jayhawk front line—Ravenel will need to be more than a placeholder against KU.
He’s already faced these forwards once (while Sullinger was injured in December), and now he must put that experience to good use and give the Buckeyes a few key baskets in what’s sure to be a closely fought contest.
The Wildcats’ second-leading scorer on the year (13.2 points per game), Doron Lamb has gotten overshadowed by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s development in the latter part of the season.
Although the 6’4” Lamb doesn’t bring quite the same length or rebounding acumen as Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb’s outstanding shooting touch (a ludicrous .471 from three-point range) will be crucial against the intimidating defenses UK will be facing.
The other key factor for Lamb is that he can share ball-handling duties with Marquis Teague, should pressure from Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (or Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in a possible title-game matchup) take its toll on the freshman point guard.
Lamb is playing in his second Final Four in as many years and won’t be rattled by anything the Cardinals throw at him on Saturday.
Few teams rely as heavily on two players as the Jayhawks, who get nearly half their points from the duo of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
That strategy is going to hit a serious roadblock against Ohio State, though, with Taylor facing one of the country’s toughest defensive point guards in Aaron Craft.
With Taylor unlikely to contribute his usual 17 points, somebody has to pick up the offensive slack for KU, and shooting guard Elijah Johnson is an excellent candidate.
Johnson can also take some of the ball-handling load off of Taylor if Craft’s pressure gets to be too much for him. Against the unremarkable Lenzelle Smith Jr., Johnson should have good opportunities to penetrate or spot up (provided his erratic jump shot is clicking on Saturday).
Louisville’s greatest strength is its ability to convert defense into offense, forcing turnovers to set up fast-break points. In the half court, though, the Cardinals have struggled all year, with the notable exception of Chris Smith.
Smith is the only reliable three-point shooter in Rick Pitino’s rotation, hitting at a .398 clip from beyond the arc.
Against the block-happy Kentucky defense, Louisville isn’t going to get many points off penetration, so Smith absolutely must be on his game as a spot-up shooter to keep Louisville competitive.
A recurring theme in Kansas’ few losses this season has been the breakdown of the perimeter defense.
Allowing 44 percent three-point shooting to Duke is, at least understandable, but when inconsistent Baylor hits 47 percent from beyond the arc, it’s not a good sign.
The Buckeye best equipped to attack that vulnerability is senior William Buford, a career .383 shooter from long range.
Buford has spent much of 2011-12 mired in a slump—he scored just four points on 1-for-8 shooting against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16—but the stroke is there, and if he can get in a rhythm, he could carry the Ohio State offense virtually single-handedly.
It’s tough to get much attention scoring 9.3 points a game and playing next to All-American Thomas Robinson. Nevertheless, Jeff Withey might have even more to say than Robinson about whether Kansas advances to the national title game.
The seven-foot senior is blocking 3.5 shots a game, good for seventh in the country.
With his height and length advantage over 6’9” Jared Sullinger, Withey can clamp down on the Buckeyes’ most dangerous offensive weapon and make Ohio State (for arguably the first time in the postseason) work for every basket.
Were he on any other team in this Final Four (and pretty much any other team in the country), Darius Miller would be a starter. On a loaded Kentucky team, the 6’8” senior is the most dangerous sixth man in college hoops.
Even Louisville’s superlative Russ Smith doesn’t have Miller’s versatility as a scorer, distributor, defender and rebounder.
He has a real chance to be basketball’s answer to Matt Cassel, going from a college reserve to a pro standout, but before that happens he’ll provide some much-needed depth and experience for the young Wildcats’ run to a national title.