5 X-Factors to Watch in the Kentucky vs. Kansas State NCAA Tournament Matchup
When I talk X-factors, I'm not necessarily talking about a team's leading scorer. Not the guy you know will show up. I'm talking about those sneaky players who may not make a big difference game after game, but when they do play well, their teams wins.
X-factors can be surprising. It can be a performance nobody was expecting. And when you get something like that from an unsuspecting player, it usually spells disaster for the opposing team.
For a team like Kansas State with a deep bench, the X-factor could be anybody. For Kentucky, which really only plays seven guys, it's going to be names you are more aware of, but it doesn't make their contributions any less vital.
With that in mind, here are the five biggest X-factors in the Kentucky-Kansas State game. Both teams beware.
No player on Kentucky has had more peaks and valleys this year than Willie Cauley-Stein. You either get a whole lot from him in a lot of ways or get barely a peep.
The last three times WCS has grabbed double-digit rebounds, he's also scored in double digits (14.6 PPG) and shot the ball at a .703 clip. He's also averaging 4.3 BPG in those games. When Cauley-Stein is on, he's on all the way.
But when he is off, well...in the 10 games in between those most recent and distant double-double games (March 16 and Feb. 4), he's averaging 4.7 PPG and 4.4 RPG. Willie giveth and Willie taketh away.
Cauley-Stein has the ability to single-handedly change the game across the board. It all depends on which version shows up against Kansas State.
The Kansas State senior has had quite the interesting season. Shane Southwell started off averaging 11 PPG in his first 20 games, but he encountered major struggles near the end of January as well as an injury that lost him his starting spot. Since Jan. 28, he's averaged just 6.1 PPG.
However, he still has his moments.
Southwell dropped 19 in his last game, a loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament. If he manages to find some of the magic from the beginning of the season, Kentucky might be in trouble.
I have been diving headfirst into the numbers to try and find some kind of pattern, any kind of pattern, that shows how important Andrew Harrison is to Kentucky when he is involved and aggressive in the game, but I cannot find anything. He's had great games in losses, and he's had terrible games in wins. And vice versa.
The man confounds me.
There is no statistical evidence to back this up other than the eye test, but Harrison is vitally important to Kentucky's success. Calipari's teams run on point guards. This ship needs a rudder.
If nothing else, look at the games against LSU and Georgia in the SEC tournament, arguably the two best games this team has played all year. Against LSU, Harrison set a new career high with eight assists. Against Georgia, he broke it, tallying up nine.
When Kentucky has played its best ball of the season, Harrison has done his best job of running the team. Those are the facts, I'll let you parse from that what you will.
The big sophomore for Kansas State only averages 3.5 PPG and 14.2 minutes per game, but when the Wildcats play in big games, he can often be found in the thick of things.
The last three times K-State beat a ranked opponent, Johnson averaged 9.7 PPG and shot 12-for-13 combined from the floor. He's the kind of energy player that can really come in and create some havoc in a short period of time.
He can also disappear just as easily, averaging 1.3 PPG in KSU's last three games, all losses. Which Johnson will Kentucky see?
OK, I'm cheating here a little bit. Julius Randle is the SEC Newcomer of the Year and is First-Team All-Conference. He's not exactly an under-the-radar player, but he's also been playing some of his worst basketball lately.
In the SEC tournament, Randle was 9-for-29 (.310) and averaged 11 PPG]. Both well below his season averages.
Randle shows flashes of intensity but far too often displays an air of disinterest. Calipari even kept him on the bench to start the second half against Florida in the SEC Championship trying to light a fire under his butt.
If Kentucky wants to move past the first round and beyond, it is going to need its star player to start playing more like a star player.