X-Factors to Watch in Louisville vs. Manhattan NCAA Tournament Matchup
The Louisville Cardinals will begin their quest for a second consecutive national championship on Thursday night at approximately 9:50 p.m. ET against Manhattan in Orlando, Fla.
As we have learned from past tournaments, the stars of a stellar team need some unsung heroes to step up and win big games at some point in the Big Dance.
Before the unknown role players deliver in a clutch situation, we are here to give you a heads up on who to watch out for.
Here is a look at five X-factors who could shape the result of the clash between the Cardinals and Jaspers.
Stephan Van Treese, F, Louisville
Over the last few months we have clamored about the development of Montrezl Harrell down low for Louisville, but there is another player that you must keep an eye out for on Thursday night.
Stephan Van Treese has seen his role increase since the midseason departure of Chane Behanan, and he has done an impressive job of giving the Cardinals quality minutes off the bench.
Head coach Rick Pitino even praised the contributions of the senior during his interview with CBS before the brackets were released on Selection Sunday.
In his last four games, Van Treese has snagged more than eight rebounds, with his season-high of 13 coming on March 8 against UConn.
Emmy Andujar, G, Manhattan
There is no better way to help a team make the NCAA tournament than by contributing 10-plus points in five of the last seven games.
Emmy Andujar, who scored more than 10 points on just five occasions in the first 25 games of the regular season, has elevated his game in a big way during Manhattan's run into the postseason.
The defining performance of the junior's season came back on February 28 in the overtime victory at home against Iona, as he scored a season-high 28.
In the final two games of the MAAC tournament, Andujar scored 33 points in 52 minutes to help the Jaspers earn a spot in the field of 68.
His recent scoring contribution is helping ease the pressure off stars George Beamon and Michael Alvarado as the stakes get higher with every game.
Chris Jones, G, Louisville
Entering the season, Russ Smith needed a second player to emerge to help with production in the backcourt with Peyton Siva leaving the program.
It took some time, but Chris Jones has filled the void that Siva left after the national championship run last season.
He struggled for most of February, but ever since the calendar switched over to March, he has played much better. The junior guard averaged 12.8 points per game during the final five games of the regular season and AAC tournament.
With Jones upping his production in the backcourt to complement the always spectacular Smith, the Cardinals have added another dimension to their game.
Ashton Pankey, F, Manhattan
Make no mistake about it: Manhattan will struggle in the paint against the likes of Harrell, Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang.
To avoid total domination in the paint by their opponent, the Jaspers must rely on Ashton Pankey to perform well off the bench.
He pulled down nine rebounds in the MAAC tournament championship against Iona and must deliver that same type of production to counter the play of the Louisville bigs.
The sophomore, who averages 17.7 minutes per game, can also turn into a threat on the offensive end, as he has scored in double digits on eight occasions this season.
Wayne Blackshear, G-F, Louisville
It is easy to forget about Wayne Blackshear when talking about the players on the Louisville roster, but he will have to make his presence known throughout the NCAA tournament for the Cardinals to succeed.
His playing time has diminished in the last month, and despite the lack of time on the court, he must take advantage of the opportunity when he does step foot on the hardwood.
The junior does bring an experienced hand to the court and will have to hit a few shots if Smith and Luke Hancock fail to get going early.
The one concern about Blackshear is that he tends to pick up fouls quickly in big games, something that must be avoided on a big stage like the NCAA tournament.
Prediction: No. 4 Louisville 88, No. 13 Manhattan 67
Manhattan will not pull off its second-ever upset in the Big Dance because of Louisville's depth.
The Cardinals are peaking at the right time and are receiving contributions from bench players who weren't performing well in the first half of the season.
The Jaspers, who upset Florida in 2004 in the round of 64, should stick with the Cardinals for a few minutes, but expect the defending champions to pull away toward the end of the first stanza.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.