NCAA Basketball Tournament 2014: Biggest X-Factors in Sweet 16

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 14:  Willie Cauley-Stein #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats blocks a shot by Jordan Mickey #25 of the LSU Tigers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 14, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The theory for success in the NCAA tournament is that star players lead teams to championships. If you look at recent trends, however, that isn't always the case.

Sure, the 2011 Connecticut team had Kemba Walker to lean on, but Alex Oriakhi had 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in the national title game against Butler. While Anthony Davis led Kentucky to the title in 2012, Doron Lamb was the team's leading scorer with 22 points against Kansas.

Before you start to make those Sweet 16 predictions, make sure you are looking at every player and who is hitting their stride.

We have some help for you, with three critical players to keep an eye on when games tip off on Thursday.


Willie Cauley-Stein, F, Kentucky Wildcats

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Who says John Calipari only recruits one-year wonders? Willie Cauley-Stein is a seasoned veteran as a sophomore who plays in the paint for the Wildcats.

Even though Cauley-Stein is a fixture off Kentucky's bench, the contributions he's able to bring on both sides of the ball are invaluable. Just look at what the 7-footer did in 23 minutes against Wichita State.

The box score shows Cauley-Stein only scored four points and grabbed two rebounds in 23 minutes, but he was brilliant around the basket on both sides of the ballsave for one posterization by Cleanthony Early.

Cauley-Stein had a dunk in the game that showed how assertive he can be in the paint because he's such a matchup nightmare.

I don't understand why Willie Cauley-Stein doesn't do that a lot more. Great finish on the dunk

— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) March 23, 2014

Going back to the second round, Cauley-Stein's defense against Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson was magnificent. He had eight rebounds, four blocks and four steals in Kentucky's victory.

On a team loaded with so many talented freshmen, it's the elder statesman of the group that holds the keys to victory.


Vee Sanford, G, Dayton Flyers

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 20: Vee Sanford #43 of the Dayton Flyers reacts after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 60-59 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the First Niagara Center on March 20, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo
Elsa/Getty Images

In what has to be the surprise matchup of the Sweet 16, the Dayton Flyers will take on the Stanford Cardinal.

Dayton has knocked off a pair of major conference powers in Ohio State and Syracuse thanks to a stingy defense, but it will take more firepower to play in the Elite Eight.

Vee Sanford was a gem off the bench for the Flyers against Syracuse, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds in 17 minutes. He also had the game-winning layup in the Ohio State matchup against one of the best defenders in the country, Aaron Craft.

Dayton didn't have one player who averaged more than 12.4 points per game this season, and only three averaged double figures.

Sanford is the team's best pure shooter, though the guard does lack range from deep.

However, it's his ability to do the grunt work in the paint that makes him such a valuable asset. If Dayton wants to crack the Stanford zone defense that gave Kansas so many problems, Sanford needs to have his best game of the tournament.


Jeronne Maymon, F, Tennessee Volunteers

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 23: Jeronne Maymon #34 of the Tennessee Volunteers goes for a loose ball against the Mercer Bears during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 23, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There are No. 11 seeds and there are No. 11 seeds. Tennessee falls into the latter category after winning three games in five days to earn a date with Michigan in the Sweet 16.

As good as the Wolverines have looked in their first two victories, showing the precise shooting ability that makes them so lethal and surprising defensive acumen that was lacking at times during the season, this is a bad matchup for John Beilein's group.

In the third round, Texas gave Michigan all sorts of problems on the offensive glass with 21 rebounds off its own misses. Unfortunately, the Longhorns weren't able to cash in on those chances, shooting just 37 percent from the field.

If Tennessee gets those second-chance opportunities, it will be a very different story. Jeronne Maymon is part of a huge frontcourt for the Volunteers that helps them play much better than a typical No. 11 seed.

Maymon sees how good his team is, providing this quote to Ben Frederickson of the Knoxville News Sentinel after the Volunteers' dominant victory over Mercer:

Jeronne Maymon: "There really ain't no (Cinderella) story here. We are one of the best teams in the nation."

— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 24, 2014

Maymon has scored just 17 combined points in the last two NCAA tournament games, but has been a force on the glass with 19 rebounds. He doesn't have to score to be a difference-maker, which makes him more dangerous.

Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, both listed at 6'8" and 260 pounds, are matchup nightmares for the smaller Wolverines, whose only real big man is Jordan Morgan (6'10", 250 lbs).


Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted. 

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