Basketball may be a team game, but in the NCAA tournament, it's hard to go on a deep run without heroes emerging along the way. And when the going gets even tougher in the Elite Eight, with very little separating the remaining teams from a talent perspective, a huge individual performance from a likely, or perhaps unlikely, source is often the difference.
So, which players in this year's Elite Eight are most likely to impact the outcome of their matchups? Which X-factors should you be aware of? Who has the chance to be the hero and lead his team to the Final Four?
Let's break it down.
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Against a Michigan team that is incredibly talented on the perimeter and scores points in bunches, winning the battle on the interior will be key for Kentucky. And that means Julius Randle, the team's star freshman, must have a big game.
Randle is averaging 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament, and just for fun, he also added six assists against Wichita State. ESPN Stats and Information puts into context just how good Randle has been this year (remember, he leads the nation in double-doubles):
Julius Randle is 3rd freshman with double-double in each of 1st 3 NCAA Tourn games. Others are Ed Pinckney (1982) and Gene Banks (1978)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 29, 2014
Julius Randle has 23 double-doubles this season. Only one freshman has had more in a season -- Michael Beasley (28 in 2008).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 29, 2014
The man is a beast. If Michigan can't contain him, Kentucky is heading to the Final Four.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Yes, Aaron Gordon can score the rock. Yes, he throws down some thunderous dunks. Yes, he's one hell of a rebounder. And yes, it isn't easy to find a hole in his game or an area where he doesn't help his team.
But against Wisconsin, what will make Gordon so valuable is that he'll likely be tasked quite often with guarding Frank Kaminsky (13.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG), the top player on the Badgers. And Gordon will most certainly be up for the task.
Why? Because Gordon is as capable of guarding a perimeter player as he is banging down on the block. Because he's the type of player that can completely dominate a game without scoring a point (though he normally chips in his fair share of points). Because he's the best defender on the best defensive team in the country.
Wisconsin's balanced and patient offense will test the Wildcats. Kaminsky will test Gordon and Co. But you'd be wise to expect the freshman phenom to ultimately win that battle.
DeAndre Daniels, UConn
You know Shabazz Napier will get his. After all, few teams have been able to slow down UConn's electrifying guard. But the real key for UConn against a deeper, more talented Michigan State team is the junior forward.
Daniels exploded against Iowa State, finishing with 27 points and 10 rebounds. He's been excellent in the tournament, averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds, but his showing against the Cyclones really opened some eyes.
Napier broke down Daniels' performance against Iowa State, via Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports:
In the beginning, DeAndre was kind of pressing. I just told him, calm down, the game's going to come to you. When he made that first one, and then we got him an easy one. DeAndre is a scorer. And once you feel like you have that confidence, the next shot is going to go in, and we kept feeding him. He got super hot. He had to cool his hand down, and we just kept going.
If he gets hot like that again, the combination of Daniels and Napier on offense and the Huskies' excellent defense might just give the Spartans a run for their money. If he doesn't show up, however, it's hard to see UConn's season continuing.