March Madness 2014: 10 Crucial X-Factors in Final Four

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 2, 2014

March Madness 2014: 10 Crucial X-Factors in Final Four

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Nothing quite encapsulates the spirit of March Madness like the term "X-factor," and we've identified 10 X-factors that will determine the outcome of these Final Four games.

    The term gets thrown around so loosely that it has just about lost all meaning, but its roots are in mathematics as a means of identifying an unknown quantity.

    Kentucky's Julius Randle has been a double-double machine, and we don't expect that to stop anytime soon. But what kind of production will the Wildcats get from their secondary big men?

    Shabazz Napier has been incredible thus far in the tournament, but how will he fare against the impeccable defense of Florida?

    Wisconsin's backcourt shot the ball exceptionally well in the first three games of the tournament but struggled in the Elite Eight against Arizona. Which Badgers will show up in Dallas?

    So many unknowns. So little time.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com or KenPom.com (subscription required).

Connecticut's Shot-Blocking Ability

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    Bill Wippert

    Michigan State wanted no part of Connecticut's interior defense in the Elite Eight. The Spartans attempted 29 three-pointers and only 17 two-pointers.

    That's 63.0 percent of their field-goal attempts coming from three-point range.

    For a team like Duke or Creighton, that might not seem out of the ordinary. But even with that anomaly included, Michigan State finished the season attempting just 36.3 percent of its field goals from behind the arc.

    Why the sudden change in offensive approach?

    Led by Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation, rejecting 15.4 percent of the opposition's two-point field-goal attempts. And even though Michigan State attempted only 17 two-pointers, the Huskies still blocked three of them.

    (For what it's worth, that certainly wasn't the first time Michigan State relied heavily on three-pointers against a good shot-blocking team. The Spartans averaged 32 three-point attempts in their three games against Georgetown, Purdue and Virginia Tech.)

    Great as they were during the season, that Elite Eight game was the first time in the tournament that the Huskies blocked more than 10 percent of their opponent's two-point field-goal attempts. If they can rediscover that strength and protect the paint against Florida, they'll have a much better chance of knocking off the No. 1 overall seed.

Kentucky's Offensive Rebounding Prowess

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    The lasting image from Kentucky's victory over Michigan was Aaron Harrison's game-winning three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining on the clock.

    However, the Wildcats never would have even been in that game if not for 17 offensive rebounds which led to 17 second-chance points.

    It's certainly not a surprise that they dominated the offensive glass. Kentucky ranks No. 1 in the country in that department, having grabbed 42.5 percent of possible offensive rebounds.

    But the Wildcats were on a completely different level in the Elite Eight.

    They corralled 63.0 percent (17-of-27) of the possible offensive rebounds. Marcus Lee entered the game with 45 points and 27 rebounds over the course of the entire season, but he had seven offensive rebounds all by his lonesome, finishing the game with a completely unforeseeable 10 points and eight boards.

    When a team is making better than 50 percent of its shots and grabbing better than 60 percent of its misses, that's not even fair. Credit to John Beilein's Wolverines for even keeping the game interesting against those circumstances.

    Both Wisconsin and Florida are substantially better than Michigan on the defensive glass, though, so we'll see if Kentucky can come anywhere close to duplicating that effort.

Free-Throw Shooting

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    Frank Franklin II

    Connecticut has been one of the best free-throw shooting teams this season. At 77.4 percent, the Huskies rank fourth in the country. Thus far in the tournament, they are 81-of-92 (88.0 percent) from the charity stripe.

    Wisconsin is also pretty strong when it comes to freebies, shooting 74.1 percent for the season and 50-of-71 (70.4 percent) during the tournament.

    Those two SEC teams, however, haven't been quite as fundamentally sound. Both Florida (74.0 percent) and Kentucky (71.6 percent) have been considerably more reliable in the tournament, but they still rank well outside the top 200 in free-throw percentage on the year.

    Over the course of the 38 games played, Kentucky shoots just 68.5 percent, while Florida checks in at 66.8 percent.

    More than the percentages, though, the number of free throws that Kentucky is able to take against Wisconsin will be a huge X-factor.

    During the regular season, Kentucky averaged 30.1 free-throw attempts per game, which put the Wildcats in a three-way tie for the second-most freebies per game.

    However, Wisconsin pretty much never commits fouls. Bo Ryan's Badgers are so good at defending without fouling that they rank second in the country in terms of fewest fouls committed per game. Coincidentally enough, the first-place team on that list is Michigan, which just played against the Wildcats and limited them to 11 free throws.

    If Wisconsin is equally capable of keeping Kentucky from attempting one-pointersand has the good fortune of not allowing Kentucky to grab 63 percent of the offensive rebounds or shoot 64 percent from three-point rangethe Badgers could be playing on Monday.

Florida's Overall Rebounding Prowess

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Beating Kentucky on the glass is a pipe dream for most teams. The Wildcats are plus-40 in rebounding margin in the tournament and have won that battle by at least eight boards in each game.

    During the regular season, though, Florida proved to be plenty capable of banging with Kentucky's big men. The Wildcats have been out-rebounded in a game only twice in the last two months, and the Gators were responsible for both of those games.

    Like Kentucky, Florida has won the rebounding battle in each of its four tournament games, resulting in an overall margin of plus-33.

    The most impressive effort during the Gators' tournament run was holding Pittsburgh's Talib Zanna to just six rebounds in 38 minutes. In the 11 games prior to that one, Zanna was averaging one rebound for every 2.97 minutes on the court. His effectiveness was slashed by more than 50 percent by Patric Young and company, as he grabbed just one rebound for every 6.33 minutes of playing time.

    Against a Connecticut team that has broken even in rebounding margin in the tournament, that could be a huge advantage for the Gators. And should they play Kentucky for a fourth time, they might finally be the tournament team that keeps the Wildcats from getting more than 10 offensive rebounds.

Wisconsin's Turnover-Free Offense

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Wisconsin boasts the second-least turnover-prone offense in the country. To this point in the tournament, the Badgers have committed one turnover for every five minutes of game time and one turnover for every 7.5 possessions. 

    For sake of comparison, Kentucky turns it over once every 3.26 minutes and once every 5.0 possessions.

    At this stage of the season, limiting turnovers and maximizing efficiency matter more than ever.

    Wisconsin is not the best shooting team. During the regular season, Wisconsin's field-goal percentage ranked 91st. But because the Badgers rarely turn the ball over, they have the fourth-most efficient offense in the country.

    Of course, Kentucky has won consecutive games against the teams ranked No. 8, No. 16 and No. 1 in that category, so it'll take more than just an efficient offense to advance to the national championship.

DeAndre Daniels

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    Frank Franklin II

    No player remaining in the tournament has a wider range of potential expected outcomes than DeAndre Daniels.

    In Connecticut's first game against Memphis, the 6'9" forward had 23 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and hit 4-of-5 three-point attempts. Against Louisville two days later, he had all of three points and four rebounds.

    Then, three days after that, he exploded for 31 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots against Temple.

    Pretty much any outcome is in play for Daniels. He could score 30 points and shut down Casey Prather in a convincing victory for the Huskies. He could also completely disappear to the shock and awe of nobody.

    Daniels has been pretty consistent as of late, though.

    In each of his last eight games, he has scored at least 11 points and has attempted at least nine field goals. Chances are high that he'll assert himself on the offensive end and try to use his range to draw defenders away from the paint, but there's simply nothing close to a guarantee when it comes to projecting which Daniels will show up.

Kentucky's Second Big Man

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    Charlie Riedel

    With Willie Cauley-Stein unlikely to play again this season, Kentucky will be relying heavily on some combination of Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress to fill the position of Julius Randle's second fiddle.

    Particularly against Wisconsin, that second big man in the paint could be a gigantic difference-maker.

    Frank Kaminsky has been a beast for the Badgers, but he may be overmatched in the post by Kentucky's raw size and athleticism. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker will do what they can, but Hayes will be giving up a few inches, and Dekker will be trailing by quite a few pounds against either Randle or Johnson.

    We've already addressed Kentucky's ability to grab offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats might not even need that many if they're getting first-chance points by feeding the big men down low. Opponents have scored 59.7 percent of their points against the Badgers from two-point field goals.

    If Wisconsin decides to really pack it in even more than usual to provide double-team opportunities against Kentucky's big men, it'll open up James Young and Aaron Harrison to rain three-pointers.

    Even if they aren't getting the ball all that often, as long as Randle, Johnson and Lee are establishing themselves in the paint, Kentucky shouldn't have too much trouble finding uncontested shots.

Shooting Guards for Connecticut and Florida

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Connecticut and Florida are similar in a lot of ways.

    Both teams have a do-it-all point guard who will make at least three "Wow!" plays per game. Both are very good at defending the paint, ranking in the top 15 nationally in two-point field-goal defense. They each rely pretty heavily on their tweener sixth man6'8" G/F Dorian Finney-Smith for Florida and 6'6" G/F Lasan Kromah for Connecticut.

    Where the game will likely be decided, though, is at the shooting guard position.

    Ryan Boatright has done a lot for Connecticut this season, but he has struggled to find his stroke over the past month. In the 12 games since Feb. 23, Boatright is shooting 35.6 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three-point range.

    On the other hand, over Michael Frazier II's last 12 games, he is shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 50.6 percent from three-point range. On the season, he has made nearly three times as many triples as Boatright.

    Through four tournament games, teams are averaging 8.8 made three-pointers on 24.3 attempts against Connecticut. Florida's opponents have averaged just 4.8 successful three-pointers on 16.5 attempts per game.

    Granted, Connecticut has played against a much higher level of competition to this point in the tournament, but the fact remains that Florida has the better three-point shooter and is facing the more porous three-point defense.

    If Frazier can take advantage and hit some open shots—and as long as Shabazz Napier doesn't explode for 45 points—Florida should be able to advance.

Wisconsin's Three-Point Shooting

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Thus far in the tournament, Kentucky's three-point defense has been a bit lackluster. Wichita State hit 10-of-21 triples against the Wildcats. Louisville shot just 4-of-15 behind the arc, but Russ Smith missed a lot of open looks in the first half.

    Wisconsin's starting backcourt couldn't ask for a much better matchup.

    Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson struggled to hit anything against Arizona, but they shot a combined 19-of-36 (52.8 percent) from behind the arc in their first three tournament games.

    Throw in Frank Kaminsky's ability and willingness to shoot three-pointers37-of-98 on the seasonand Wisconsin should be able to counteract Kentucky's size by simply shooting over the top of it.

    The Badgers aren't typically renowned for being three-point assassins, but 39.1 percent of their field-goal attempts this season came from three-point range. Considering Duke had a ratio of 39.7 percent and Michigan's was 40.1 percent, it would appear Bo's Bombers are more reliant on three-pointers than conventional wisdom would have you believe.

Shabazz Napier vs. Florida's Defense

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    Over his last three games, Shabazz Napier is averaging 1.82 points per field-goal attempt.

    However, in the blue corner, Florida has held 11 consecutive opponents to fewer than one point per possession for a total average of 0.88 points per possession. Converting to points per field-goal attempt yields a ratio of 1.08.

    To a certain degree, that's absolutely a comparison between apples and oranges. Napier has attempted far more three-pointers and free throws than your average player during that three-game stretch, so he'll naturally have a higher ratio of points per field-goal attempt.

    Nevertheless, Florida's is by far the best defense Napier has faced in the tournament.

    As ESPN's Eamonn Brennan noted on Thursday, "Against Dayton, Florida led by 14 at halftime, scored five field goals the rest of the game, and still won by 10. They are locked. In."

    In Napier's last five games against top-10 defenses (by adjusted defensive efficiency), he was held to 1.06 points per field-goal attempt by Cincinnati and Louisville.

    If Florida can slow down the odds-on favorite to be named the MOP of the tournament, the Huskies won't even have a prayer.

    Then again, that was the prevailing sentiment about Kemba Walker three years ago.

    How did that plan work out for Connecticut's opponents? 

     

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.