As any college basketball fan is aware, for a team to have a consistent regular season, earn a national tournament berth, and make a run at the trophy, an unheralded player must step up and perform at a level not expected of them.
There are several guys on this year's Texas Longhorns basketball squad who could easily step up and fill this role as the team's "X-Factor". Who will actually do so is yet to be seen, but some signs from early games suggest three possibilities: Jai Lucas, Dogus Balbay or Matt Hill. Let's take a look at all three of these Longhorns in detail.
Longhorns senior point guard Jai Lucas finally appears to be playing at the level of expectation that preceded him after his transfer two years ago from coach Billy Donovan's Florida Gators program. In the first five games of the season, especially most recently against Rice, Lucas has shown the ability to penetrate the gaps of zone defenses and help his teammates find open looks.
He has been very effective in running the Texas controlled fast break and has done a good enough job on the defensive side of the ball to warrant some additional playing time, minutes that would otherwise go to fellow guard J'Covan Brown.
The knock on Lucas in the past has been his size and strength. There is no doubt that he will encounter some issues in Big 12 play against taller and stronger guards, but if Lucas can use his speed to an advantage in these situations he could become the missing piece in a Longhorn post-season run.
Which Jai Lucas can Longhorn fans expect to see in January and February?
The speedy, cerebral point who makes his teammates better and escalates the pace of play, or, the undersized and over-matched guard who cannot compete with higher level opponents?
If Lucas can maintain the level of consistency which has earned him playing time for coach Rick Barnes here in the early-going, the Longhorns could enjoy a great jolt from the senior.
A fan favorite and gritty performer, Dogus Balbay appears to have added some nice touches to his offensive game during the summer, earning him the opportunity to no longer be stereotyped as the team's primary defender.
Balbay has shown great improvement in ball handling, controlling the offense with confidence and making some great passes both in the open court and the half-court offense. Previously a liability at the free throw line, he has also shown the ability to knock these down with consistency in the early going.
Whether Balbay could become the team's x-factor will depend heavily on the performance of Jai Lucas, and the puzzling J'Covan Brown. Brown has the ability to limit Balbay's minutes if he can keep a cool head, not turn the ball over and hit the open jumper. All of which he has trouble doing consistently.
If Balbay can become a consistent scorer in the point guard role, the entire complexion of the Longhorn offense could change for the better.
Matt Hill's time on the Texas campus is coming to an end as he enters his senior season. Hill has rarely been used over the past few years, yielding minutes to big guys like Brad Buckman, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dexter Pittman.
With Clint Chapman being given a redshirt and Alexis Wangemene not performing consistently, Hill will be looked upon to be productive as a rebounder and defender as the season progresses into conference play.
Hill can shoot the open mid-range jumper and get an occasional fast break dunk or quick putback. While he will not be depended on to score, his defensive abilities will be important for this year's team, if for no other reason, than to spell Tristan Thompson.
If Hill could have a few ten rebound games and throw in a few double-scoring games also, his performance could earn him the confidence from Rick Barnes to be a spot-starter and possible sixth man candidate as post-season play arrives and maturity is needed on the hardwood.
Which of these three guys will become the Longhorns' x-factor in 2010 is hard to tell. What is obvious is that one of them must step their game up to a new level for Texas to make 2010 a season to remember.