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Four Final Four X-Factors

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You know all about the stars of the Final Four at this point. Shabazz Napier and Julius Randle were all-americans. Scottie Wilbekin was the SEC Player of the Year. Frank Kaminsky is no longer the secret weapon for Wisconsin after he shredded Arizona and star forward Aaron Gordon over the weekend.

Those are going to be the guys that get the most attention and the most spotlight, but here are the four biggest x-factors as we head into the final weekend of the college basketball season:

DeAndre Daniels: Daniels has the talent to be a lottery pick. That’s not me speculating, that’s a fact. He’s 6-foot-9 and athletic with three-point range, the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish above the rim, and the length to be an excellent defender at every level. He absolutely dominated Iowa State in the Sweet 16, playing a major role in UConn’s win on a night where Napier had a (relatively speaking) off-night: 27 points, 10-for-15 shooting, 10 boards, two blocks. But he can also go through stretches where he completely vanishes offensively, and those are the nights that UConn struggles.

Against a powerhouse like Florida, UConn is going to need Daniels playing his best basketball. If I’m Kevin Ollie, I go to him early and often. A motivated DeAndre Daniels could be the difference between celebrating a trip to the Final Four and having a chance to play for the national title.

Wisconsin’s defensive rebounding: Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the country. Part of that is common-sense, as no one in the country — let alone in this Final Four — has the kind of size and athleticism to matchup with Kentucky on the front line. But there’s more to it than that: Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom, grabbing 42.5% of their misses.

Wisconsin is a good defensive rebounding team — No. 12 nationally — but that doesn’t mean things are going to be easy against the Wildcats. Wisconsin likes to play three small guards, the biggest of which, Josh Gasser, gives up three inches to the smallest player in Kentucky’s perimeter. Sam Dekker starts at the four, and he’s a 6-foot-7 small forward that will be tasked with blocking out Julius Randle. Nigel Hayes, who plays alongside Kaminsky and Dekker when the Badgers want to go big, may end up being the most important player for Bo Ryan on Saturday.

Kentucky’s three-point shooting: Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young shot a combined 35.1% from three this season. In the NCAA tournament, they have combined to go 22-for-49 from deep, or 44.9%. It’s more than just that, however: in each of their last three wins, the biggest shot of the game — the eventual game-winner — was a three-ball from one of those three. Against Wichita State, Young gave Kentucky the lead for good with a three with just 1:40 left. Against Louisville, it was Aaron Harrison hitting the go-ahead three-pointer with 40 seconds left on the clock. And on Sunday against Michigan, Aaron Harrison hit four threes in the final eight minutes, the last of which came with just 2.3 seconds left on the clock.

Dorian Finney-Smith: UConn has a top ten defense nationally, but if there is a weakness, it is their ability to defend the three-point line. Michael Frazier can shoot the cover off of the ball, and you can bet that the Huskies are going to do everything they can to keep him from showcasing that ability on Saturday night. Scottie Wilbekin is Captain Clutch, meaning that UConn will be expecting him to take and make his open threes. Finney-Smith is the guy that can be a difference-maker. He’s a streaky shooter, a guy that can hit three or four in a row but that also went weeks in between made threes at one point this season. When he’s hitting, he gives the Gators another look in their ball-screen offense with his ability to pick-and-pop.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Kansas/Oklahoma rematch highlights a fun day of hoops

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) and forward Perry Ellis (34) go to the floor with Oklahoma guard Jordan Woodard, back, during the first overtime of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. Kansas defeated Oklahoma 109-106 in triple overtime. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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GAME OF THE NIGHTNo. 6 Kansas at No. 3 Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview.

The rematch we’ve all been waiting for will happen on Saturday.

A little more than a month after Buddy Hield burst onto the national scene with 46 points in a triple-overtime thriller — thriller doesn’t do it justice, that was one of the best college basketball games of all time — the Jayhawks will may their return trip to Norman to take of the Sooners. Only the circumstances of Saturday’s showdown will be a little bit different than what they were on that Monday night in January, when the No. 1 team in the AP poll squared off with the No. 1 team in the Coaches poll.

Oklahoma is no longer the No. 1 team in the country, as they’ve gone just 3-2 in their last five games while needing last-second game-winners to hang on against LSU and Texas during that stretch. But Kansas is not longer ranked at the top of the polls either, as the Jayhawks have managed just a 2-3 record in the Big 12 away from Phog Allen Fieldhouse, with those two wins coming against TCU and Texas Tech. They needed to beat West Virginia on Tuesday night just to ensure that this game would feature two teams sitting at the top of the Big 12 standings.

And that, at the end of the day, is going to be the most important takeaway from this game. Kansas plays four of their last seven Big 12 games on the road, and three of those road trips are against top 25 teams. Oklahoma? They have four road trips left as well, but they will be paying visits to Texas Tech and TCU during that stretch. That’s what makes the result of this one so important. Oklahoma, with a win, would put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Big 12 title race, and with a (road) game left against West Virginia — the third team tied for first in the league — they would control their own title destiny.

Before I move on, there’s one other interesting point that needs to be made here. When these two teams last played, Hield and Kansas guard Wayne Selden both looked like Big 12 Player of the Year candidates. Since then, Hield has emerged as the clear favorite for National Player of the Year, Selden has fallen off the map. It’s been 10 games since these two last faced off. Selden blew up for 33 in the win over Kentucky, but in the other nine games, he’s averaging just 9.9 points; he’s scored a total of 21 points in three games since beating Kentucky.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 24 Texas at No. 14 Iowa State, 8:30 p.m.

The Longhorns are suddenly looking like a legitimate Big 12 contender, which was not exactly expected to happen during Shaka Smart’s first season in Austin. The Cyclones, on the other hand, are trending in the opposite direction. They just lost at Texas Tech, they’re starting center (Jameel McKay) has been suspended for two games stemming from the way he’s behaved in practice and, even with McKay in the lineup, Iowa State is working with, essentially, a six-man rotation. So here’s the question: Will this game be the turning point in Iowa State’s season, or will Texas continue their assault on the top of the conference?

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Duke seems to have righted the ship when it comes to their season. The Blue Devils have won three straight and four of their last five, including Monday’s win over No. 13 Louisville. They get a visit from a streaking No. 7 Virginia at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, a team that has gone from being atrocious on the road to blowing out Louisville and Pitt in their own buildings.

2. No. 5 Xavier was mollywhopped by Creighton on the road on Tuesday. Butler? They picked up a critical win for their bubble profile at Seton Hall on Wednesday. The two will square off in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

3. We’re going to find out a lot about the SEC power structure this weekend. At noon on Saturday, No. 22 Kentucky will travel up to Columbia to take on South Carolina, both of whom are sitting in a tie for first in the league standings. Just an hour later, No. 15 Texas A&M — who was the best team in the SEC but now sits a game out of first place — will trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. The Tigers? They’re right there with Kentucky and South Carolina, tied for first in the conference.

4. The bottom-line is this: Gonzaga will not be receiving an at-large bid to the tournament if they do not win at No. 16 SMU on Saturday. Tip is at 10:00 p.m.

5. There are two games that will be featured on NBCSN on Saturday: James Madison at UNC-Wilmington (3:00 p.m.), Hofstra at Delaware (5:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Saturday afternoon.

OTHER TOP 25 GAMES

  • St. John’s at No. 1 Villanova, 8:00 p.m.
  • Wisconsin at No. 2 Maryland, 6:30 p.m.
  • TCU at No. 10 West Virginia, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 11 Oregon at Stanford, 4:00 p.m.
  • No. 13 Louisville at Notre Dame, 4:00 p.m.
  • No. 15 Texas A&M at LSU, 1:00 p.m.
  • No. 18 Purdue at Michigan, 2:00 p.m.
  • Georgetown at No. 20 Providence, 12:00 p.m.
  • Texas Tech at No. 21 Baylor, 8:00 p.m.
  • Northern Iowa at No. 25 Wichita State, 12:00 p.m.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Wake Forest at N.C. State, 12:00 p.m.
  • Kansas State at Oklahoma State, 12:00 p.m.
  • Arkansas at Ole Miss, 12:00 p.m.
  • Georgia Tech at Clemson, 2:00 p.m.
  • Washington at Colorado, 2:00 p.m.
  • Tennessee at Missouri, 2:00 p.m.
  • East Carolina at Cincinnati, 4:00 p.m.
  • Ohio State at Rutgers, 4:00 p.m.
  • Alabama at Florida, 5:30 p.m.
  • Vanderbilt at Auburn, 6:00 p.m.
  • Saint Louis at VCU, 6:00 p.m.
  • Oregon State at Cal, 6:30 p.m.
  • Georgia at Mississippi State, 8:00 p.m.
  • Tulsa at UConn, 8:00 p.m.
  • Illinois at Northwestern, 8:00 p.m.
  • Creighton at Marquette, 8:00 p.m.

VIDEO: Monmouth hits a game-winner, Bench Mob member tries to disrobe

King Rice
AP
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Monmouth used a 17-2 run in the final minutes to beat Rider on Friday night, a win that will keep the Hawks within striking distance of the kind of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they fall in the MAAC tourney.

The run was capped by star point guard Justin Robinson, who buried this three with three seconds left to put Monmouth up for good, 79-78: