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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.

Illinois’ injury woes continue as starting center needs knee surgery

George Niang,Abdel Nader,Mike Thorne, Jr.
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Illinois suffered another blow in what has already turned out to be a brutal season.

Mike Thorne is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. He reportedly underwent surgery on Monday to repair the injury.

Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, was starting at center for the Illini and doing a good job of it as well. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 boards, although Illinois has started off the season 3-4.

The reason for that slow start has mainly been those injuries. Tracy Abrams is already out for the season after tearing his achilles, and the Illini training room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Kendrick Nunn just returned two games ago from surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. LeRon Black is still getting back to speed after offseason knee surgery. Jaylon Tate is back after dislocating a finger. Jalen Coleman-Lands was slowed by a stress fracture.

John Groce entered this season on the hot seat, and dealing with all of these injuries certainly isn’t helping his cause.

NEW PODCAST: Recapping Feast Week

Kris Dunn
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We talk about a lot of stuff of the podcast today, mainly because a lot of stuff happened since we last spoke with you all.

For starters, we need to discuss the ‘realness’ of Syracuse and Xavier. Are they both truly top 15 teams, or do they just have top 15 resumes? We also dive into Chris Mack’s epic troll-job of Dayton at the Advocare Invitational final.

Other topics we touched on: Whether or not Scott is ever going to apologize to Wayne Selden, Wichita State’s tournament hopes, Texas A&M and whether we’d take Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn or Denzel Valentine today.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. It’s the quickest way to get access on your cell phone or tablet.