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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.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.