Saturday's X-factors: the Final Four hinges on these guys
They aren't the superstars, but the national semifinals could depend on these four players.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- We know the stars. There are plenty of go-to-guys left in the NCAA Tournament. Shabazz Napier has been one of the best players in the country all season long, Julius Randle is a dominant freshman, Scottie Wilbekin is a killer down the stretch of games, and Frank Kaminsky has developed into a matchup nightmare for most opponents. Those guys will obviously play a major factor in Saturday’s games, but the bigger stories could be the secondary guys, the key matchups that could decide the game.
Let’s take a look at four X-factors for Saturday, one from each of the Final Four teams.
Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith
Florida is a balanced unit without a true superstar, although Wilbekin has emerged as the clear go-to-guy this season. On Saturday, though, Dorian Finney-Smith is going to have to be a difference-maker at both ends of the floor. He doesn’t start, coming off the bench for Will Yeguete, but I think he will have to play a bigger role against Connecticut. He’s a versatile weapon that can step out and make shots, find teammates, and put it on the floor a little bit. He’s also a solid defender and can match up with multiple positions.
As a result, I think he’s going to see extended minutes against DeAndre Daniels. Daniels is a matchup nightmare when he gets going, so Finney-Smith can’t let Daniels catch it on the perimeter and get momentum going early. He has to be there on the catch, and also not let him get position in the post for his unblockable fadeaway. Branden Dawson was invisible against Daniels in the Elite Eight game, but Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue showed you can score inside against the Huskies. If Finney-Smith can keep Daniels under control and also get buckets inside, that will be a big boost.
Connecticut: DeAndre Daniels
Daniels has been the X-factor all season long for Connecticut. When he’s playing well offensively, he makes the Huskies much more difficult to defend. Unfortunately, he’s been inconsistent at times throughout his career in Storrs. He’s playing well at the right time, though, averaging 17.0 points and 6.8 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament. He had 27 points and 10 rebounds against Iowa State, and then held his own against Michigan State’s bigger players in the regional final. Without him, the Huskies aren’t in Dallas right now.
Daniels will have to do the same against Florida. The Gators are strong and physical on the inside, and Daniels can’t back down or be soft at the rim. Florida will likely use Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith on him most of the time, and he has to keep them off the offensive glass, while also being a consistent second option on the offensive end. Napier will carry UConn has far as he can, but he’s needed help in the NCAA Tournament. So far, Daniels has been the guy to take the pressure off Napier, but it could be slightly more difficult against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Is he up to the task?
Wisconsin: Nigel Hayes
Hayes is another bench player that will have to play a big role on Saturday, I think. Sam Dekker starts at the power forward spot for the Badgers, but Hayes is much more physical and plays around the rim more. Against Kentucky, his strength will be needed to deal with Julius Randle. Not many people can handle Randle in the post, and while Hayes can’t be expected to completely shut him down, I think he will do a better job than Dekker. Offensively, Hayes also has to be a weapon on the block. He is capable of facing up at 12 feet and attacking, or getting the ball with his back to the basket and turning along the baseline. His 10 points and six rebounds against Baylor were key, and he also had some moments against Aaron Gordon in the regional final.
This also brings about a lineup question for Bo Ryan. If Hayes plays the power forward spot against Randle for long stretches, does Dekker slide to the 3? Wisconsin is most effective when it can spread the floor with its three guards and then Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, or Hayes and Kaminsky. It will be interesting to see what personnel Ryan uses against the Wildcats.
Kentucky: Dakari Johnson
Johnson’s role and importance to Kentucky has grown exponentially in the NCAA Tournament. He took over Willie Cauley-Stein’s starting job during the regular season, and did have some good stretches in the SEC tournament – but he still took a back seat to Cauley-Stein. Now that Cauley-Stein is injured and likely out for the Final Four, Johnson has had to be a consistent player at both ends of the floor. He’s done a solid job the past two games, averaging 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds – including a 15-point, six-rebound effort against Louisville in the regional semifinal. Marcus Lee has moved into the backup role and played pretty well against Michigan, but Johnson is the guy at the center spot now.
And Saturday brings an absolutely brutal matchup for Johnson and Kentucky: Frank Kaminsky. The Wisconsin center has been unstoppable for most of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 19 points against both Oreogn and Baylor, and then dominating Arizona to the tune of 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight. He’s capable of stepping out to 20 feet and knocking down 3-pointers consistently, putting it on the floor and going to the rim, or operating in the low block with his post moves. Johnson will have a difficult time defending him on the perimeter – and Lee will have a tough time on the low block. Kentucky has to try to limit Kaminsky’s ability to dominate both inside and out. Moreover, Johnson has to try to score down low and get Kaminsky in foul trouble.
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