March Madness: 4 Final Four X-Factors
This year's Final Four isn't your average Final Four. There isn't a single blue blood squad remaining, and two of the four programs -- Auburn and Texas Tech -- are making their first ever appearance in a national semifinal.
While many will sit here and point to the lack of intrigue, with Duke and Zion Williamson now eliminated, there are a number of big-time players who have shined brightest on the sport's biggest stage.
For Auburn, senior Bryce Brown has been the standout, posting an average of 18.3 points with 25 and 24 against powerhouses Kansas and Kentucky. For the Virginia Cavaliers, point man Ty Jerome has directed the offense and hit big shots late to get them to this point. As for Texas Tech and Michigan State, the stars are even more obvious in the likes of Jarrett Culver and Cassius Winston.
But for the most part, we know what those guys are bringing to the table. What about the other guys?
As with most years, there's bound to be a couple players who hit a super-timely shot or simply have the performance of their life -- the one their team needs to get to the next and final round. In some way, shape or form, these four x-factors could fly under the radar and push their team to Monday's title tilt in Minneapolis.
Samir Doughty, Auburn
Even with starting forward Chuma Okeke going down with a torn ACL in the Sweet 16, the result didn't change for Bruce Pearl's Tigers. However, the approach was slightly different with others filling in, including Anfernee McLemore. But Auburn also looked to smaller lineups, which is where the 6'4" Doughty comes in.
In the overtime win over Kentucky, the junior logged 33 minutes off the bench, though he didn't do much damage on the scoreboard. In hitting only 1 for 4 from the floor, he tallied just three points, but he contributed elsewhere with seven rebounds (two offensive) and one assist. Doughty was a very active factor in the win after averaging just 20.7 minutes a game through the first three rounds.
His versatility will certainly be key to the Tigers matching up with the Cavaliers' own small-ball lineups, but if he's able to produce on the offensive end, Auburn's chances to advance are even better. In the nine games Doughty has scored 10-plus points this season Auburn is 9-0, including four wins over NCAA tournament teams. They averaged 88.5 points per game and a winning margin of 14.5 in those four victories; Doughty shot 66.7% from the floor and 57.1% from three-point land.
Mamadi Diakite, Virginia
For the year, Diakite has managed only 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 21.3 minutes a game. Prior to the Big Dance, he started 17 of the team's 32 games as he took a backseat to big man Jack Salt. But if you ask anyone who's watched the Cavs' run to the Final Four they'll tell you that Diakite's been their most valuable player throughout this four-game stretch.
In UVA's opening-round comeback over Gardner-Webb, the 6'9" Diakite emerged from the bench to play 27 minutes and rack up 17 points (on 8 of 10 shooting) to go with nine rebounds. He has started every game since then, scoring 14 points twice and grabbing 11 boards in the other. His averages for the tourney are up to 13.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 33.0 minutes per game. And it's that last number that sticks out most.
For all he's done offensively, Diakite's defense has been lights out -- not just now but all year. While he ranks second in the ACC with a 88.4 defensive rating, his 9.7% block rate is third, leading to 1.6 blocks per game and a 7.4 defensive box plus-minus.
If and when Auburn goes small, Diakite and his ability to switch on guards will give Virginia one advantage, but his rim protection might ultimately decide it. The Wahoos are 16-0 when Diakite blocks two or more shots, compared to a 17-3 record when failing to get at least two.
Davide Moretti, Texas Tech
In turning to the other semifinal matchup, we get the 3-seeded Red Raiders and the 2-seeded Spartans, or the nation's leader in defensive win shares (3.4) -- Jarrett Culver -- taking on the player ranked fourth in offensive win shares (5.7) -- Cassius Winston. Everyone will be watching the two stars, however, with Texas Tech checking in as 2.5-point underdogs they'll need someone from the supporting cast to make a mark.
A number of analysts are pointing to journeyman Matt Mooney and his senior leadership, but Moretti, the Italian sharpshooter, is more suited for success against this Sparty defense. The 6'2" senior is first on the team with 69 threes, and his 46.3% conversion rate is also first despite a high three-point attempt rate (.589 -- first among Raiders with 400-plus minutes). This elite level of efficiency, along with a Big 12-best 92.2% from the line, has Moretti second in the conference in true shooting percentage (69.2%), and first in both offensive rating (130.9) and offensive box plus-minus (6.6).
Moretti hasn't faltered under the lights of the national stage, either. He failed to hit a three in either of the team's first two tournament matchups, but that hasn't kept him from averaging 12.0 points on 48.5% shooting. Furthermore, he has hit 11 of his 13 free throw attempts overall, and in the last two he's knocked down five of his eight three-point attempts. Moretti played particularly well in the games against Buffalo and Michigan, ending the latter with the team's best offensive rating and 15 points on 7 shots.
As he looks to mitigate Winston's advantage in the backcourt, Moretti and his perimeter game should play well. Per Hoop-Math, 82.6% of his threes have been assisted, so when the likes of Culver and Mooney meet resistance down low he'll be the one to capitalize. Tech is 12-1 when Moretti hits three-plus treys and 20-4 when he accounts for at least 10 points.
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
That Michigan State defense is home to a few rim protectors. Tied for fourth in field goal percentage against at the rim (50.7%) and 24th in block percentage (15.4%) in that same area, the Spartans boast three players averaging at least a block a game. But, while upperclassmen Nick Ward and Kenny Goins swat 1.3 per, sophomore Xavier Tillman averages 1.7 a game, putting him sixth in the Big Ten conference.
What makes Tillman's shot-blocking all the more impressive is that up until recently he wasn't playing big minutes. He deferred a lot to Ward and has averaged just 23.7 minutes a game, starting 13 of 38. Because of that, his 7.4% block rate is fourth in the conference and a full 1.1% higher than the next-closest guy on his club. In combination with his 20.4% defensive rebound rate, Tillman owns a defensive box plus-minus of 8.9 -- first in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation.
One way or another, Tillman puts a stop to opponents' offensive possessions -- and he wasn't named to the All-Region team for nothing. Through four games, the 6'8" forward is averaging 5.0 defensive boards and 1.8 blocks per game, while he has put up individual defensive ratings of 91, 81, 101 and 90. That last one was against Duke, as Tillman did just enough to slow down Zion Williamson.
Tillman's big impact isn't always felt on the final stat sheet, but the Spartans are 20-3 when his defensive rebounds and blocks have totaled at least six. That moves to 7-1 in the eight games he's started.