Some of March’s most recognized stars are X-factors; players who take their game to a new level amid the madness of the NCAA Tournament.
Going on a run to the Final Four and beyond is often contingent on such a player stepping up. Each region of this year’s NCAA Tournament has a prime candidate to be that X-factor for his team.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State
Few coaches help their teams find that other gear in March quite like Tom Izzo. His 2014-’15 Spartans may have underachieved in the regular season, but it was evident in their Big Ten Tournament run that Izzo’s March magic is still very much alive.
And no Spartan reached that next level in Chicago quite like Branden Dawson.
A 12-points per game scorer on the season, Dawson returned from a head injury that sidelined him at the end of the regular season to exceed his average in all three Big Ten Tournament games. He also shot 50 percent or better from the floor in each.
Dawson is precisely the kind of physical presence Izzo’s teams rely on. And, like previous Izzo teams, this Michigan State bunch can play with anyone as it proved in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin.
Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame
Notre Dame has not survived the opening weekend of March Madness since 2003. The Fighting Irish need a hero to end their suffering, so it’s only fitting their NCAA Tournament X-factor is a man in Batman socks.
Connaughton is the quintessential, dangerous March shooter. He’s connected at a 43.6 percent clip in 202 attempts from beyond the arc this season, which is just astounding. Consider Steph Curry shot 43.9 percent in the 2008 season, when he led Davidson to the Elite Eight, and you can understand the significance.
Connaughton is more than a 3-point threat, however, leading the Irish with over seven rebounds per game.
He’s truly an example of “playing bigger than his size,” which is what Notre Dame needs to make a Final Four run. The Irish lack Midwest Regional No. 1 Kentucky’s size, but Connaughton can draw at least one of the Wildcats’ big bodies away from the paint in a hypothetical regional final matchup.
Quinn Cook, Duke
Much like Notre Dame’s Conaughton, Quinn Cook is the worst kind of matchup for any NCAA Tournament opponent when his deep ball is falling — and it often is.
Cook shot a hair below 40 percent from 3-point range in the regular season. He went just 1-of-8 from deep in Duke’s ACC Tournament loss to Notre Dame, however, which points to the importance of his shot falling in association with Jahlil Okafor operating down low.
The Blue Devils are at their best when they can stretch the floor, forcing defenses to either risk Okafor being isolated on the block or Cook sinking them from outside.
Cook is also the NCAA Tournament X-factor for these Blue Devils as a rare upperclassmen on one of the Big Dance’s youngest teams.
Brandon Ashley, Arizona
Arizona and Wisconsin landing in the same regional once again is sure to invite comparisons to the overtime thriller the two played in 2014.
Wisconsin won that game en route to the Final Four, and the Badgers returned largely the same lineup, whereas Arizona lost starters Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon.
But, for as much focus as there will likely be on who Arizona is missing, it’s who the Wildcats didn’t have a year ago and do now which makes for their NCAA Tournament X-factor.
Forward Brandon Ashley missed the final two months of the 2013-’14 season after breaking his leg, and the Wildcats certainly could have used his versatility in the loss to Wisconsin.
While there’s hardly any certainty of a rematch, Ashley should play a prominent role in any of Arizona’s tournament matchups.
The junior already began making up for lost March time in the Pac-12 Tournament, averaging 19.7 points and 6.7 rebounds over the course of three games to win Most Outstanding Player.
Ashley’s ability to play with his back to the basket or face up and consistently hit 15-to-18-foot jumpers adds the versatility to Arizona’s offense it lacked a season ago.