April 5, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Every college basketball pundit who has ever sermonized on the keys to the game has at some time or another addressed the X-factor; a variable, by definition, in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.
Before identifying who or what might be that X-factor for Wisconsin in its national semifinal game here Saturday against Kentucky, it may be instructive to learn how others look at that that variable and to what degree they believe it could influence success.
“An X-factor player,” said CBS studio analyst Clark Kellogg, “is a guy who maybe needs to play his role at maybe a little higher level than the norm.”
The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Kellogg was a difference-maker at Ohio State. In 1982, he was the MVP of the Big Ten and a first-round pick of the Indiana Pacers; the eighth overall selection in a draft that had James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins going No. 1 and No.3
Kellogg was less of an X-factor player than perhaps former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo, who was generally overshadowed on the 1989 “Flyin’ Illini” by his higher profile teammates: Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Lowell Hamilton, Kenny Battle and Marcus Liberty.
Bardo could swing a game’s momentum by shutting down the opponent’s leading scorer. In 1989, he was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and a critical component on an Illinois team that lost in the NCAA semifinals to Michigan, the national champion.
“An X-factor player,” said Bardo, who’s an analyst for Big Ten Network, “is a guy that has great potential -- you kind of think you know him but he has more room to grow.”
Former Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley was a game-changer in much the same fashion as Bardo in that he was also a Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten, the only one in school history. In 2000, he helped guide the Badgers to the Final Four. Now, he’ll call Saturday’s game as part of the Badgers-centric “TeamCast” on truTV.
“An X-factor,” Kelley said, “is someone who may or may not beat you on a given night but in the right circumstances with the right matchup can take over a game; maybe not for all 40 minutes, but for two- and three-minute stretches, and can make a big difference because of that contribution that maybe you weren’t counting on.”
Michigan’s Spike Albrecht fit that description in the 2013 final. Albrecht came off the bench to score 17 points in the first half against Louisville. He made four straight 3-pointers before cooling off dramatically in the second half as the Cardinals went on to win the title.
In this context, ESPN analyst Andy Katz pointed out that an X-factor player is “someone who’s a matchup problem that you’ve got to adjust to.” Like Albrecht was.
“Maybe it’s a guy who does some things that don’t pop out on the stat sheet, whether it’s taking a charge or diving on the floor,” said Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard. “He brings some energy to the game.
“They don’t chart energy anywhere on a stat sheet -- sometimes it shows up in rebounding -- and those things can help a team light a fire, so to speak.
|“An X-factor player,” said CBS studio analyst Clark Kellogg, “is a guy who maybe needs to play his role at maybe a little higher level than the norm.”
“Maybe,” Gard added, “the X-factor doesn’t have to have eye-popping numbers. But they do something specific that helps the team through a rough spot or gets them out of a rut or maybe he gets them over the top.”
After Friday’s open practice at AT&T Stadium, UW assistant Lamont Paris noted that the X-factor can sometimes be a player who has been “sporadic as far as productivity; sometimes they play really well, sometimes they don’t produce as much.”
That’s why he’s a variable. “It can be a guy who doesn’t play as many minutes,” Paris said, “and comes in and makes a couple of shots; or a guy who’s capable of doing something but he hasn’t done it on a consistent basis and this is a chance for him to break out of that mold. Those players who factor in from the get-go are not X-factors.”
Many feel that Alex Poythress could be the X-factor for Kentucky. A year ago, he started 31 of 33 games and averaged 11 points and 6 rebounds. This season, the 6-8, 240-pound Poythress has been used exclusively off the bench by head coach John Calipari.
Poythress had six points over the final five minutes of Kentucky’s win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. He has made eight of nine shots the last three games, an impressive stretch that includes victories over Wichita State and Michigan.
Earlier in the season, Poythress had seven offensive rebounds against Michigan State. Nobody attacks the glass like the Wildcats. In late February, they had an astonishing 26 offensive rebounds against Arkansas, the most by a Kentucky team in 14 years.
“I have only one key to the game for Wisconsin,” said the 52-year-old Kellogg, “and it’s defensive rebounding. I think that’s the biggest key.”
He was not the only one thinking along those lines.
“Defensive rebounding is going to be huge,” Gard said.
“I’m not worried about the first shot, I’m worried about the second shot,” Kelley said.
“If they can stick bodies early and keep them off the offensive glass, they (the Badgers) can win,” Bardo said.
“Second shots are a key. Poythress and (Julius) Randle can get on the backboard, so it’s a critical aspect,” Katz said.
How the game is officiated may be another factor. The Wildcats will aggressively take the ball to the rim with the hopes of drawing fouls or put-backs “and ones.” The Badgers have taken the second fewest fouls in the nation; opponents are averaging 15 free throws.
“This Wisconsin team,” said Bardo, who will turn 46 on Saturday, “is more veteran and able to adjust better (to the officiating) than the young Wildcats.”
The Badgers definitely showed more maturity than Baylor in the Sweet 16.
“Their domination really surprised me,” Kellogg said. “I was floored by how easily and comfortably they won that game and how they had flipped the script (rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit) against Oregon, too.”
So who might be the X-factor against Kentucky?
“I would say either of the freshmen, Nigel Hayes or Bronson Koenig,” said Kelley. “We’re going to need Nigel with his strength, especially how burly Kentucky can be. But, then, Koenig has hit some big shots, too.
“Now you don’t need either one of them to score a ton. But if either of those guys can get some nice contributions on the offensive end, I think it would be fantastic.”
Kellogg also singled out Hayes. “Because of his physicality,” he said, “and his ability to get some additional presence on the glass; to get into them (Kentucky) and draw fouls.”
Hayes has Katz’s vote. “He’s had moments this season where he has been more of a contributor,” he said. “He’s had the normal dips and all of that (as a freshman). This could be the kind of game (where he excels) because they’ll have to go deeper in the rotation.”
Paris had a little different take. “One of the guys who could be an X-factor,” he said, “could be Duje Dukan. His minutes have been a little up and down. But he has the ability to shoot from outside and he could pose a pick-and-pop threat with these guys (Kentucky).”
Bardo went in another direction. “To me, it’s got to be Sam Dekker,” he said. “He’s going to have to be an X-factor because the Kentucky size and length is incredible. Sam is going to have to play big.”
Bardo went back to his original thesis. “You kind of think you know who Sam Dekker is,” he said. “But we know that he has so much more room to grow and this stage might bring it out of him.”
It really keeps coming back to the same things.
“Kentucky is a great offensive rebounding team; we’re a great defensive rebounding team,” Kelley summarized. “Something has to give.”
Whatever happens Saturday, this will be Kelley’s final game as a television analyst. He has worked for both ESPN and Big Ten Network and he wants to spent more time with his family. What a way to go out.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been to a Final Four as a fan, as a player and now as a broadcaster. I’m just pinching myself seeing what this has become; it’s so much bigger than 14 years ago.”
And it has the potential to get even bigger if Wisconsin is playing on Monday.