March Madness: 4 Final Four X-Factors

This year’s Final Four is a bit more typical than the last one held in 2019 as three of the squads are either a 1 or 2 seed. Gonzaga steamrolled its way through the region and looks like the clear favorite. Baylor stepped its game up to take care of business in its regional, and Houston took advantage of a friendly path to get to the Final Four.

Then there was the surprise of surprises with 11 seed UCLA, who survived the play-in contest then stunned 2 seed Alabama and 1 seed Michigan in back-to-back games to get here.

As with most years, there are bound to be a couple of players who hit a 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 Indianapolis.

Drew Timme, Gonzaga

Timme is vital to how Gonzaga plays offense and is part of why they can easily score 80-plus points a game. They’ve done exactly that in every tournament game so far. Part of the reason why they score so much is just the sheer volume of attempted shots. Playing at the 19th-fastest pace in the country, Gonzaga has taken at least 55 shots in six straight contests and ended the regular season with an average of 76.2 possessions per game.

In the win over USC, Timme was not necessarily his best, but he still managed 23 points on 10 for 18 shooting. His underrated contributions, though, are his assists and rebounding. In four NCAA Tournament games, he has averaged 7.5 rebounds and 4.25 assists. That latter number may be surprising to some, but Timme is like a tall guard who plays in the frontcourt.

His versatility will be essential against a team like UCLA, who held Michigan to just 49 points in the Elite Eight. It will be a clash of contrasting styles as UCLA ended the regular season ranked just 292nd in pace. Timme should once again be a key cog for the Zags as they look to overcome UCLA’s slow pace and tough defense, which ranks 45th, per KenPom.

Cody Riley, UCLA

For the year, Riley has managed only 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 22.7 minutes a game. But he is a player who is going to be vital in this game against Gonzaga — particularly because he is the only “big” that UCLA can use against the aforementioned Timme. Yes, UCLA has three tall guards who are at least 6-foot-6, but with Riley at 225 pounds, he has the ability to be physical with Timme.

It is Riley’s defensive contributions that will be much needed versus an Gonzaga offense that has basically done whatever it wanted so far in the Big Dance. Riley has blocked 1.2 shots per game during the NCAA Tournament, compared to 0.5 blocks per game during the regular season. He also altered several shots against Michigan in his 18 minutes.

Riley got into foul trouble against Michigan and eveutally fouled out, which is why he logged just 18 minutes. Riley had played at least 26 minutes in three of the four other tourney contests, counting the play-in game.

The Bruins have their work cut out for them to make this a competitive game. The Zags are 14.0-point favorites, and 76% of bettors are still taking Gonzaga to cover, according to oddsFire. A big defensive performance from Riley would certainly help UCLA’s cause.

Matthew Mayer, Baylor

Turning to the other semifinal matchup, we should be in for a good one. Baylor and Houston sit second and fourth, respectively, by our rankings. They’re second and third, respectively, going by KenPom’s numbers, and both teams like to play at a slower pace. KenPom slots Baylor 186th in adjusted tempo with the Cougars are 328th.

Houston’s Quentin Grimes is averaging 18.0 points per game for the season, and he’s shooting 41.3% from downtown. He’s been just as good in the tourney — scoring 18.0 per night while hitting 43.6% of his threes. Baylor will need to find a way to slow him down.

That is where Matthew Mayer comes in.

Mayer is not a starter for Baylor and averages just 15.5 minutes per game. However, he’s played at least 20 minutes in three of the Bears’ four tourney affairs. His defensive rating comes in at an excellent 87.1 for the season. Mayer is averaging 2.0 steals per game in the tournament and is at 1.3 steals per contest for the season. He has at least two steals in three of Baylor’s four tournament outings.

His ability to create turnovers could be vital on Saturday. Against Arkansas in the Elite Eight, Mayer had three huge pilfers in the second half to help Baylor get the win. With Baylor needing to slow down the guards of Houston, Mayer should be a vital piece off the bench.

<h3 “=””>Justin Gorham, Houston

Houston’s defense is playing lights out. They’ve surrendered just 56, 60, 46 and 61 points through four tourney games. For the year, not only were they second overall in the nation in points per game allowed (57.6), they boasted several players with a defensive rating well below 100. One of the best was Gorham, who produced an 88.2 rating while averaging 27.8 minutes per game.

In addition to that, he added 3.9 offensive rebounds per game. Overall, he averages 8.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest. While his usage rate is only 14.7%, Gorham owns a 133.7 offensive rating, according to RealGM.

One way or another, Gorham finds a way to help the Cougars win. In the Sweet 16 victory over Syracuse, he was a force with a plus/minus of 14.7, per Barttorvik. He’s been big in crucial games all season — recording a plus/minus of 10.5 in games against the top-50 quality teams.

Gorham fits the x-factor mold perfectly as he’s a player who can do a little bit of everything and should once again be a massive factor for Houston.