HOUSTON — And then there were four.
The excitement of the Final Four's arrival is tempered only by the impending conclusion of yet another wondrous college basketball season. All that remains is three more outcomes, to be decided by ... what, exactly?
Talent, yes. Coaching, of course. Luck, naturally. Yet, if you look closer you can discover the very specific area of the game upon which these outcomes will tip. These are what we like to call "X-factors." We don't know which way they will fall, but we do know they will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
In an effort to discern these areas, I asked my friends at STATS LLC to provide me with two sets of statistics for each of the Final Four teams—one for their wins, and one for their losses. Then I dug into the numbers to figure out which areas indicated the most glaring difference. What I found surprised me—which is the point of this exercise.
Here, then, are my Final Four X-factors. When the games begin, pay close attention to them, and you just might be able to track their influence from opening tip to tipping point. X marks the spot.
X-Factor: Ryan Arcidiacano's three-point shooting
In wins: 12.6 ppg, 44.6% FG, 40.9% 3-pt FG, 83.7% FT
In losses: 10.0 ppg, 35.8% FG, 22.2% 3-pt FG, 75.0% FT
As you can see, Arcidiacano was was nearly twice as efficient from three-point range in Villanova's wins. (The difference was also pronounced with freshman guard Jalen Brunson, who made 28.6% from three in losses and 40.8% in wins.) You'll notice that Arcidiacano also shot a lower percentage from the foul line in the losses. That may seem odd, but what is more striking is that in the five games the Wildcats lost this season, Arcidiacano attempted a total of eight free throws, for an average of 1.6 per game. During the wins, he averaged nearly three free throw attempts per game.
This difference speaks to effectiveness as well as attitude. When Arcidacano's threes are falling, the defense has to press up, which allows him more driving opportunities. And perhaps, if his threes are dropping, he has a little more bounce in his step and is therefore more aggressive in taking the ball to the hole.
From a team-wide perspective, we are used to gauging the Wildcats on whether they are making threes, but the bigger difference comes in the way they defend threes. In their wins, the Wildcats' opponents shot 32.2% from behind the arc. In their losses, opponents shot 44.3%. That includes Dec. 7 in Pearl Harbor, when Oklahoma torched Villanova by making 14 of 26 from three. You think closing out defensively on Buddy Hield and his perimeter pals isn't a top priority for this bunch on Saturday night?
X-Factor: Isaiah Cousins' ballhandling
In wins: 12.4 ppg, 41.5% FG, 43.1% 3-pt FG, 4.9 assts, 2.1 turnovers
In losses: 14.4 ppg, 40.4% FG, 38.2% 3-pt FG, 3.4 assts, 3.1 turnovers
When you're playing alongside the nation's leading scorer, it should not be that hard to rack up assists. So it makes sense that the more Cousins hunts for his shot, the more he turns the ball over, and the worse his team performs. Therefore, Saturday's game could well down down to Cousins' assist-to-turnover ratio. In the Sooners' 29 wins, he had a total of 143 assists to just 62 turnovers, for a ratio of 2.3-to-1. In the seven losses, he had 24 assists to 22 turnovers, for a ratio of 1.1-to-1. And it should be noted that Cousins actually averaged more points per game in losses than wins. That should help frame his mindset properly for Saturday night. Better to be a table-setter than a shot-hunter.
The numbers make the case that not all of Cousins's extra assists go to Hield. Sophomore forward Khadeem Lattin, whose limited offensive game is generally confined to the low post, averaged 6.1 points per game in Oklahoma's wins to just 3.7 in the losses. Something else to keep an eye on: The Sooners also registered a positive rebound margin in the wins (plus 4.0) but were out-rebounded by 5.1 boards per game in their losses.
Icon Sportswire via AP
X-Factor: Joel Berry II's efficiency
In wins: 13.3 ppg, 46.5% FG, 38.1% 3-pt FG, 3.8 assts, 1.5 turnovers
In losses: 9.8 ppg, 31.7% FG, 35.5$ 3-pt FG, 2.3 assts, 1.7 turnovers
I'll bet you thought the biggest difference would be Marcus Paige's three-point shooting. So did I. But here's an odd twist: Paige actually shot better from three in North Carolina's losses (36.4%) than in its wins (34.2%).
As it turns out, the biggest difference was how much production the team got from Paige's backcourtmate. If Berry is not playing well, he's not making good decisions, which means taking bad shots (and therefore shooting a much lower percentage) and being sloppy with the ball. The Tar Heels are evidently reliant on Berry not just to score but also to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Aside from this, there are not as many differences in the stats between North Carolina's losses and wins as one would assume. Overall, the team's three-point shooting is only marginally better in the wins (32.2%, compared to 31.6% in the losses). Yes, the Heels commit more turnovers in their losses, which is to be expected, but the bigger difference is in personal fouls. During their 32 wins, the Tar Heels committed 38 fewer fouls than their opponents. During the six losses, they committed 22 more fouls. Not surprisingly, this meant taking more free throws than opponents in the wins, and fewer in the losses.
X-Factor: Tyler Roberson's rebounding
In wins: 9.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 54.4 fg, 58.9 ft
In losses: 8.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 49.5 fg, 58.6 ft
The No. 1 downside to playing so much zone is the way it leaves a team vulnerable on the defensive glass. Man-to-man allows for more orderly blockout assignments, but in a zone it is easy for an opposing players to slip into the gaps and convert misses. That's where Roberson's rubberband-man board work comes in. The 6'8" junior has had some monster rebounding games this season, grabbing 20 boards in the win at Duke and 18 in the first-round win over Dayton. The Orange will need him to have another one if it is going to upset North Carolina Saturday night.
Roberson's ability to protect the glass will be crucial against North Carolina, which ranks third in the country in offensive rebound percentage. When the Tar Heels beat Syracuse in Chapel Hill on Feb. 29, UNC got 19 offensive rebounds, which allowed it to take 12 more shots than Syracuse. Even though both teams shot just about the exact same field goal percentage, those extra shots allowed the Heels to win by five. They also benefited from the 13 points Berry contributed off the bench, second on the team only to senior forward Brice Johnson's 14 that day.
The other big differentiator for Syracuse is freshman forward Tyler Lydon. He is exceptionally big and skilled, but in the Orange's losses, Lydon only shot 30% from three-point range, compared to 46.7% in the wins. And needless to say, this team needs to have its zone defense working at maximum efficiency to beat good teams. Syracuse's opponents made 46.6% from the floor in its losses to just 37.6% in the wins. Opponents are obviously going to be scoring more points in losses than wins, but the difference is especially stark with Syracuse, which gave up 73.8 points per game in its losses compared to 59.4 points in the wins.