The easy part is to focus on the stars of the Final Four that may be the difference in deciding the men’s NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston and UCLA all have players that can take over a game. However, those aren’t always the guys that determine who wins or loses. Often, it is someone unexpected with a big play or big performance. Someone that an defend or hit a clutch shot when defenses focus on bigger priorities.
Each team has such a player that could pivotal. A look at who might be the one to step up when they most need it.
Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga
The three-headed monster of Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs are enough to cause defenses nightmares. If Ayayi is making shots, forget about it. The junior guard from France quietly averages 11.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in the shadow of his more-heralded teammates. He’s displayed a nice shooting touch from the three-point line at 38.5% which makes defenses pay should they focus attention elsewhere. The rebounding stat may be most surprising. He’s only slightly behind Timme for the team lead, showing he is willing to pay attention to his responsibilities on the glass even at 6-5. A cold night from Ayayi might be the only way UCLA can pull off a shocking upset.
RANKING: 10 best college basketball players in the men’s Final Four
BRACKETS: Men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament results and schedules
FINAL FOUR: Breaking down Baylor-Houston, Gonzaga-UCLA matchups
OPINION: This Final Four makes perfect sense, even in a bizarre men’s basketball season
Adam Flagler, Baylor
When the chips were down against Villanova, Flagler was one of the Bears that stepped up in the final minutes to ensure they wouldn’t make an early exit from the tournament. Just the fourth-leading scorer on the team, the reserve led Baylor with 16 points in that game. Flagler gives the Bears another option next to its All-America backcourt of Davion Mitchel and Jared Butler. He can hit an open three if defenders sag off. If they try to put pressure on him, the sophomore can penetrate for his own shot or find someone that if open. Houston must take him into account when setting up its defensive plan.
Justin Gorham, Houston
The Cougars are not an explosive offensive team. They rely on a defense-first philosophy, and Gorham’s size inside plays a big role in them being No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense. His biggest contribution may come on the backboard. Gorham is the leader of one of the top rebounding teams in the country, especially on the offensive end. The Cougars dominated Oregon State in the Sweet 16 with 19 offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive in their narrow win. That kind of effort will be needed against Baylor to get into Monday’s final.
Cody Riley, UCLA
If you’re going to defend Gonzaga — and nobody really has — you have to start from the inside out. That’s where Riley comes in. He has the size at 6-9 and 225 pounds to match up with Timme. The question is whether he can stay on floor long enough to provide that interior defense that would force Gonzaga to rely more on its outside shooting. Riley fouled out in the Sweet 16 win against Michigan and been in foul trouble in other tournament games. Riley’s offense can also be valuable if the Bulldogs key on guards Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez. Without him on the floor, things get more challenging. His backup, Kenneth Nwuba, isn’t as good a defender and hasn’t scored yet this tournament.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith