With a combined 13 national championships, a total of 49 Final Four appearances and a barrage of current All-Americans, the 2012 NCAA Final Four embodies brand-name college basketball at its finest: Kansas vs. Ohio State, Kentucky vs. Louisville. While the nation is clamoring for Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger, Anthony Davis and Peyton Siva -- and rightfully so -- let's take a look at each team's X factor as well.
Aaron Craft is the unsung hero of an Ohio State team that relies heavily on his pestering on-ball defense and his ability to thwart the opposition's half-court offense. The sophomore point guard increased his school single-season record to 95 steals in the Buckeyes' win over Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Since the Gonzaga win in the round of 32, he has played all but two possible minutes while maintaining superb energy and composure as the only true ball handler on the roster. His penetration will be vital against Kansas, but perhaps even more important will be his defense against Jayhawks point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who is an explosive scorer also prone to untimely turnovers.
In an impressive turnaround, junior Jeff Withey has gone from bench dud the first two years of his college career to defensive menace. His 20 blocks thus far in the NCAA Tournament have locked down the paint for a Jayhawks team that lacks an elite perimeter defense, with the exception of Travis Releford. While the dream matchup of the Kansas-Ohio State game is clearly Thomas Robinson vs. Jared Sullinger, Withey could ultimately be Sullinger's kryptonite. Sullinger is a behemoth on the low block but has typically struggled against length, and Withey, at a true 7 feet, has plenty of it along with impeccable shot-block timing.
When Kentucky fans chant "Go, Big Blue" during games, they might as well be chanting "Go, Big Glue" about Darius Miller. The consummate teammate, Miller agreed to come off the bench in his senior year to accommodate the influx of new talent entering the Kentucky program. Winner of the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year award, the 6-foot-6 swing man has scored 19 points in two straight games, and he's shooting a healthy 65.2 percent (15-of-23) with six assists during the tournament. If he can extend defenses out with his perimeter jumper, the Wildcats are unbeatable.
Despite playing just 21 minutes off the bench, sophomore Russ Smith (11 points per game) has become a tournament sensation with his bevy of both great and awful plays. A high volume scorer -- he shoots just 35.5 percent from the field while using a team-high 32.5 percent of possessions -- Smith was awesome in leading the Louisville comeback over Florida in the Elite Eight, scoring timely buckets in the lane and providing his trademark superior on-ball defense against Gators point guard Erving Walker, who missed several clutch shots late. Peyton Siva, Smith's counterpart in the backcourt, gets most of the ink, but nobody else on the Cardinals roster has the explosive ability of Smith.
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