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February 15, 2006

SCS.comWhen a team wins a National Championship, everyone looks to the stars of that group and says "so and so carried them to the title." However, even though a team may need a stud go-to guy in order to become the national champion, role players are almost as important.

Last season, Jawad Williams did not get much publicity, nor did Jackie Manuel, but those two played major roles in winning the title for North Carolina. The season before, Rashad Anderson was on fire from three-point range, helping UConn secure a championship. In addition, the Syracuse championship team had guys like Josh Pace and Billy Edelin that were overshadowed by Carmelo Anthony, but they had as much of an impact as he did.

Opposing defenses concentrate primarily on the main scorers; therefore, role players need to step up and become the unsung heroes. Moreover, I'm not talking about third scorers that are capable of having big games. It's more about players that can rebound, pass the ball, and basically do all the little things that help successful teams win.

This season, everyone knows about the J.J. Redicks, the Rudy Gays, and the Randy Foyes of the championship contenders. But what about the players that you may not know right now, but are going to play major roles down the stretch and in the NCAA Tournament? Here are ten contenders and players that are the "x-factors" or potential "unsung heroes" of their respective teams:

DeMarcus Nelson/Sean Dockery (Duke)

Of course, J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams are the leaders of the Blue Devils and are responsible for much of the success that this team has had. However, Nelson and Dockery are going to play huge roles down the stretch. Dockery, not even including his shot against Virginia Tech, has been underrated the entire season. He is an excellent on-ball defender who racks up steals and gets the fast-break going. He is also a solid three-point shooter who has been clutch several times this season. Nelson may be the best athlete on the team. He can guard players bigger than him, considering he played power forward at times last season. In addition, he might be the missing piece to the Blue Devils' puzzle. They lack a third scorer, and he could be able to fill that void. Either way, his athleticism and overall skill will make an impact in March.

Rashad Anderson/Denham Brown (Connecticut)

Didn't I mention Anderson previously? Yes, and he could have the same sort of impact in March that he did in 2004. He is starting to look more and more like the player that he was two years ago, when he seemingly couldn't miss a shot in the NCAA Tournament. He might be the best sixth man in the country, and is instant offense off the bench. Brown is a very solid all-around player. He can shoot the three and has a nice mid-range game. Moreover, he plays good defense and provides even more depth on the wing. Both Anderson and Brown have experience, which could be helpful when the Final Four arrives. The reason these two players are so important to the Huskies is that they are the only true perimeter shooters UConn has. If they are not hitting their threes, Connecticut becomes awfully one-dimensional. Everyone knows about Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, and Marcus Williams, but the two aforementioned wings are going to be key down the stretch.

Kenton Paulino (Texas)

When one looks at Texas, the mammoth frontcourt led by All-Americans P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge comes to mind. In the backcourt, former point guard Daniel Gibson is the center of attention. The reason for the "former" in front of Daniel Gibson? Kenton Paulino. After the Longhorns' two-game losing streak in December, Paulino and Gibson switched positions. Texas is 15-1 since then. Paulino is a solid scorer who is an excellent three-point shooter. He plays good defense and hardly ever turns the ball over. While he is also a decent distributor, the most important thing he does is get the offense flowing. There are plenty of scorers on the Texas team, and it's Paulino's job to get them the ball. When he is struggling, the Longhorns struggle. He can do it all on the court, but, above all else, he wins. And in the end, that's what matters, right?

Joey Dorsey (Memphis)

Rodney Carney. Shawne Williams. Darius Washington. A non-stop flow of athletes and shooters on the wings. That's Memphis. However, in the NCAA Tournament, they are going to need a big man to step up and provide some production down low. That's where Dorsey comes in. He is the Tigers' leading rebounder and shot blocker, and he only plays 21 minutes per game. The problem is that he struggles severely against quality opposing big men. Alabama's Jermareo Davidson had 17 points and 19 rebounds against him; Shelden Williams went for 30 points and 8 boards; Eric Hicks 15 and 14; Paul Millsap had 27 points and 12 rebounds; and the list goes on. I will guarantee that Memphis will play a team with a legit big man sometime along the line in the NCAA Tournament. When that matchup arrives, the Tigers are going to need Dorsey to step up and own the lane. If he does, Memphis could be in Indianapolis and Dorsey will be a hero. If he doesn't, Memphis will be gone after the first weekend. It's not like there's any pressure on him or anything, though.

Will Sheridan (Villanova)

I usually don't write while I'm watching college basketball. I save the writing and analysis for after the game. But this is a special case. Villanova is playing Connecticut right now while I am typing this, and Sheridan is just destroying the Huskies. If he plays like this the entire season, Villanova will forget about Curtis Sumpter and could make a run at a National Championship. He is not your typical big man, but he can step out and hit the mid-range jumper. He also can rebound and block shots on the interior. His line against the vaunted UConn frontcourt? 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 40 minutes. Quite a jump from his season averages of 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block per game. Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry are a better perimeter group than anyone else in the country, but they need an inside player to provide balance. If Sheridan steps up and continues to contribute, you might see the Wildcats in early April.

Joe Herber (West Virginia)

You've been "Pittsnogled." In some cases, you've been "Gansified." But you never get "Herbered." Why's that? Well, aside from the fact that it sounds ridiculous, no one really knows anything about West Virginia outside of Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey. Joe Herber might be the key to this team, though. He can play any position on the court, and is adept at everything a basketball player can possibly do. He is third in scoring, third in rebounding, first in assists, and also averages more than one steal per game. 6'6" forwards shouldn't lead a championship team in assists; and that is not an insult at West Virginia, it is a compliment of Herber. He had back-to-back double-digit assist games earlier this season, has pulled down at least five rebounds eight times this year, and averages nearly double-figures in points. Am I the only one who finds this unfair?

Ronald Ramon (Pittsburgh)

Pittsburgh could be a serious sleeper for the Final Four due to their inside-outside combo of guard Carl Krauser and center Aaron Gray. They are both among the top players at their respective positions, but point guard Ronald Ramon holds the success of this team in the palm of his hands. When he and Krauser switched backcourt positions this season, a lot of pressure fell on Ramon. A wing during his freshman season, he now had to take the reins of a Big East team. The result? A 19-3 record. Ramon is an outstanding three-point shooter and can score if needed. He has put up at least nine points in each of the last six games. Moreover, Ramon takes excellent care of the ball. He hardly ever turns it over and is a solid distributor. His ability to control the game allows Krauser to focus solely on scoring. Ramon's shooting prowess, both from beyond the arc and at the foul line, could play a key role in the NCAA Tournament.

J.J. Sullinger (Ohio State)

Another potential sleeper for the Final Four, the Buckeyes have flown below the radar the entire season. Now, they are starting to get some recognition, with most of that attention focused on marksman Je'Kel Foster and big man Terence Dials. However, J.J. Sullinger might be the best all-around player on OSU. At 6'5", he is second on the team in rebounds, shoots 49% from long-range, and can score both inside and outside. He is very athletic and versatile, and has used those attributes to post some outstanding numbers this season. Sullinger can guard anyone from point guard to power forward, and has the ability to score whenever needed. When he is using all of his skills, Ohio State is tough to beat. Be sure to remember Sullinger when you are filling out your bracket in March.

Andre Patterson (Tennessee)

Yes, the Volunteers could be a potential contender to reach Indianapolis. Their four-guard lineup has garnered some national attention, including their superstar backcourt of C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton. But, like Villanova above, inside production is necessary to pose a serious threat to other contenders. I mean, is 6'4" Dane Bradshaw really going to defend 6'10" Hilton Armstrong? That's where Patterson can step in and play a major role. The UCLA transfer is not the main option down low, but he is a better all-around performer than Major Wingate. Patterson played the first 17 games coming off the bench, but since moving into the starting lineup, Tennessee is 6-0 and Patterson is averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds. He is the best rebounder on the team, and can also defend better than any frontcourt player that the Vols have. If he continues his solid play in the frontcourt, Tennessee will have the requisite inside-outside balance to make a run into late March.

Carl Elliot (George Washington)

Okay, well maybe the Colonials aren't a legit Final Four contender, but when they are only one of two one-loss teams left, they deserve some consideration. Everyone knows they play pressure defense, force a lot of turnovers, and are very athetlic. Pops-Mensah Bonsu and Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock are getting some recognition around the country, and Mike Hall is getting enough attention that his "underrated" label is shedding. But Elliot always seems to be an afterthought when discussing GW. The 6'4" combo guard from Brooklyn is a hard-nosed player who runs the point and gets the offense going for the Colonials. He has excellent size and is one of the best defenders in the country when it comes to steals. Elliot has also become an outstanding three-point shooter (46%). He can score both inside and outside and is an excellent distributor. He is also one of the best rebounding point guards in the nation. Elliot is a very good all-around player who could get some serious attention this postseason if he keeps up the balanced production. When was the last time a New Yorker need more press coverage?

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