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March 6, 2007

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, Lee Humphrey did not get much publicity, but his three-point shooting in the Final Four was key to Florida winning the title. The season before, neither Jawad Williams nor Jackie Manuel were as well-known as the four lottery picks for North Carolina, but those two played major roles in winning the title for the Tar Heels. Nearly every season, the champions have players that overshadowed by the stars, but they usually have has much of an impact on the Final Four as the All-Americans.

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 Joakim Noahs, the Arron Afflalos, and the Greg Odens 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:

Lorenzo Mata, UCLA: The Bruins are one of the top national title contenders this year, mainly because of their perimeter group. Darren Collison is one of the best point guards in the country, and Arron Afflalo is a legit All-American. Throw in Josh Shipp, and UCLA is loaded in the backcourt. However, if they are going to win it all, theyíll need an inside presence. Mata can provide that. He averages modest numbers, but he has good size and has shown potential at both ends of the floor. Mata has scored in double-figures only eight teams this season, but four of those outings were in the last six games. He could be primed for a big postseason. Just donít put him on the free throw line - he only shoots 37% from the stripe.

Reyshawn Terry, North Carolina: The Tar Heels are arguably the deepest and most talented team in the country, but they are also very young. They are led by Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright on the inside, and Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington on the outside. None of those players is older than a sophomore, though. Thatís where Terry comes in. The 6-8 senior was expected to have a breakout season, but his scoring numbers have dropped by five points per game, and his rebounding numbers have also gone down. Despite that, Terry is a key to UNCís hopes. He can score in a variety of ways, and is very smooth on the offensive end. Terry is one of the best shooters in the ACC, and he gives them experience at both ends. He needs to step it up in the postseason.

Ron Lewis, Ohio State: Sure, Lewis is Ohio Stateís second-leading scorer, but not many people know who he is. Greg Oden gets all the attention, and when he isnít getting the pub, fellow freshmen Mike Conley and Daequan Cook get the accolades. Lewis is going to be a huge part of Ohio Stateís Final Four hopes, however. He put up double-figures in the first eight games of the season, including 30 against North Carolina. Lewis has only had ten games of ten points or more since, though. He provides Ohio State with a good scoring option on the wing, taking some of the pressure off of Oden. Lewis is very adept at driving to the basket, and draws fouls better than most players in the Big Ten. If he is scoring on the wing, Ohio State is much more difficult to guard at that end of the floor.

Michael Flowers, Wisconsin: With Brian Butch out, the Badgers are going to have trouble reaching Atlanta for the Final Four. Unless Flowers steps up as a third scorer, that is. Alando Tucker is one of the best players in the country, and Kammron Taylor provides an excellent second option. Flowers is a do-it-all type of player that provides a little bit of everything for Wisconsin. He can score when if needed, and knocks down the occasional perimeter jumper. More importantly, though, Flowers is a terrific defender and has one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the conference. He wonít make mistakes and also provides experience in the backcourt. Look for him to become more of an offensive option in the postseason, especially with Butch sidelined for possibly the rest of the season.

Sherron Collins, Kansas: One of the Jayhawksí problems all season has been their inability to find a go-to-guy down the stretch when they need a basket. They have loads of talent at every position, but no one has consistently stepped forward in the closing minutes of games. Collins could become that sort of player. He has lost a lot of weight since he stepped on campus, developing into a quicker player. Earlier this season, he had a stretch where he scored double-figures in twelve of fourteen games. However, he has laid a goose egg in the final two games of the regular season. Collins is one of the best shooters on the team, and has the ability to take most players off the dribble. He also has terrific athleticism, helping him finish tough baskets in the lane. I donít think itís a coincidence that Kansas blew a late lead against Texas A&M when Collins was on the bench ó despite scoring 18 points in that game. If he stays on the floor, he will make an impact.

Josh Carter/Dominique Kirk, Texas A&M: The Aggies seem to be a team flying below the radar when it comes to discussing Final Four contenders. I think thatís a mistake; A&M plays terrific defense and has a balanced offense that has a variety of options. Oh, and they have Acie Law, the most clutch player in college basketball. However, their wings are going to have to step up in order for A&M to have a chance to make a run. Carter is one of the top three-point shooters in the country, hitting 52% of his shots from beyond the arc. He really stepped up down the stretch, averaging over 15 points per game in his last four. Kirk is another player that will need to come through in the NCAA Tournament. He is one of the best defenders in America, and has shown the ability to lock down all types of scorers. He held Brandon Rush to 3 of 13 shooting, JamesOn Curry to a combined 8 of 19, and Coloradoís Richard Roby to 4 of 15 shooting. He can also knock down shots on occasion. Remember both of these players in March.

Joey Dorsey, Memphis: When a team goes 27-3 overall and absolutely destroys everyone in their conference, they have to be considered a team to look for in March. The Tigers fit that description. However, when one thinks about John Calipari and Memphis, this is what comes to mind: wings galore on the perimeter, three-pointers flying left and right, athletic players running the floor for transition baskets. Thatís Memphis. In the NCAA Tournament, though, they will need a big guy to step up and provide a presence down low. Enter Joey Dorsey. He is a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker who is strong and takes up space down low. Offensively, he is not overly impressive. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to get points down low, though. He will need to do that for Memphis in the Dance.

Lee Humphrey, Florida: Joakim Noah. Al Horford. Corey Brewer. Taurean Green. All four of those players are All-American candidates, and will undoubtedly be extremely important to Floridaís chances in the coming weeks. Donít overlook Lee Humphrey, though. I mentioned him in the opening because of his terrific three-point shooting exhibition during last yearís Tournament. He will need to provide more of the same this season. Just look at the recent struggles of Florida and Humphreyís numbers. He is 15 for 46 in his last seven games from long-range, and is only 7 for 21 in the Gatorsí three losses. For a 46% three-point shooter, those numbers are alarming. He needs to turn it around in the next few weeks.

Jessie Sapp, Georgetown: The Big East Champions are not your typical Final Four contender, but with Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert up front, the Hoyas can beat anyone. The knock on Georgetown all year, though, has been their perimeter play. However, if the Hoyas get production from their wings, they could make noise. Sapp could fill that role. He does a little of everything for Georgetown. He is fourth in scoring, third in rebounding, second in assists, and first in steals. Sapp is the best passer on the team, and has shown the ability to score from the perimeter in several games this year. He is athletic and makes an impact at both ends of the floor. If he can score consistently from the wing, he gives Georgetown that necessary added dimension for March.

Damion James, Texas: The Longhorns are a sleeper Final Four candidate solely because of Kevin Durant, right? Not so much. While Durant is the best player in the country and provides Texas with an advantage over everyone, he canít do it himself. The backcourt of D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams is another reason that Texas can make a run. But if the Longhorns are standing in Atlanta in early April, freshman Damion James will be a major reason why. He came to school this season as a Durant-type player: a scorer that could play both forward positions and even some wing. Well, with the lack of size that Texas has, James has had to play down low, guarding post players and being a guy that does everything inside. He is only 6-7, but is very athletic and has shown the ability to defend bigger players and even outplay them. Over his last four games, James is averaging over 13 points and 9 rebounds per contest. He will play a major role in March, but wonít get noticed because of Durant and co.

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