Aaron Harrison is going to score. Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and the rest of the members of the you-must-be-6-foot-8-or-taller-to-play front court are going to rebound. Andrew Harrison and (maybe) Tyler Ulis are going to run the point.
Assumptions can be made regarding the 2014-2015 Kentucky basketball season, but several questions remain unanswered. First, what does “X factor” actually mean and secondly, who will inherit the title of Wildcat X Factor this season?
In basketball, the X factor is often defined as the sole player who most significantly alters the outcome of a game in a unique and subtle manner. Julius Randle clearly changed every game for the Wildcats last season, but opposing teams and players acknowledged and were forced to accept his dominance. Every successful team has that key piece in a championship-contending machine that can win a game and ultimately capture a title.
The television show “The X Factor” was canceled by Fox this year, meaning the program ironically lacked a talent judge who provided a significant impact. Adding a Kardashian was not even enough to save the sinking Simon Cowell ship. Every successful television program needs a game changer who provides something unique. Dwight Shrute and Michael Scott carried “The Office,” but Creed Bratton’s presence helped carry the show after Steve Carrell’s character moved to Colorado. Creed was the X factor. Possessing a legitimate X factor can help a team, or t.v. show, succeed.
Head coach John Calipari practically declared to the world that Alex “The Great” Poythress was the Wildcat X Factor for the Wildcats when he said, “Alex won the game” against Louisville in the Sweet 16, but is it true?
Poythress averaged 5.9 points, 4.5 rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per game. Sophomore Poythress digressed in nearly every statistical category compared to his freshman season, except in two crucial fields, blocks and turnovers.
Improved defense, timely rebounding and an ability to maintain possession by Poythress last season rapidly boosted Kentucky’s chance to win. Poythress sparked the Wildcats against Louisville, but another young Wildcat’s surprising performance in that game appears easily forgotten.
Dakari Johnson could also be considered to be the X factor of last year’s runner-up squad. Johnson was absolutely crucial in the Sweet 16 matchup after sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle injury resulted in a career-high 31 minutes for the freshman. With 15 points on 7 for 10 shooting, Johnson quietly carried the Wildcats.
Subtlety is Johnson’s game. Whether Johnson was altering shots on the defensive end or recovering offensive rebounds and laying the ball back in the basket, the 7-footer quietly changed games last season. The case could be made that without Johnson, the Wildcats would have struggled to even make the tournament, let alone defeat Louisville.
Johnson could be the X Factor once again for Kentucky, but I predict his presence and improved skills will be increasingly noticed next season and he will establish himself as a player to be feared.
Another sophomore will become the X Factor for the Wildcats during the 2014-2015 campaign, a sophomore who lacks the McDonald’s All-American credentials. Kentucky native Dominique Hawkins will play a significant role for this team, because basketball is more than spectacular alley-oops, three-point shooting and isolation plays. Despite being an afterthought as a member of the “greatest recruiting class of all time,” Hawkins clawed and fought and refused to allow Calipari to cast him down the bench. Hawkins appeared in 33 games for the Wildcats and his defense was often critical. On the offensive end, Hawkins certainly did not adapt to the college level like a duck to water, but defensively, he was like a hawk to the sky.
Hawkins soars on the court to harass opposing guards by using his strength and anticipation on defense. Ulis will be a blur off the bench for the Wildcats, but Hawkins is a quick combo guard as well and will likely be called on frequently to defend members of the opposing back court. Calipari needs Hawkins to improve his offensive game to feel comfortable leaving him on the floor for an extended period of time, but like last season, Hawkins’ hustle and defense will force Calipari’s hand.
Hawkins just brings a different intensity to the backcourt defensively. The Harrison twins are incredibly gifted, but the double-edged sword that is standing 6-foot-6 at the point guard position disables their ability to guard smaller, quicker guards. Hawkins presence for the Wildcats was imperative a season ago and next March Hawkins’ play on the defensive end in the 2015 NCAA Tournament will help the Wildcats proceed. Most assume Ulis and fellow freshman Devin Booker will anchor the backcourt off the bench, but I firmly believe Hawkins will provide the defensive spark the Wildcats desperately need.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the X factor concept is that it is an inept theory. One player should not and does not change a season. When the Wildcats won the title in 2012, six players averaged 9.9 points or more. Players moved the ball selflessly on offense and rotated on defense with magnificent synergy. The 2014 Wildcats resembled the 2012 team, but not until March.
If the Wildcats are going to surge to glory for the ninth time, every Wildcat will need to be the X Factor, but subscribing to the X Factor theory means pointing to one player as the unique difference maker.
I point to the Hawk.
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