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February 23, 2010

Down the stretch, X-factors may hold the key

Not every March Madness hero is an All-America player.

Some unusual suspects will emerge and lead their teams to key wins in the final two weeks of the regular season and in the conference tournaments.

The ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-10 still have hotly contested races, and numerous teams need to beef up the resume to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament - or to improve seeding.

Certainly, most superstar players won't disappear down the stretch. But a number of X-factors also will appear. Here is a look at 12 potential X-factors going into the final weeks of the regular season.

C Eric Boateng, Arizona State
The Sun Devils go into their final four games trailing California by a half-game in the Pac-10 standings and face the Golden Bears in Berkeley on Feb. 27. Boateng, a 6-foot-10 senior who began his career at Duke, could end up being a key player against guard-heavy Cal. The Sun Devils are 7-1 when Boateng scores in double-digits. The only exception? A 78-70 loss to Cal on Jan. 28. Boateng, though, can't be blamed for that loss. He had 19 points and 13 rebounds against the Bears.

F Jamal Boykin, California
Boykin is an X-factor in the same way Boateng is one. Like Boateng, Boykin is the top big man on a guard-oriented team. When Boykin makes his presence felt, Cal is in good shape. He has double-digit rebounds in three of the past four games. The exception is an 80-64 loss at Oregon State when he had only two boards. Like Boateng, Boykin - a 6-8 senior - had a big game in the first meeting between Cal and Arizona State with a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds.

F Gilbert Brown, Pittsburgh
Brown, a 6-6 junior who is the Panthers' sixth man, has played in 16 games after returning from a suspension and is Pitt's third-leading scorer. For sure, Brown is a little streaky; he had 20-point games against Georgetown, USF and Seton Hall but was scoreless against Louisville and West Virginia. He also scored 16 in Sunday's win over Villanova. Pitt might not win the Big East regular-season title, but the Panthers - who have 10 league wins - still have a chance to reach 13 conference victories. Why is that benchmark important? In the Ben Howland/Jamie Dixon eras, Pitt has reached the Sweet 16 in each season in which the Panthers won at least 13 Big East games.

F Ryan Butler, Richmond
Richmond (11-2) leads the Atlantic 10, but Temple and Xavier (both 10-2) still have chances to win the conference. Although the Spiders have a game in hand over the other A-10 contenders, they also have arguably the toughest remaining schedule (at Xavier, Dayton, at Charlotte). Guards Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez are all-conference candidates and Dan Geriot is the more established veteran presence, but the Spiders usually win when Butler - a 6-7 senior - is hot. Richmond is 8-1 when he scores in double figures.

G Xavier Henry, Kansas
Kansas already clinched the Big 12 regular season title, but the remaining games aren't easy. There are road trips to Oklahoma State and Missouri plus a rematch with Kansas State. One question for the Jayhawks is whether Henry can carry his momentum into the postseason. Henry, a 6-6 freshman, went through a shooting slump from Jan. 23-Feb. 6 (6.2 points per game, 30.6 percent from the field), but he recently broke out and has averaged 16.8 points on 48.9 percent shooting from the field in the past four games.

F Jon Leuer, Wisconsin
Leuer was an All-Big Ten candidate before a broken wrist forced him to miss nine games in January and February. Leuer - a 6-10 junior - returned last week, but it remains unclear how effective he can be the rest of the way. He had a key block in the win over Northwestern on Sunday. But he also was 2-for-12 from the field with one rebound against Minnesota, a team with good size. Leuer will be able to work out some of the kinks against Big Ten bottom-feeders Indiana and Iowa before the regular-season finale at Illinois.

C Vernon Macklin, Florida
The Gators would have a strong case for the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, but Florida has plenty of opportunities to play itself out of a bid in the final games of the regular season (vs. Tennessee, at Georgia, vs. Vanderbilt, at Kentucky). Macklin - a 6-10 junior who began his career at Georgetown - led the way in the Gators' wins over the Mississippi schools with 20 points against Mississippi State and 22 against Ole Miss. Florida might need him to repeat those feats against SEC East teams in the next two weeks. Macklin is averaging just 6.8 points and 3.0 rebounds against division opponents this season.

G Ramone Moore, Temple
Moore, a 6-4 third-year sophomore, has been a late bloomer for Temple. In his first two seasons on campus, he played only 13 games because of academic troubles. This season, he was a slow starter; he averaged 5.2 points per game in his first 21 games this season. But he has indispensable in the past six games, averaging 16.7 points and shooting 55.7 percent from the field.

Fs Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe, Michigan State
We're listing both because neither has played to his potential. The Spartans still count on point guard Kalin Lucas to produce every night, and one reason is that Morgan and Roe have not developed into reliable options. Morgan, a 6-8 senior, hasn't matched the output of his standout sophomore season. Illness and injury were partly to blame for a mediocre junior season, and this season, Morgan has scored in double figures only once since Jan. 30 (a span in which Michigan State is 3-4). A former five-star prospect, Roe also has struggled this season, in part because of wrist and knee injuries. Roe, a 6-8 sophomore, is averaging only 6.5 points in Big Ten games.

C Dexter Pittman, Texas
So far, Pittman - a 6-10 senior - has been the wrong kind of X-factor for the Longhorns. Pittman had 21 points and 10 rebounds Jan. 5 against Arkansas, but he hasn't come close to that point total since. He largely has been ineffective in Big 12 play, and Texas has slipped from No. 1 in the polls to a tie for fifth in the conference. In conference games, Pittman is averaging 5.9 points and 4.8 boards. If Pittman can return to form, Texas might rediscover what led it to a 17-0 start.

F Jordan Williams, Maryland
A key to Maryland's success this season has been the players who have developed around Greivis Vasquez. Put Williams, a 6-10 freshman, on that list. He has developed into a legitimate double-double threat in ACC play. He's a missed free throw away from having three consecutive double-doubles and is the ACC's fourth-leading rebounder in conference games. Maryland is looking good for a tournament bid, but the Terrapins still have challenges ahead of them in the final three games (at Virginia Tech, Duke, at Virginia).

C Brian Zoubek, Duke
Duke's top three players - Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith - have carried the Blue Devils this far, but developing a presence down low could come in handy in the NCAA tournament. While freshman Miles Plumlee's role has diminished, Zoubek's has grown. Zoubek - a 7-1 senior - had 16 rebounds Sunday against Virginia Tech, a week after a 16-point, 17-rebound performance in Duke's first meeting with Maryland. In the March 3 rematch in College Park, Zoubek's play could go a long way toward helping Duke nail down the ACC regular-season title.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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