Four finalists aided by X-factors
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina's Luke Maye can't go to class without getting a standing ovation nor walk across campus without getting stopped by people requesting to take a photo with him.
All because of one shot — one that lifted the Tar Heels past Kentucky to reach the Final Four while turning the sophomore from rotation reserve to sudden star.
"He's big-time now," junior Justin Jackson said. "I feel like we need some security around campus."
Maye headlines a group of players that could emerge as X-factors in determining whether UNC, Gonzaga, Oregon or South Carolina wins the national championship. Don't sleep on Gonzaga's Zach Collins, Oregon's Jordan Bell or South Carolina's Rakym Felder.
"The entire year, (coach Roy Williams) has been putting me in the games, wanting me to make good plays," Maye said Tuesday. "Some games I hit a shot early, in other games I'd just get a rebound or make a good pass. I'm just trying to go out there and help my team win as best I can."
The 6-foot-9 Maye entered last weekend as a player who has had some good moments — including 15 rebounds against Florida State, 13 points at rival North Carolina State — but generally played to spell starters Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks up front.
Yet he had shown a soft shooting touch and the ability to pull defending big men out to the perimeter. And when Hicks got in early foul trouble against Butler in the Sweet 16, Maye became much more than a sub for the Tar Heels (31-7).
The guy who came in averaging 5.1 points in 13.8 minutes per game went for 16 points and 12 rebounds in the win against the Bulldogs. Then, with Hicks struggling against the Wildcats in the Elite Eight, Maye scored 17 points — the last two coming on that jumper with 0.3 seconds left for the 75-73 win.
Maye made 12 of 19 shots and 5 of 8 3-pointers — 63 percent in both cases — during the two-game stop in Memphis, Tennessee, to lift the South Region's No. 1 seed to a record 20th Final Four to face Oregon on Saturday.
"When he sets a screen, most of the time (defenders) are hedging long," Jackson said. "So whenever he pops, it's hard for them to find him. So that's huge. And then outside of that, because he's a stretch-4 there's much more room inside for the guards to drive. ... So when he's in there, I think that really helps us."
Here's a look at players who could emerge from the shadows this weekend in Phoenix:
OREGON: On a team led by Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, 6-9 junior Jordan Bell is averaging 10.9 points and 8.6 rebounds. But after the Ducks lost shot-blocker Chris Boucher to a knee injury during the Pac-12 Tournament, Bell proved his ability to dominate inside by finishing with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks in the Midwest Region final to help the Ducks beat No. 1 seed Kansas for their first Final Four since winning the 1939 NCAA title.
GONZAGA: The West Region's top seed has freshman Zach Collins, a 7-foot McDonald's All-American, coming off the bench behind center Przemek Karnowski. Collins is averaging 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 65.4 percent off the bench, and he's doing it in just 17.2 minutes per game entering the semifinals against South Carolina in a matchup of two first-time Final Four programs.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Rakym Felder is the "New York City point guard" coach Frank Martin says he wanted. The 5-foot-10 freshman has started just once all year and plays 14.5 minutes per game, but has had some key production in the NCAA Tournament — most notably by tallying 15 points, four rebounds and three assists in the upset of 2-seed Duke in the East Region's second round. Felder is shooting a team-best 43 percent from 3-point range while averaging 5.7 points entering the Gonzaga game.