All season long, SI.com's Albert Lin uncovered players you needed to know about despite their lack of national attention. Now Lin offers his Final Four Diamonds in the Rough on role players who could become X-Factors this weekend in New Orleans.
Steve Novak, 6-10, freshman, Marquette
Watch him move on the court, and the comparison comes almost reflexively: Steve Novak is almost a carbon copy of former Duke star Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Novak is missing a few things still, namely Dunleavy's NBA pedigree, his superior ballhandling abilities and his sharp passing eye. But Novak is the same height and build, is also a coach's son, has a deadly shot and possesses good perimeter skills for a player his size.
This weekend, Novak hopes to take the parallel one step further by winning an NCAA title, which Dunleavy did in 2001 as a sophomore.
Novak certainly has done his part to help Marquette to the Final Four. In four NCAA tournament games, the Brown Deer, Wis., native has hit 14 of 20 3-pointers. In the second round against Missouri, he made all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in overtime to save the Golden Eagles. In the regional final against Kentucky, he played a career-high 27 minutes and scored 16 points as Marquette advanced in surprisingly easy fashion.
Novak is shooting 52.9 percent from 3-point range this season (55-for-104) and has attempted only 22 shots inside the arc (making 11). Yet as good a touch as he has -- and here, at least, the numbers don't lie -- it took him the better part of three months to adjust to the college game and become comfortable with his role on the team.
"We would get mad at him. We'd be upset with him because he wouldn't shoot," sophomore point guard Travis Diener said. "I don't know what his problem was at the start. When you can shoot like that, I don't know why he was hesitant in the first place."
The 18-year-old is hesitant no more. In his past 12 games he has hit 61.9 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 10.2 points, well above his season average of 6.1. Coaches always say that by the end of their first season, freshmen are no longer freshmen. Novak appears to be a perfect example.
"Early on you're not 100 percent sure exactly what the team might need," Novak said. "As the season went on I was able to more easily recognize what the team needed from me."
Michael Lee, 6-3, sophomore, Kansas
A year ago -- heck, a couple months ago -- this statement would have sounded foolish. But with Kansas down to the last one or two games of its season, Michael Lee may be a more important cog in the Jayhawks' engine than his more heralded high school teammate, Aaron Miles.
Lee was only a top-300 recruit coming out of high school, and he appeared to have more of a future in football, where he was a standout tight end/safety. When he committed to Kansas in the fall of 2000, popular thinking was that the Jayhawks went after Lee only to gain an inside track on Miles, his best friend since second grade.
"People may view it that way," the pair's AAU coach, Troy Berry, told The Wichita Eagle. "I say Michael Lee deserves to play on his own merits. People can call it a package deal if they want, but he's a quality student and a quality basketball player."
After a trying freshman season -- Lee played just 89 minutes while Miles started all but one game and helping Kansas to the Final Four -- we finally are getting a chance to see what Lee brings to the hardwood. In addition to a tailback's body (215 pounds) and football toughness, Lee lately has shown the ability to knock down jumpers, which is precisely Miles' Achilles' heel. Lee shoots 50.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range, while Miles -- granted, in significantly more attempts -- checks in at 40.4 percent overall and an anemic 23.9 percent from beyond the arc.
"The biggest thing is that I'm a lot more comfortable on the court," Lee said. "My shot hasn't gotten any better, it's not necessarily that I'm dribbling any better. I'm just more confident."
Of course, Lee's confidence has never been lacking. He is the first Jayhawk to wear uniform No. 25 since all-time great Danny Manning.
Miles will start the game with the ball in his hands, but should he falter or pick up a few quick fouls (as he did in the regional final against Arizona), Kirk Hinrich can assume playmaking duties. That would mean more playing time for Lee, whose job description is to play defense, hit open shots and minimize mistakes.
Jeremy McNeil, 6-8, junior, Syracuse
Jeremy McNeil's time at Syracuse has been frustrating, to say the least. Only six games into his career, he had surgery to correct a condition called hammer toe in both feet. That led to a medical redshirt. During his second year, he started 21 games but lost his mentor, assistant coach Louis Orr, who left to take the Seton Hall job. As a redshirt sophomore, McNeil saw his spot in the starting lineup taken by freshman Craig Forth, and midway through the season he left the team for a week and contemplated transferring. After renewing his commitment to the program and working hard last summer to improve his conditioning, McNeil had to deal with the death of his mother, Zohnnie, who lost her battle with cancer just before the current season started.
Zohnnie was the reason McNeil returned to the Orange, and it's a fitting tribute that her son has helped Syracuse to the Final Four.
"It's great to see him have success after all he's been through," senior guard Kueth Duany told the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. "No one was closer to his mom than Jeremy was. But she obviously taught him some very good lessons. He knows she would have wanted him to move on with his life and persevere, and he has."
Zohnnie's little boy is actually quite a load, carrying 250-plus pounds on his 6-8 frame. Simply put, McNeil provides a post presence for the Orangemen. Though he has hands of stone and little if any shooting touch, the San Antonio native is one of the nation's top shot blockers and a solid rebounder. McNeil averages an incredible 3.0 blocks in just 19.0 minutes per game, along with 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 fouls. That last number is what keeps him from more playing time, though he still averages more minutes than Forth, despite continuing to come off the bench.
McNeil has decent agility for his size, but athletic is not the first word that comes to mind when you see him. He's not a leaper, but he has a knack for changing shots. He's the team's strongest player and plays good position defense when he moves his feet. And if need be, he can put the ball in the basket: On Feb. 1 he hit two free throws with under a minute left to tie the score against Pittsburgh, then with three seconds remaining scored the game-winner off an offensive rebound.
Sydmill Harris, 6-5, sophomore, TexasSydmill Harris' father, Oscar, has been described as "the Frank Sinatra of the Netherlands." Sydmill isn't asking for that kind of billing; he'd settle for a little more playing time.
Harris is a long, rangy, athletic shooter from the Netherlands. He has a beautiful stroke and the ability to square up to the basket even if the rest of his body is contorted or off balance. What he doesn't have is abundant court time; he's stuck on the Texas bench behind wing starters Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey. However, observers feel he has more pro potential than either and could blossom into a talent along the lines of Xavier star Romain Sato, another foreign-born and -raised player.
In his first game as a Longhorn, against Arizona in November 2001, Harris came off the bench to score 15 points, hitting five of nine 3-pointers. That, unfortunately, was his high for the season. A year later against Notre Dame, Harris was even more explosive, scoring 25 points in 22 points and making nine of 11 shots (including all six 3s).
Still, he rarely sees 20 minutes of action. Harris averages 16 minutes, but in the eight games in which he played more than 20, he scored in double figures seven times, i.e., he produces when given the opportunity. But with a pair of juniors in front of him -- one (Mouton) who plays a similar game, the other (Ivey) a stout defender -- Harris continues to be the odd man out.
That said, he finds other ways to contribute, mainly by bringing an international perspective. Harris is outgoing and gregarious, with a quick wit that makes him a favorite of his teammates. He finds pleasure in the simplest things. He speaks five languages and listens to classical music.
"[The Notre Dame game] was a breakout game for me, and I was wondering if I was capable of having one," Harris told the Austin American-Statesman. "But my criteria for a breakout game has changed. It's not just about points anymore."
That's what coach Rick Barnes likes to hear. Harris' main shortcoming, as with many European players, is his inattention to defense. With his athletic ability, he has the potential to be a standout defender. When that happens, Harris -- whose first name is a combination of the names of his grandfathers, Sydney and Emill -- should hear his name called more often.