RALEIGH, N.C. – Kansas' Lagerald Vick started the year with a series of strong performances – and then abruptly faded for most of Big 12 play.
The 6-foot-5 junior is back to playing reliably productive minutes again, and that's a big reason why the Jayhawks are back in the Final Four for the first time in six years.
Beyond each team's top scorers and best talents, Vick is part of a group that could play critical roles in determining whether Kansas, Villanova, Michigan or Loyola-Chicago ends up hoisting the trophy Monday night in San Antonio. Others include Wildcats guard Phil Booth, Wolverines point guard Zavier Simpson and Ramblers regional hero Ben Richardson.
"I just feel like I do all the little things that people don't always see or can comment or congratulate me on," Vick said Tuesday. "I just feel like I bring the energy, person that can bring a lot of energy, and just do a lot of different things for the team and help us be successful."
Vick is averaging 12.2 points for Kansas (31-7), the No. 1 seed that emerged from a stacked Midwest Region to return to the site of its previous national championship in 2008. But Vick's year has been almost three separate seasons: the strong opening 13 games, a slide into the background during league play – and a resurgence.
Vick averaged 17.4 points on 56 percent shooting to go with 6.4 rebounds, offering enough hops and athleticism to be the team's best dunker and a capable rebounder from the perimeter. That included a career-high 28 points in a loss to Washington, 25 more in a loss to Arizona State and 21 to open Big 12 play against Texas, leaving Vick – not Associated Press first-team All-American Devonte' Graham – as Kansas' top scorer as the calendar turned to 2018.
But things changed. Vick's numbers slid even as he continued to start and log 30-plus minutes. He averaged just 8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 40 percent over the final 18 regular-season games, prompting coach Bill Self to frequently push him for more.
But Vick has been in double figures in seven straight games going to the start of the Big 12 Tournament. And he had 14 points in the overtime win against Duke in the Elite Eight, including some solid high-post plays to attack the vulnerable middle of the Blue Devils' zone.
Vick points to being more aggressive and "taking more responsibility" for his boost.
"His activity level has been similar to what it was a couple of months ago," Self said recently. "I don't think his activity level during league play was quite as good as it was before, and I think there's reasons for that, but I think he's on a serious uptick right now."
Here's a look at players who could emerge from the shadows this weekend in San Antonio:
LOYOLA-CHICAGO: All the attention is on 98-year-old team chaplain and newfound celebrity Sister Jean, but Richardson is coming off a huge performance in the South Region final against Kansas State. The 6-3 senior is the only regular starter not averaging in double figures (7.0 ppg) but he scored a career-high 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting with six rebounds against the Wildcats.
Richardson, a Blue Valley Northwest graduate from Overland Park, Kan., made 6 of 7 3-pointers in that game and shoots 40 percent from behind the arc, part of the 11th-seeded Ramblers' deep range of shooters who will need to come through against a Michigan defense ranked fourth by KenPom in adjusted efficiency (91.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).
MICHIGAN: Simpson is a defensive stalwart and one of the main reasons the Wolverines have become so good on that end, though his offense can be unpredictable. The 6-foot sophomore averages 7.5 points and 3.7 assists, but he's capable of providing a double-figure scoring punch with his crafty drives to the basket and occasional 3-pointer (30 percent).
He could also play an important role is Michigan is ahead late by being the man opponents want to foul; Simpson has made 45 of 88 free throws (.511).
VILLANOVA: This year's Wildcats have a few players – including AP first-team All-American Jalen Brunson – who played in the 2016 title-game win against North Carolina. One of them is Booth, a 6-3 redshirt junior who was averaging just 6.7 points before scoring a team-high 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting off the bench in that win against the Tar Heels.
Booth played just three games last season before being sidelined with a knee injury, and he's averaging 10.3 points on the top-seeded Wildcats' deep offense.