The Biggest X-Factor for Each College Basketball AP Top 25 Team
College basketball’s best teams have had three weeks to prove that they’re more than just preseason hype, but that doesn’t mean that we've learned everything about them yet. Even the nation’s best have one or two key players or facets of their games that might turn them into title contenders or ruin a promising season.
At UCLA, for example, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson have the Bruins off to a fantastic offensive start. They could give Arizona a run for its money at the top of the Pac-12, but only if their perimeter weapons get some help from David Wear and his low-post compatriots.
Herein, a closer look at UCLA’s interior offense, along with the unknown that will make or break each of the other teams in this week’s AP Top 25 rankings.
X-Factor: Freshman maturation
Marquette’s perimeter offense is one of the least reliable in the country right now, with starting point guard Derrick Wilson (held scoreless in two of the first five games) the worst offender.
The Golden Eagles’ best hope for relief is a solid recruiting class, but Buzz Williams has been reluctant to throw the youngsters into the fire right away.
Both JaJuan Johnson and Deonte Burton are averaging under 15 minutes a game, but both will eventually blossom into scorers with far more firepower than Wilson or even current scoring leader Todd Mayo.
If that process happens by the time Big East play starts, Marquette will still be a serious threat, but if not, it’ll be a long year in Milwaukee.
X-Factor: Sampson Carter
Until this season, senior Sampson Carter had never scored better than 8.6 points per game or shot better than .250 from beyond the arc.
Through six games, he’s the third-leading scorer for the Minutemen at 13.5 points a night, partly on the strength of eight three-pointers (his total for all of 2012-13) on 18 attempts (a .444 percentage).
The real version of Carter likely lies somewhere between his hot start and last year’s performance. Exactly where on that spectrum he falls could determine how far Chaz Williams and Cady Lalanne can carry this team.
Through five games, Fran McCaffery has gone with an exceptionally deep rotation that has only three Hawkeyes playing as many as 20 minutes a night.
His current 10-man core is getting huge contributions from reserves such as Jarrod Uthoff (the team’s second-leading rebounder) and Anthony Clemmons (second in assists).
It’s almost inevitable that McCaffery will have to cut down, getting more work from fewer players off the bench.
When that happens, it’s either going to expose the lack of individual talent on a roster by committee or leave well-rested Iowa exceptionally well-prepared to handle the physical grind of Big Ten play.
X-Factor: Perimeter shooting
Any offense that relies heavily on three-point shooters is going to be streaky. Michigan’s, with freshman Derrick Walton Jr. still learning his craft at the point, has been even more so than most in the early going.
Against Long Beach State, the Wolverines shot 14-of-30 from deep and won by 24 points. Four days earlier at Iowa State, they’d gone 8-of-29 in a six-point loss.
Which kind of night predominates will determine whether this team is headed to the Final Four or the First Four come March.
Even while Oklahoma State was wiping the floor with Memphis, the Tigers put 80 points on the board. This backcourt has so many scorers that the points will come, but whether it can stop anybody remains to be seen.
The Cowboys shot 49.2 percent from the field in that blowout, while Memphis held Nicholls State to 35.9 percent in an easy win the next time out.
If the Tigers can play even mediocre defense, they’ll be a winning team, so now they have to prove they can climb up far enough to be mediocre against a major-conference opponent.
X-Factor: Will Artino
Starting in place of graduated Greg Echenique, Will Artino is a work in progress at center. The 6’11” junior rarely left the bench in his first two seasons and has played just 15.8 minutes a night so far.
With his length, Artino has the potential to be the defensive deterrent Creighton needs so badly.
He hasn’t dazzled thus far (though 4.5 rebounds per game in such limited action is respectable), but if he gets acclimated quickly to protecting the rim, he could cover for much of the defensive mediocrity on this roster.
X-Factor: Interior scoring
Bruins shooting guard Jordan Adams looks ready to make a run at the Pac-12 scoring title, and backcourt mate Norman Powell is the second-leading scorer on the roster.
Inside, though, UCLA doesn’t have any post players putting up double figures in points at this stage of the season.
The Wear twins aren’t a great bet to expand their offensive roles, with Travis having led last year’s Bruins big men with just 10.9 points a night.
The bigger question is whether Tony Parker, who barely played as a freshman, will develop into a serious offensive threat this year (or ever).
X-Factor: Gary Franklin
No member of Baylor’s all-new starting perimeter corps was a more unexpected choice than Gary Franklin.
The 6’2” senior remains one of the lowest-scoring members of Scott Drew’s rotation but brings enough intangibles to get the nod over three-point specialist Brady Heslip in the starting lineup.
When Franklin gets hot—as he did Monday with 22 points and six assists against Chaminade—Baylor’s spotty offense has little to worry about.
When the veteran disappears, though, he really disappears (zero points and zero assists in 14 foul-plagued minutes against South Carolina) and the Bears have a much tougher time putting points on the board.
17. Iowa State
X-Factor: Naz Long
For the first time in Fred Hoiberg’s coaching career, most of his rotation consists of players he recruited from high school rather than transfers.
One of the biggest surprises in that group is Naz Long, a little-used freshman a year ago but now the Cyclones’ top three-point threat.
Long has made almost as many treys this year (14) as he attempted last season (18), and he’s been scorching the nets early on (.583 from deep).
He won’t keep up that pace, but if he can stay around .400 or better, he’ll be doing more than enough to spread out defenses for Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane.
16. North Carolina
X-Factor: P.J. Hairston
Will P.J. Hairston wear a Tar Heels uniform again? If he does, how soon will he come back? If and when that happens, how effective will he be, and what will he mean for North Carolina?
No one knows the first two answers, a fact that just adds weight to the possibilities Hairston could offer if the NCAA ever lets him back on the court. After all, Marcus Paige has been sensational as a primary scoring option in Hairston’s absence.
Pairing Paige with a player who led last year’s team in scoring (while shooting .396 from long range) would make North Carolina a very real threat to turn Sunday’s statement win at No. 3 Louisville into a routine occurrence.
X-Factor: Chris Walker
North Carolina isn’t the only team waiting on a suspended star.
The Florida Gators won’t get to unveil celebrated freshman Chris Walker until at least January, at which time he’ll either disrupt the flow of a winning team or add a welcome complementary scorer to a blue-collar frontcourt.
Walker is a 6’11” pogo stick of a power forward who figures to take over the team lead in blocks about 10 minutes into his first game.
He’s a spectacular dunker, too, a trait that should fit in well with the high-speed offense that’s helped Casey Prather score almost 18 points a game this season.
X-Factor: Johnathan Loyd
Oregon is 4-0 and scoring almost 90 points per game, and its best returning player hasn’t even gotten on the court yet. When Dominic Artis does come back from his suspension, a major question for coach Dana Altman will be what to do with Johnathan Loyd.
The diminutive senior has done admirable work at point guard in Artis’ absence, handing out 5.3 assists per game and shooting .455 from three-point land.
Loyd doesn’t have Artis’ explosiveness as a scorer, but Altman still must find a way to keep him playing significant minutes for the Ducks offense to reach its highest level.
Through six undefeated games, UConn’s top two rebounders are 6’1” Shabazz Napier and 6’0” Ryan Boatright. As such, it’s hardly a surprise to see the 13th-ranked Huskies placing 200th nationally in boards per game.
The Huskies have already played three games decided by a single possession, and even Napier’s leadership won’t be able to win all the close ones for Kevin Ollie’s team.
Either DeAndre Daniels and the rest of a spidery frontcourt start pulling their weight (such as it is), or the Huskies will suffer some ugly losses to opponents with the personnel to convert on second-shot opportunities.
12. Wichita State
X-Factor: Fred VanVleet
Even Fred VanVleet’s clutch NCAA tournament performances as a freshman gave little indication of the potential he’s shown early in 2013-14.
The 5’11” point guard has been a revelation in place of the graduated Malcolm Armstead, scoring 13.2 points per game (on .500 shooting from the field, yet) and still dishing out 5.8 assists a night.
VanVleet’s been just as precocious on defense, grabbing 2.7 steals per contest.
If he can keep up anything resembling this level of performance over 30 games, he’ll take the Shockers backcourt from the middle of the pack to being a legitimate weapon for postseason play.
X-Factor: Three-point shooting
It’s pretty safe to say that no team is actually good enough to shoot .446 from long range—as Gonzaga has done thus far—over a full season.
How close the Zags can come to maintaining that level of accuracy will say a lot about the postseason prospects of the presumptive WCC champs.
In Monday’s upset loss to Dayton, the Bulldogs went cold in a big way, hitting just five of 19 three-point tries (.263).
Avoiding that kind of slump—from which even Kevin Pangos’ 27 points couldn’t save Gonzaga—will be the biggest factor in this team’s survival against Top 25-caliber foes.
X-Factor: Sam Dekker
Wisconsin’s veteran backcourt provides leadership and the occasional trey, while center Frank Kaminsky is looking like the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki outside.
Sometimes, though, a team needs an easier look at the rim, and the only player the Badgers can turn to is Sam Dekker.
The sophomore combo forward has been Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer (behind Kaminsky) with 14.7 points per game.
When the three-point shots aren’t falling, though, he’ll be the one who has to come through with a baby hook in the paint or a baseline fadeaway, because none of his teammates are equipped to create those kinds of looks for themselves.
With Russ Smith and Chris Jones lighting up scoreboards, the Cardinals have the perimeter game down. As North Carolina proved, though, Louisville isn’t the same team in the paint that it was a year ago.
With Gorgui Dieng gone and Chane Behanan’s role cut down, Louisville allowed Tar Heels reserves Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks to combine for 26 points on 11-of-13 shooting.
There is some defensive talent here—just as the offense is better than Montrezl Harrell’s pitiful five-point showing—but the Cards will not beat good teams without their big men turning that talent into performance.
X-Factor: Tyler Ennis
Tyler Ennis was never going to be Michael Carter-Williams, but he’s shown flashes of being a fine point guard as a freshman. The problem for Syracuse is that he’s also shown flashes of being a built-in self-destruct mechanism for the Orange offense.
Ennis entered Tuesday shooting a gag-inducing .250 from the field thanks to performances such as one point on 0-of-6 shooting against Cornell.
When he gets to the free-throw line (from which he’s already 19-of-25), all is well, but when his jumper starts to go wild, Syracuse is in danger of some long nights.
7. Ohio State
X-Factor: Amir Williams
With Aaron Craft and a bevy of athletic swingmen, Ohio State’s backcourt was never much of a concern.
Up front, though, the Buckeyes looked awfully shaky before the season started—at which point Amir Williams started playing like the McDonald’s All-American he was three years ago.
The 6’11” center slogged through a dreadful 2012-13 season in which he never came close to making good on high expectations, but he’s been a different player this year.
Always a tough defender, he’s dramatically improved his rebounding (8.6 boards per game) and scoring (10 points a night), changes that will make all the difference for Ohio State if he can maintain them through the Big Ten season.
X-Factor: Amile Jefferson
As a freshman, Amile Jefferson provided a high-energy complement to plodding seniors Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. As a sophomore, Jefferson is being asked to go from promising reserve to reliable starter and has decidedly failed to make the transition.
The 6’9” power forward is putting up decent numbers for the minutes he’s playing, but he’s been able to earn himself just 15.7 minutes a night.
Duke desperately needs another viable defender and rebounder to help Jabari Parker, and the Blue Devils will only be a championship team if Jefferson can become that player before the end of this season.
5. Oklahoma State
X-Factor: Bench play
As brilliant as Marcus Smart has been, Oklahoma State’s second unit deserves a ton of credit for the Cowboys’ 100-point-per-game start. 5’11” guards Phil Forte and Stevie Clark are combining for 24.6 points and 5.8 assists per game so far.
The reserves are playing some D, too, with Kamari Murphy blocking 1.5 shots and grabbing 6.0 boards a night.
Louisville showed last March how valuable depth can be in the Big Dance, and OK State’s once-anonymous group could turn out to be one of the best benches in the country.
X-Factor: Gabe York
With so much size and skill up front, Arizona has the kind of lineup that begs opposing defenses to collapse into the paint and clog up the middle.
The best weapon against that approach is the three-point shot, and so far, Gabe York has been providing those in bunches.
The 6’3” sophomore came into the season more noted for his dunking prowess than his shooting touch, but he’s hit 12 of his first 23 tries from deep (52.2 percent accuracy).
If he can keep up the barrage off the bench, he’ll take a lot of pressure off low-scoring point guard T.J. McConnell.
X-Factor: Ball movement
The problem with having a whole team of star-caliber players is that sometimes you wind up with five individuals instead of a team.
Kentucky’s two worst games so far—the loss to Michigan State and Monday’s near catastrophe against Cleveland State—have seen the Wildcats total just 18 assists between them.
That’s the same number UK managed in one game in a 105-76 rout of Texas-Arlington, the team’s best offensive showing.
The issues start with point guard Andrew Harrison (whose 3.8 assists per game are hardly impressive), but all of Kentucky’s players need to work harder to get good shots for each other as well as themselves.
X-Factor: Frank Mason
In a freshman class featuring likely top NBA draft pick Andrew Wiggins, it’s easy to get overlooked. It’s even easier if, like Frank Mason, you’re a 5’11” point guard and the only KU freshman who didn’t make the ESPN 100 for this year’s recruiting class.
Nevertheless, Mason has proven his value in more ways than starting for Naadir Tharpe during the latter’s bizarre season-opening suspension.
The newcomer scored 15 points in a win over Duke, he’s handing out 3.5 assists per game, and he’s giving the KU bench a weapon it never expected to have.
1. Michigan State
X-Factor: Branden Dawson
He’s a 6’6” swingman who hasn’t even started every game this season, but Branden Dawson is Michigan State’s leading rebounder at 9.7 boards per game.
The uber-athletic junior is bringing even more to the table than he’d shown in his previous two seasons as a starter.
On top of his improvement on the glass, Dawson is doubling his previous career best with 2.7 assists per game while keeping up his usual stellar defense and respectable scoring.
With legitimate stars at three spots in the starting lineup, the Spartans will be nearly impossible to beat if Dawson plays as well as he’s been doing through six games.