NCAA Tournament 2016: The Biggest X-Factor for Each Sweet 16 Team

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2016

NCAA Tournament 2016: The Biggest X-Factor for Each Sweet 16 Team

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    To get this far in the NCAA tournament, the 16 teams still alive needed a good mix of clutch performance, mistake avoidance and luck. They also all had to have something they could rely on above all else to get through the first weekend and be part of a select group of schools that are only two games from the Final Four.

    It could be a player, a facet of the offense or defense, or possibly a statistical area in which each team excels. Whatever the case, this thing is as responsible for a school's success to this point as anything else. It also has to continue going the team's way for it to advance further.

    We've identified the X-factor for each Sweet 16 participant, explaining its role in getting the team this far and how it will impact the next game and possibly beyond.


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    Interior defense

    Duke is as perimeter-based as they come among the remaining teams in the NCAA tournament, with senior center Marshall Plumlee working alone in the paint. Freshman Brandon Ingram is at the 4, but he's a stretch 4 at best, and his focus is more on the offensive end than limiting opponents on defense.

    But the Blue Devils need to defend the post in order to get any further since top-seeded Oregon loves to take the ball to the rim.

    Opponents shoot 48.8 percent on two-pointers against Duke, and Yale went 21-of-42 inside the three-point arc in Saturday's second-round game. In its last loss, which came against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, Duke allowed the Fighting Irish to shoot 57.5 percent on twos.


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    The dynamic frontcourt duo

    Relying too much on one player can be problematic, but when that number doubles, it can lead to big results. Just look at Gonzaga, which is at its best when forwards Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer are on their games.

    According to Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller, the Bulldogs "have now won 21 consecutive games in which Wiltjer and Sabonis each score in double figures, although they usually combine for at least 35." Sabonis had 21 and Wiltjer had 13 in the first-round win over Seton Hall, then in Saturday's blowout of third-seeded Utah, they had 19 and 17, respectively.

    Senior guard Eric McClellan's emergence of late—he's had three 20-point games in the past five—has been just as important to Gonzaga's recent run, but it all comes down to what the horses on the front line are doing.


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    Thomas Bryant

    Indiana's depth has made it so only senior guard Yogi Ferrell needs to play more than 26 minutes per game. However, the more Bryant can play, the better. He's the Hoosiers' only interior defender and arguably their second-best offensive player behind Ferrell.

    He just needs to be able to stay in the game to have a major impact.

    Bryant averages 2.8 fouls per game in 22.4 minutes, which translates to five per 40 minutes. He had two fouls in the first three minutes and 10 seconds of Saturday's win against Kentucky but in the second half had 17 of his 19 points, including going 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. Bryant is near automatic from the field, shooting 68.9 percent, and is 17-of-20 on foul shots in the postseason.

    Indiana had a few players get hurt in the second round, losing guard Robert Johnson to a sprained ankle and wing Juwan Morgan to a strained shoulder. If either aren't able to go Friday against North Carolina, that puts even more emphasis on Bryant to come through since it lessens the number of offensive options and thins the rotation.

Iowa State

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    Defending without fouling

    Iowa State has scored 172 points in two NCAA tournament games, with 159 of those coming from its starters. Against Iona, the starting five had 92 of the Cyclones' 94 points, with Deonte Burton adding two free throws off the bench.

    The Cyclones don't go very deep, rarely extending beyond six or seven players, which puts a premium on being able to keep their top players on the court. They've been lucky to avoid any injuries other than the one that shelved guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long in December, but they still have the issue of staying out of foul trouble to deal with.

    Iowa State commits fewer than 15.4 fouls per game, among the lowest rates in the country, yet eight of its 11 losses have come when getting whistled 18 or more times.


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    Point guard play

    Neither Devonte' Graham nor Frank Mason III ranks among the top 50 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, yet when the ball is in their hands, few teams are as immune to mistakes as Kansas. The dual-point guard system has been at the forefront of many of Bill Self's best teams, and the Graham/Mason pairing might be his best yet.

    The pair has combined for 304 assists and just 124 turnovers in 2,360 total minutes of action, each with a turnover rate of around 14 percent.

    Despite being the only sophomore in the lineup, Graham has more than doubled his production from a year ago with 11.4 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 43.8 percent from three-point range. Mason, a junior, has posted career highs in scoring (12.8) and assists (4.6).

    Their ability to take care of the ball and keep the Jayhawks from wasting possessions will be critical against fifth-seeded Maryland and beyond.


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    At 17.1 percent, Maryland's turnover rate is the worst among the remaining NCAA tournament teams. And that's with an incredibly talented backcourt in the form of sophomore Melo Trimble and senior Rasheed Sulaimon doing most of the ball-handling.

    The Terrapins average 13 turnovers per game, giving it away that many times in the first-round NCAA tourney win over South Dakota State that they nearly blew. They only had 10 giveaways in the second-round victory over Hawaii, as their care in the second half helped them pull away in the final 10 minutes.

    Trimble and Sulaimon are among the four Maryland players with at least 60 turnovers, and six of the team's eight losses have come when that duo combined for at least five turnovers.

Miami (Florida)

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    Which Angel Rodriguez shows up?

    There's "Good Angel" and "Bad Angel," and you can probably tell which one Miami prefers to have show up in the Sweet 16 against Villanova. But it's anyone's guess which one the Hurricanes will get, and it's just as likely they'll get a little of both Thursday.

    Miami's senior point guard is averaging career highs across the board in 2015-16, with his shooting numbers way up. The Hurricanes would be even better if he didn't fall back into old habits where he takes ill-advised shots or tries to take over a game instead of keeping the offense diverse.

    "I love to make big-time plays in a big-time game, that's just me," Rodriguez told ESPN's Andy Katz. "I've got to give a lot of credit to my teammates and my coaches. They just seem to always say, 'keep it going, keep it going.' That gets me going, definitely."

    Rodriguez was 9-of-11 from the field and 3-of-4 from three-point range in the second-round win over Wichita State, finishing with a season-high 28 points, yet he also turned it over seven times. It was an example of a good-and-bad game for him and why a large lead dwindled in the second half.   

North Carolina

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    Brice Johnson 

    Johnson has put it all together this season, becoming the explosive offensive power North Carolina coach Roy Williams had always hoped he could be. And with his continued dedication to rebounding on both ends of the floor, Johnson will decide if the Tar Heels can make their first Final Four since winning the 2009 national title.

    It makes many wonder why every offensive play doesn't get run through the senior forward, whose 388 field-goal attempts is only seven more than sophomore Justin Jackson. Four different UNC players average 10 or more shots per game.

    Andrew Carter of the News & Observer wrote about how important it is for Johnson to be on the floor: 

    When Johnson plays as much as he has in the two tournament games—32 minutes in both—and when he's as effective as he has been, UNC hasn't lost this season. You don't want to say the Tar Heels are unbeatable amid those circumstances, but they're a lot closer to it than, say, when Johnson isn't scoring as effectively or when foul trouble limits his playing time.

    Johnson has 39 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocks and is shooting 70 percent in the NCAA tourney.

Notre Dame

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    Zach Auguste

    As Notre Dame's only real inside presence, Auguste rarely finds himself with a size advantage like he did in the first two NCAA tournament games. Neither Michigan nor Stephen F. Austin had an answer for him, leading to 26 points, 27 rebounds and four blocks while only missing two shots on 14 attempts. His only miss in the win over SFA was in the late scrum for the final basket, with Rex Pflueger tipping it in after Auguste's putback didn't connect.  

    The 6'10" senior is averaging 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 56.2 percent. He has 21 double-doubles, though in each of Notre Dame's losses, Auguste either didn't get many touches down low or didn't convert enough of them.

    North Carolina limited him to six shots in the ACC tournament, as the Fighting Irish scored 47 points. In early January at Virginia, he had only two shots in a 77-66 loss. Notre Dame is 2-7 when failing to reach 70 points, and in most of those cases, Auguste's lack of production was significant.

    Wisconsin has allowed only 106 points in its two NCAA games, and it will look to deny Auguste as much as possible.


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    The three-pointer

    Oklahoma shoots a lot of three-pointers and shoots them really well. Most of the time, that is. The Sooners rank second in the country at 42.5 percent, though in four of their seven losses, they were a combined 29.9 percent from outside.

    It's actually not the long-distance accuracy that matters as much to the Sooners' success as it is the frequency. Games when they become too reliant on perimeter shots tend to be the ones when the offense bogs down in the half court and settles for jumpers. Almost 41 percent of the Sooners' shots this year have been threes, with six of their losses coming when they exceeded that rate.  

    Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard all shoot at least 43 percent from three, but jump shooting can run hot and cold. Picking the right spots to take those shots and not being dependent on them will be what gets Oklahoma past Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 to face either Duke or Oregon in the Elite Eight.


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    Forcing turnovers

    Saint Joseph's turned the ball over 11 times against Oregon on Sunday, which served as one of the best performances this year against the Ducks' mistake-forcing defense. Not surprisingly, the Hawks led Oregon in the second half before faltering in the final minutes.

    Oregon records 7.3 steals per game, and opponents have a 17.7 percent turnover rate, enabling the Ducks to use those miscues to get out in transition and score easy baskets. They're 13-1 when forcing at least 15 turnovers.  

    The Ducks are a strong enough offensive team to be able to score just fine without the extra help, as they're 26th nationally in offensive rating. Yet getting the extra boost from those quick-change plays is why they earned a No. 1 seed and are the Pac-12's last hope.


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    For a team that tries so hard to force opponents into taking bad shots—often from three-point range—that will lead to long rebounds, Syracuse isn't very adept at pulling down those misses. The Orange have been out-rebounded 15 times, resulting in a 4-11 record in those games.

    The trend has reversed in the NCAA tournament, with a combined plus-21 rebounding margin in wins over Dayton and Middle Tennessee. They were plus-18 against Dayton and had three more boards than MTSU despite allowing 16 offensive rebounds.

    Syracuse's long and lean lineup of players makes the zone effective in denying penetration, but other than Tyler Roberson, no one seems to be able to rebound. Roberson has been a monster on the boards, but he alone won't be able to deal with Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis and others in the paint.  

Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M can't hope to pull off another miraculous comeback like the one it had against Northern Iowa—even though some of it was a product of the Aggies' ability to force turnovers. A more reliable solution would be to go back to the tried-and-true recipe of dominating on the boards and maximizing second chances.

    The Aggies had 12 offensive rebounds and were plus-10 overall against Northern Iowa, one game after being plus-18 against Green Bay. For the season, they have 163 more rebounds than their opponents and are in the top 50 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. 

    It's a group effort, too, with four players averaging at least 4.3 boards per game. Three different players have recorded double-doubles.


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    Two-point shooting

    Villanova remains one of the most frequent three-point shooters in the country, ranking 24th at 43.7 percent of its field-goal attempts. It used to be a lot higher, taking more threes than twos in eight of the Wildcats' first 11 games, something that's only occurred three more times since then.

    That's because the Wildcats have figured out that shots closer to the basket—while not worth as much—sure do go in more often. They're fourth-best in Division I on two-pointers, making 56.9 percent, and they shot 62.9 percent from inside the arc in Sunday's blowout win over Iowa in the second round. 

    A mix of drives, layups, short jumpers and putbacks is making 'Nova less reliant on the three, though it's never going to abandon that shot. Being more efficient closer to the rim has caused defenses to sag inward, leaving the distance shooters to make at least 40 percent of their threes in six of the last eight games.

    Miami holds opponents to 33.6 percent on threes, meaning Villanova will need to make its shorter shots.


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    Bench scoring

    The Cavaliers have used 10 different starting lineups in 2015-16, though the most common five-some (and the one that's been used all but once since late January) features guards Malcolm Brogdon, Devon Hall and London Perrantes and forwards Anthony Gill and Isaiah Wilkins. They account for 72.7 percent of Virginia's scoring. 

    The Sweet 16 opponent, Iowa State, gets more than 83 percent of its scoring from its five starters.

    Virginia's bench isn't bountiful, but it's not also barren. It features valuable role players who contribute in their own way, most notably guard Marial Shayok and forward Mike Tobey.

    Shayok and Tobey combined for 22 points in Saturday's win over Butler, the third double-digit output from Shayok in Virginia's last four games. For Tobey, he reached 10 for the ninth time, the sixth time off the bench.


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    Bronson Koenig

    Gone are Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and (midway through this season) coach Bo Ryan, the heart and soul of the consecutive Final Four teams Wisconsin had in the previous two seasons. With none of those principals around anymore, the Badgers' season was one that took a while to get going, and even once they made the NCAA tournament, the expectation to go far wasn't great.

    But that meant Koenig's impact and experience was getting discounted. He was part of those Final Four teams, serving as the primary ball-handler for much of last season both when Jackson was injured and after he returned. He started the final 24 games of 2014-15, averaging 9.5 points and 2.8 assists during the NCAA tournament.

    Koenig struggled offensively for much of this season, as did everyone on Wisconsin. At 87th in adjusted offensive efficiency (per, the Badgers are the worst offensive team left in the NCAA field. But Koenig can get hot and have big games, like he did to help the Badgers upset Xavier on Sunday, and the further they get into the tourney, the more his experience will matter.

    "I like to have the ball in my hands in those kinds of situations because I believe in myself," Koenig said in the postgame press conference. "I know my coaches and teammates believe in me."  

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