NCAA Tournament 2017: Biggest X-Factors in Every Sweet 16 Game

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2017

NCAA Tournament 2017: Biggest X-Factors in Every Sweet 16 Game

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    The line between winning and losing in this week's Sweet 16 games figures to be razor thin, and a little issue here or there, or the contributions of an unsung player could make a major difference.

    We expect the star players to be stars, and we expect teams to continue to dominate in areas that they typically dominate. But what about the role players who could turn a close loss into a glorious victory, or the underlying issues that could separate an Elite Eight berth from a season-ending loss.

    Those are the X-factors, and they may determine which eight teams remain standing when Thursday's and Friday's games are over.

    For each game, we cited three X-factors: one player from each team who could play a pivotal role, and one issue that could be the key variable in the game.

     

    The source for statistics is NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

     

Gonzaga vs. West Virginia

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    Gonzaga player: Zach Collins

    Although Collins, a freshman, does not start, he is probably the Bulldogs' best pro prospect, sitting at No. 25 in the Draft Express' rankings of the top 100 NBA prospects, ahead of Johnathan Motley of Baylor and T.J. Leaf of UCLA, among others. Collins averages 10.3 points on 65.2 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds in just 17.3 minutes per game.

    He averaged 12.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in the first two tournament games, but his biggest postseason contributions may have been his seven blocks, one of which was the controversial block against Northwestern that the Wildcats thought was goaltending.

    In the one game Gonzaga lost, Collins was in foul trouble and scored just six points.

     

    West Virginia player: Esa Ahmad

    The Mountaineers' identity is their pressure defense that forces so many turnovers. But a key component of their halfcourt offense is the 6'8" Ahmad, the team's second-leading scorer and No. 3 rebounder. When he is productive in scoring and rebounding, the Mountaineers win. When he isn't, bad things tend to happen to West Virginia.

    He has averaged 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in the Mountaineers' two tournament wins and needs to match or exceed that against Gonzaga.

    Subpar games by Ahmad played a role in each of West Virginia's last five losses. In the back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State, Ahmad had just nine points and four rebounds in the two games combined. In the home loss to Oklahoma State, Ahmad had zero points and zero rebounds in 14 minutes. He did not play in the nine-point loss at Baylor, and collected just two rebounds along with 10 points in the defeat to Iowa State in the conference tournament.

    Ahmad's two best games came in West Virginia's two impressive performances against Kansas. He had 27 points in the Mountaineers' 16-point home win over the Jayhawks, and he had 20 points and seven boards at Allen Fieldhouse, when West Virginia somehow blew a 14-point lead with less than three minutes left in an overtime loss.

     

    The issue: point-guard battle

    Yes, West Virginia point guard Jevon Carter and his Gonzaga counterpart, Nigel Williams-Goss, are their teams' stars and leading scorers, but how they do in terms of controlling the pace of the game will be critical. 

    Carter, who averages 2.53 steals per game (seventh-best in the country), will try to force turnovers in West Virginia's press. The Mountaineers force an average 20.11 turnovers per game from their opponents, by far the most in the nation.

    Williams-Goss must be the point man in managing West Virginia's press. Gonzaga has shown it can be rattled. It cost the Bulldogs their one loss as they let a 12-point lead with less than 14 minutes left get away in a home loss to BYU. The Bulldogs then nearly lost a 20-point lead with less than 13 minutes left in the second-round game against Northwestern, which got within five with more than four minutes remaining.

Arizona vs. Xavier

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    Arizona player: Lauri Markkanen

    Allonzo Trier has emerged as Arizona's star since becoming eligible midway through the season. That has pushed 7'0" freshman Lauri Markkanen into a secondary role, but he remains the chief barometer of the Wildcats' success.

    Markkanen fouled out after just 21 minutes of playing time in the loss to Butler. He went 4-of-14 from the field, including 0-of-3 from long range, in the loss to Gonzaga. He had just four points and three boards in the 27-point loss to Oregon.

    The best example came in the games against UCLA. He failed to reach his scoring average in his 10-point effort in the loss to UCLA, but averaged 23.5 points in the two wins over the Bruins.

    He had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the second-round win over Saint Mary's, and though he is a very capable three-point shooter at 43.3 percent, he has gone away from that aspect of his game in recent matchups and enjoyed success closer to the basket. He has attempted just three three-pointers in his past three games combined.

     

    Xavier player: Kaiser Gates

    It is almost a given that Trevon Bluiett must continue his scoring rampage, but for Xavier to upset Arizona, it probably needs another productive game from sixth man Kaiser Gates. 

    At 6'8", Gates is the Musketeers' tallest player on the court in many cases in their four-guard alignment. He must do his best to offset the size advantage enjoyed by the Wildcats, who start two 7-footers (Markkanen and Dusan Ristic).

    Gates averages just 6.0 points, but he has been outstanding in the postseason, averaging 12.5 points while hitting 7-of-11 three-pointers in the two games. His effort against Florida State, when he scored 14 points, hit 4-of-5 three-pointers and pulled down five rebounds, was a major reason the Musketeers punished the third-seeded Seminoles by 25 points.

     

    The issue: pressure

    Xavier, a No. 11 seed, is playing free and easy after finishing 9-9 in the Big East and suffering through a six-game losing streak late in the season that took them off everyone's radar. They are on a roll in the postseason and are simply enjoying the ride of unexpected success.

    Arizona, meanwhile, won't be satisfied unless it gets to the Final Four after sharing the Pac-12 regular-season title and winning the conference tournament to wind up ranked No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll.

    Sean Miller, once the head coach at Xavier, has put Arizona in the Elite Eight three times and got Xavier there once, but he has never coaxed his team to the Final Four. With a star in Trier, a likely NBA lottery pick in Markkanen (according to Draft Express) and a Wildcats team that is playing its best basketball of the season right now, Miller may have his best chance, and he probably knows it.

    "You almost feel like you've been kicked out of the tournament, because they have to...they have to logistically work it out to get you home," Miller told the Washington Post of losing the Elite Eight game.

    If things start going sideways for Arizona, the pressure will mount.

UCLA vs. Kentucky

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    Kentucky player: Malik Monk

    Yes, we know Monk was was an all-conference selection and is Kentucky's top scorer at 20.0 points per game. But he has not been the scoring machine in the postseason that he was through the regular season. 

    He led the Wildcats in assists (4) and blocks (2) in the win over Wichita State. But a major reason why Kentucky beat the Shockers by just three points and had a tougher time than expected in a nine-point win over Northern Kentucky was that Monk averaged only 13.0 points in those games, hitting just 6-of-21 shots, including 2-of-11 from long range. 

    If that trend continues against UCLA, Kentucky's season is over. The Wildcats need something spectacular from Monk, like the 24-point game he had in the 97-92 loss to UCLA in December, or, better yet, like the 47-point game he had in the win over North Carolina.

     

    UCLA player: T.J. Leaf

    With all the attention Lonzo Ball gets, you may not realize that T.J. Leaf is UCLA's leading scorer (16.6 points per game), top field-goal percentage shooter (61.6 percent), best three-point shooter (45.6 percent) and second-leading rebounder (8.2). When he hits his averages, the Bruins win. When he doesn't...well, it's not always a success.

    Leaf failed to reach his scoring average in any of the Bruins' four losses this season, and he made more than half his shots in only one of them. He scored 23 points in the first-round victory over Kent State but was held to 11 in the second round against Cincinnati.

    The Bruins need him to be as productive as he was in the Bruins' win over Kentucky in December, when he scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting and added 13 rebounds and five assists.

     

    The issue: stopping opposing point guard

    The point guard matchup between freshmen Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox should be classic stuff. Draft Express projects both to be among the top five picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and they have been outstanding lately.

    The team that wins probably will be the one that limits the opposing point guard more effectively. UCLA plays a zone defense much of the time and will need to minimize the bold penetration moves and speedy breakaways that characterize Fox's success. Kentucky's mission is to prevent Ball from dominating the pace of the game as he often does with his long, look-ahead passes, his crafty steals or his deep, deep three-point shots.

North Carolina vs. Butler

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    North Carolina player: Joel Berry II

    The issue here is health. It was uncertain whether Berry would play in Sunday's game against Arkansas after suffering an ankle injury. He played, but seemed to be limited by the injury. In fact, Berry was not his typically productive self in either tournament game, going 3-of-21 from the field, including 3-of-14 on three-pointers, for 13 points in the two games combined. An 81.3 percent foul shooter, Berry wasn't great at the foul line either, making 4-of-7.

    The Tar Heels barely got by No. 8-seeded Arkansas with Berry struggling, and they need Berry's perimeter threat to complement their inside game and Justin Jackson's varied talents.

    Berry has not reached his scoring average (14.4 points per game) in any of the past four games. His most recent productive game was his 28-point performance against Duke on March 4, when he hit all five of his three-point shots. Not surprisingly, the Tar Heels won that game.

    North Carolina must hope Berry's ankle is fine and his shooting eye is focused when it plays Butler.

     

    Butler player: Kelan Martin

    Andrew Chrabascz was Butler's only first-team all-Big East selection, but Martin is the player who needs to come up big against the Tar Heels.

    Martin has been coming off the bench for the past 10 games but still leads the team in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (5.8). Butler is tough to beat when Martin has a big game, as he did in the road victory over Villanova when he collected 22 points and eight rebounds.

    He was instrumental in Butler's second-round win over Middle Tennessee, collecting 19 points, six rebounds and four assists while making 3-of-6 three-point shots. If he can bring that kind of production off the bench against North Carolina, the Bulldogs might have a chance.

     

    The issue: rebounding

    This is not a question of which team will win the rebounding battle, the issue is by how much. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin, collecting an average of 13.1 more rebounds per game than its opponent. No other team is even close to that figure. The Tar Heels get offensive rebounds on 41.3 percent of their missed shots, according to teamrankings.com, which also leads the nation.

    With its big frontcourt, which includes 6'10", 260-pound Kennedy Meeks, 6'9", 242-pound Isaiah Hicks, and 6'11", 240-pound sixth-man freshman Tony Bradley, it's easy to see why the Tar Heels control the boards.

    Somehow Butler, with no starter taller than 6'8" Tyler Wideman, must avoid having North Carolina play volleyball on the offensive boards. If the Bulldogs get out-rebounded by a half-dozen or so, they have a chance. But if Butler gets out-rebounded by more than 10 boards, as it did in its March 4 loss to Seton Hall, the Bulldogs have problems.

Baylor vs. South Carolina

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    Baylor player: Manu Lecomte

    Most of the season Lecomte has provided the outside threat that complements Johnathan Motley's inside game. But a sprained ankle Lecomte suffered in the Feb. 18 loss to Iowa State has messed with that formula. Leconte missed two games late in the season because of the injury, then re-aggravated it in the loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament, as noted by the Dallas Morning News.

    He started both games of the NCAA tournament but seemed to be affected by the ankle problem. He had made 42.2 percent of his three-point shots coming into the NCAA tournament but has hit only 1-of-8 in the two postseason games.

    The Bears need Lecomte's ankle and shooting to improve.

     

    South Carolina player: Duane Notice

    Sindarius Thornwell has carried the Gamecocks this far, scoring 29 and 24 points in the tournament wins over Marquette and Duke. But to advance much farther, South Carolina needs another player to provide offensive support. Guard Duane Notice might be that player.

    Notice has been gloriously inconsistent offensively. He went scoreless in South Carolina's loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament, scored two points in a loss to Memphis, and went 1-of-11 from the field in a regular-season loss to Alabama.

    But he has also had some big games, such as his 27-point effort in a win against Auburn and a 17-point game in a victory over LSU. But his most important performance came in the second-round NCAA tournament game against Duke, when he scored 17 point on 6-of-8 shooting. The Gamecocks probably would not have won that game without Notice.

    Notice's strength is his defense, and his work at the defensive end played a major role in the win over Marquette, as noted by The State.

    For South Carolina to advance, Notice may need to make an impact at both ends.

     

    The issue: turnovers

    The Gamecocks are experts at forcing turnovers, and Baylor has been all too willing to give the ball away.

    Baylor shoots a high percentage (47.6) and is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, while South Carolina is mediocre at best in both categories. So if Baylor can simply take care of the ball, it should control the game.

    That is easier said than done, though. The Gamecocks' in-your-face defense forces 17.29 turnovers per game, which ranks fifth in the country, while Baylor commits 13.3 turnovers per game, which ranks 209th nationally in the category of fewest turnovers. You can see the problem for the Bears.

    South Carolina forced Marquette and Duke into 18 turnovers apiece, a major reason the Gamecocks won both games. Baylor committed just 12 turnovers in each of its first two tournament games, and if it can limit the damage to 12 turnovers again, it has an excellent chance to advance to the Elite Eight.

Florida vs. Wisconsin

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    Florida player: Devin Robinson

    Somehow Florida beat Virginia by 26 points in the second round even though the Gators' top two scorers, KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, and second-team all-conference selection Kasey Hill combined to go 4-for-22 from the field for 14 points. The Gators' defense, which limited Virginia to 29.6 percent shooting, was biggest reason Florida won that game, but the production from Devin Robinson was a significant factor too.

    The 6'8" Robinson is averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, but he poured in 24 points, matching a season high, to go along with seven rebounds in the win over East Tennessee State. He followed that up with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Virginia.

    His effort in the paint at both ends is particularly important against Wisconsin, which features two capable low-post players in Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes.

     

    Wisconsin player: Nigel Hayes

    As the preseason Big Ten player of the year, Hayes was expected to do great things this season. He was adequate, but his scoring (13.8 points per game) is down nearly two points from last season and his shooting percentage (45.2) and rebounding (6.6 per game) are nothing special.

    Hayes is no longer the team's star. Happ was the Badgers' only first-team all-conference selection, and Bronson Koenig is the team's top scorer and the hot offensive player at the moment.

    But quietly Hayes is starting to re-assert himself as a dominant player. Over the past four games, against quality teams (Northwestern, Michigan, Virginia Tech and Villanova), he averaged 16.8 points on 53.2 percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds.

    And when the Badgers needed a basket with the score tied and 20 seconds left against Villanova, they went to Hayes. He delivered with a sweet hesitation move to convert the winning basket, finishing with 19 points.

     

    The issue: scoring in the paint

    The one major advantage Wisconsin had against Villanova was its inside scoring potential. The Wildcats' lack of size made it difficult for them to defend against 6'8" Hayes, who had 19 points and eight rebounds, and 6'10" Happ, who had 12 points and eight rebounds despite being limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble.

    Florida is an excellent defensive team, ranking third nationally in Ken Pomeroy's defense efficiency ratings. But, like Villanova, the Gators have a little trouble defending talented big men. Florida lost all three games to Vanderbilt, and the presence of the Commodores' 7'1" Luke Kornet, who averaged 15.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in those three games, was part of the reason.

    Florida beat Arkansas twice, but the Razorbacks' 6'10" Moses Kingsley averaged 15.0 points and 11.5 rebounds in those games. Duke's 6'9" Amile Jefferson had 24 points and 15 rebounds in the Blue Devils' victory over Florida.

    If Florida can prevent Hayes and Happ from owning the paint, the Gators can advance. That won't be easy, though.

Kansas vs. Purdue

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    Kansas player: Devonte' Graham

    Point guard Frank Mason III was named national player of the year by The Sporting News and USA Today, and freshman Josh Jackson is projected by Draft Express to be the third player taken in this year's NBA draft. 

    But when guard Devonte' Graham is productive, the Jayhawks usually win. When his shooting is off, Kansas is vulnerable. The Jayhawks lost only four games this season, but bad shooting games by Graham were contributing factors in three of them. He shot 3-of-11 in the loss to Indiana, 4-of-13 in the loss to Iowa State and 2-of-10 in the stunning loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament.

    He has shot very well in the NCAA tournament, however, and that is bad news for Purdue. Graham scored 16 and 18 points in the wins over UC Davis and Michigan State, respectively, and made 11-of-17 shots overall and 8-of-13 three-pointers. Graham also has seven postseason steals.

     

    Purdue player: Vince Edwards

    With Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan getting most of the attention, it's easy to see why the importance of small forward Vince Edwards gets lost. But there is a clear correlation between Edwards' production and the Boilermakers' success.

    Edwards, not Swanigan, has been Purdue's leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament, turning in a pair of 21-point performances. His 21-point, 10-rebound, four-assist effort against Iowa State despite playing just 29 minutes because of foul trouble was a major reason the Boilermakers beat the red-hot Cyclones in the second round.

    He has scored more than 20 points in three of the last four games, and the only game Purdue lost in that four-game stretch was when Edwards was limited to eight points against Michigan.

    When Purdue suffered a disheartening loss to Nebraska, Edwards had just six points. When Purdue lost to Louisville, Edwards had just one point. In Purdue's seven losses, Edwards averaged 9.3 points. In the 27 wins he averaged 16.0 points.

     

    The issue: three-point shooting

    These are two of the best perimeter-shooting teams in the country, with Kansas ranked fifth nationally in three-point percentage at 40.6 percent, and Purdue eighth at 40.4 percent. Neither team depends on three-pointers to get by, but the team that gets hot from distance can grab control of the game.

    Five of the seven Purdue players who average more than 20 minutes a game are making better than 40 percent of their three-pointers. Right at the top is Swanigan at 43.2 percent. Kansas' top four scorers all hit better than 38 percent from beyond the arc. Frank Mason III leads the way at 47.2 percent, although he went 0-of-4 from long range against Michigan State.

    It is significant that Purdue is better at defending the three-point shot, limiting opponents to 32.4 percent from behind the line, while Kansas ranks 196th in the country in that category, allowing foes to make 35.2 percent of their long-range shots. Purdue needs to take advantage of that.

Oregon vs. Michigan

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    Oregon player: Tyler Dorsey

    Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 player of the year, has been outstanding the past three games, scoring 25 points in the loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament title game and scoring 18 and 19 points in Oregon's first two postseason games. Nonetheless, Brooks is not the team's top scorer over that three-game stretch. That honor belongs to Tyler Dorsey, who has been on fire lately.

    In the five games since being held to one point against Oregon State, Dorsey has scored more than 20 points in every game. And he is improving his production every contest. He topped his 21-point performance against Arizona State by scoring 23 in the next two games against California and Arizona. He then revved it up to 24 points in the first-round win over Iona, and 27 in the tough win over Rhode Island.

    In the two tournament games, Dorsey has hit 18-of-23 shots overall (78.3 percent) and 6-of-9 three-point shots (66.7 percent).

    A shooter who gets hot can carry a team for several rounds, which is what the Ducks are hoping Dorsey can do.

     

    Michigan player: D.J. Wilson

    Big games have come to be expected from second-team all-conference guard Derrick Walton Jr., but not from D.J. Wilson. He didn't even earn honor mention acclaim, but he has been a critical part of Michigan's current seven-game winning streak.

    Wilson was minding his own business averaging 10.0 points a game after Michigan got by Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Then he scored 26 points in the quarterfinal win over Purdue, and added 17 more in the victory over Wisconsin in the title game.  The 6'10" Wilson collected 19 points and four blocks in the first-round win over Oklahoma State and had 17 points and three blocks in the second-round upset of Louisville.

    It's impossible to know when or if his run of success will end, but if it continues, the Wolverines might be heading to the Final Four.

     

    The issue: turnovers

    It's tempting to say fate is the biggest issue, since Michigan has been enjoying a fairy-tale ride since the scary airplane incident on the way to the Big Ten tournament. But we opted for a more mundane notion that turnovers will be the X-factor.

    Michigan's most remarkable statistic this season isn't its shooting, which is pretty good at 48.4 percent, or its free-throw shooting, which is even better at 77.6 percent. What the Wolverines have done better than anyone else in the country is take care of the ball. Michigan leads the nation in fewest turnovers, averaging just 9.2 a game, and the Wolverines have taken it to a different level in the postseason.

    Michigan has committed 10 turnovers in the NCAA tournament. No, that's not 10 turnovers per game, it's 10 turnovers total for both games combined. It borders on the absurd, considering the pace at which the Wolverines play and the caliber of the competition (Oklahoma State and Louisville).

    Oregon's collection of interchangeable athletes loves to get out and run in a free-wheeling game. But the Ducks will have a hard time doing that if Michigan controls the pace by getting off a shot virtually every time down the court. Whether Michigan can continue to protect the ball at this remarkable rate remains to be seen.