Biggest X-Factor for Each AP Top 25 Team in College Basketball
College basketball's regular season is reaching its final stretch, with schools positioning themselves for what they hope will be a long run through March's madness. It will take a total effort from the entire team, but some areas will prove to be more important than others.
These are known as X-factors, which can be different things for different teams. Consider them like snowflakes, where no two are alike, since every college basketball team has its own unique makeup.
Using the latest Associated Press Top 25 as a guide, we've identified the player, position group or facet of the game that will have the greatest impact on how every ranked team will fare from here on out.
No. 25 Texas
Frontcourt foul trouble
Texas entered this season with an abundance of big men, to the point that there weren't enough minutes to go around. That changed when senior center Cameron Ridley suffered a foot injury in late December, paving the way for junior Shaquille Cleare and senior Prince Ibeh to handle the 5 spot.
That duo has handled the position well, at least when they can manage to stay on the court. Cleare and Ibeh have combined to average 11.8 fouls per 40 minutes during Big 12 play, which severely limits their impacts on the court and causes Texas to have to go small quite often.
Ibeh has fouled out of three of the Longhorns' last four games. He needed just nine minutes to pick up five fouls at Kansas State on Monday. Cleare had four fouls in 20 minutes in that game.
No. 24 SMU
SMU has known since the fall that it wouldn't be a part of the postseason—the result of NCAA sanctions—yet the Mustangs remained incredibly dedicated and focused as they jumped out to an 18-0 start. Since then, they've gone 4-4 and dropped out of first place in the American Athletic Conference along the way.
The Mustangs have four games left and can still win the AAC—they enter Thursday's game at Memphis just a half-game behind Temple—but their recent performance suggests that might not be that big of a goal anymore. If that's the case, what else is there left to play for?
"It's all about pride," SMU senior guard Nic Moore told Bleacher Report's Jason King. "When adversity hits, you just want to prove to the world how strong you are, that you're not going to let it bring you down."
No. 23 Notre Dame
Notre Dame doesn't lean nearly as much on its backcourt as it did last season, when Jerian Grant and Co. kept opponents so focused on the perimeter that Zach Auguste was often left alone in the paint. Opponents are watching the 6'10" senior more carefully in 2015-16, and yet he's become more integral to the Fighting Irish.
Auguste recorded his 15th double-double of the season on Wednesday, with 18 points and 12 rebounds in a win at Wake Forest. In his junior year, he posted just four double-doubles.
At 14.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, Auguste is one of just four players in the ACC averaging double figures in both categories.
No. 22 Utah
Utah's leading scorer (18.1 per game), rebounder (9.0), blocker (1.4) and shooter (66.8 percent), Jakob Poeltl isn't the only reason the Utes head into the final two weeks of the regular season with a strong shot at the Pac-12 title. But he is no doubt the biggest reason, and he'll ultimately determine how far the Utes go in the postseason.
While last year's Utah team also had dynamic guard Delon Wright, this time around, Poeltl is the clear focus. Opponents regularly double- and triple-team him and hope to deny the ball inside where the 7'0" Austrian sophomore is almost automatic. And on the defensive end, his presence often alters attempts to go inside.
Poeltl, who has 12 double-doubles this season, is coming off arguably his best performance of the season: 29 points on 11-of-13 shooting, with 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in a win at USC. It was USC's first home loss of 2015-16.
"It was the kind of performance that reminds you why he's considered a future lottery pick in the 2016 NBA draft and also one that continues to build his case for the Pac-12 Player of the Year award," CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie wrote.
No. 21 Texas A&M
Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins don't score much, but that's not the role they play in Texas A&M's guard-driven lineup. Their job is to get the ball to the Aggies' scorers, such as wings Danuel House and Jalen Jones, in favorable situations.
This setup has worked wonders for A&M, with nearly two-thirds of its made field goals coming off passes. It assisted on 17 of 25 makes in Wednesday's narrow home win over Mississippi State, and coming into the game, the Aggies ranked fifth nationally in assist percentage.
Caruso and Collins, both seniors, combine to dish out 9.6 assists per game.
No. 20 Purdue
Rapheal Davis is the defending Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and he's got a shot at winning that award again in 2015-16 if he continues to throw off opponents' best perimeter players. His impact on that end of the court makes it so any offensive contributions are gravy.
Purdue's attack is frontcourt-driven, with its top four scorers all 6'7” or taller. Yet when the 6'5” Davis is able to score from the perimeter, it gives the Boilermakers a balance that pushes them to the next level.
The Boilermakers are 12-0 when Davis scores 10 or more points and 9-7 when opponents hold him to single digits or he doesn't play. He had 24 points with six three-pointers in the Feb. 9 win over Michigan State, and in Purdue's last two losses (at Michigan and at Indiana), he's combined to score four points.
No. 19 Baylor
Baylor's sixth man until just recently, Johnathan Motley has been a consistent producer the entire season. Now that he's in the starting lineup, it hasn't changed how the 6'9” sophomore forward impacts the game.
Motley has six 20-point games, with the last two coming since he replaced an ill Rico Gathers as a starter. He was a combined 22-of-30 from the field in wins over Iowa State and Texas, and he's shooting 62.4 percent from the field for the year.
When Motley isn't able to produce, it's noticeable. He was 3-of-10 in Tuesday's home loss to Kansas.
No. 18 Indiana
Indiana has hovered near the top of the national and Big Ten rankings in most offensive categories all season—the product of an explosive lineup that isn't reliant on just one or two scorers. The Hoosiers need all of this scoring to account for a defense that, while much better than earlier in the season, still proves to be a liability at times.
Ranked 80th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, the Hoosiers allow opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. In conference play, they allow 45.7 percent shooting, good for ninth in the 14-team league.
Indiana somehow managed to beat rival Purdue on Saturday despite the Boilermakers shooting 58.7 percent from the field. It was only the second time in six games this season that Indiana has won when giving up 50 percent shooting or worse.
No. 17 Iowa State
Iowa State's starting five can match up well with almost any other team in the country, but beyond that, it gets pretty dicey. Either Deonte Burton or Jameel McKay—whoever doesn't start—is coming off the bench, and that's it.
An already-thin rotation to start the season worsened when the team had to shut down guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long after just eight games. Offseason hip surgery didn't fix the issue, and without him available, there's been no relief for Iowa State in the backcourt. Guards Jordan Ashton and Hallice Cooke have logged a combined 215 minutes in 15 Big 12 games, and they have produced almost as many fouls (20) as points (25).
As a result, ISU has been showing the signs of wear as the season has progressed. Five losses in the last eight games have dropped the Cyclones to a tie for sixth place in the Big 12.
No. 16 Kentucky
Kentucky's push for perfection during the 2014-15 season was fueled by a front line that rivaled what most NBA teams could put on the floor. Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns all ended up being lottery picks, and Dakari Johnson went in the second round.
As you'd expect, losing four 6'10” players from one team would have an effect on the next season's lineup, but the Wildcats weren't expecting it to be this drastic.
The best combination Kentucky has at this point is made up of an oft-injured senior (Alex Poythress) and a career backup (junior Derek Willis) who is more comfortable shooting from the perimeter than banging inside. As a result, Kentucky's opponents rebound 33.4 percent of their misses, which is among the highest rates in the country.
No. 15 Duke
Duke has been a six-man team since Amile Jefferson injured his foot in December, and it's going to remain that way for the foreseeable future. That is, unless further ailments pop up like was the case last week.
Junior guard Matt Jones sat out Saturday's loss at Louisville after spraining his ankle a few days earlier at North Carolina, and then freshman guard Derryck Thornton had to briefly leave Saturday's game with an injured shoulder. Both are expected to return for Thursday's game against Florida State, but their absences last time out was a factor.
The Blue Devils have managed to adjust their defense and between-game schedule to handle the strain of such a thin lineup, but any further injuries will be devastating to their hopes of defending their national title.
No. 14 West Virginia
Controlling the boards
Come for the Press Virginia, stay for the rebounding dominance.
As much as West Virginia's turnover-forcing style of defense has led to a 21-7 record, that's only part of the story. It's also something that several teams have been able to solve, such as Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas (at least the second time around).
Strong rebounding has been a better indicator of the Mountaineers' success, as five of their seven losses have come when collecting 50 percent or fewer of the missed shots.
West Virginia is the top offensive rebounding team in the country (41.5 percent), and its total rebounding rate of 56.1 percent is tied for 10th.
No. 13 Oregon
With four blocked shots in Wednesday's win over Washington State, Chris Boucher has retaken the national lead with 91 for the season. He's done that in 28 games, and barring a major collapse, he'll break the school record of 94 set last season by Jordan Bell.
The 6'10” forward has gone from being the NJCAA Junior College Player of the Year in 2014-15 to a key piece of an Oregon team that sits atop the Pac-12 standings with three games left. And this isn't just because of his ability to disrupt drives to the rim and shots in the paint; Boucher can also score and rebound.
Boucher had 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting with 13 boards on Wednesday, putting him at 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He's shooting 55 percent from the field, including 36 percent from three-point range.
No. 12 Miami (Florida)
Ja'Quan Newton has only started one game this season, but that hasn't prevented him from being the most integral part of Miami's offense. He's tied for third on the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game, and his 28.0 percent usage rate is sixth-best in the ACC.
"He comes in, and we get better," Miami coach Jim Larranaga told Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated.
Newton, a 6'2” sophomore guard, plays about 23 minutes per game either as a sub for starter Angel Rodriguez or alongside the senior. Miami is 16-2 when he scores at least 10 points and 17-1 when he contributes at least two assists.
No. 11 Louisville
Making the most of what's left
Wednesday's 67-60 win at Pittsburgh means Louisville is certainly alive for an ACC regular-season title, which might be all that's keeping the Cardinals motivated in light of their recent self-imposed postseason ban.
Louisville's season will end after the March 5 game at Virginia, regardless of what happens between now and then. But at 11-4 in the ACC, it is tied for second with Miami—which it visits on Saturday—and a game behind conference leader North Carolina. The Cardinals hold the tiebreaker on the Tar Heels by virtue of a home win on Feb. 1.
The Cardinals banned themselves from the ACC tournament and any other postseason competition in the wake of alleged recruiting violations that involve an escort service.
No. 10 Maryland
History has shown that teams with experienced and capable guards tend to go deep in the NCAA tournament. Maryland hopes Rasheed Sulaimon's time with Duke—the second chance he's gotten with the Terrapins—will translate into a strong postseason run.
The 6'4” senior guard has been huge for the Terps throughout 2015-16, serving as their top three-point shooter (46.7 percent) and their second-best assist man (3.3 per game). He takes pressure off sophomore Melo Trimble by being an on-court mentor and calming force while also hitting big baskets when necessary.
Sulaimon started 50 games in two-plus seasons for Duke before the Blue Devils dismissed him last winter. He averaged 13.4 points in five NCAA tournament games for the Blue Devils.
No. 9 Arizona
Arizona's six losses this season have been by a combined 21 points, including Wednesday's 75-72 setback at Colorado. The Wildcats are 3-5 in games decided by five or fewer points, and all but one of their five Pac-12 defeats have been decided by one possession.
That means Arizona has been in almost every game in 2015-16, but when it comes down to crunch time, it has been unable to make that last play—whether it be to hit that final shot, such as against Colorado or last month at California, or successfully defending the opponent's last try, such as when UCLA's Bryce Alford swished a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left in January.
Arizona's rotation includes five juniors or seniors, but it has tended to perform like an inexperienced team late in games.
No. 8 Iowa
Defending without fouling
Iowa lost at home to Wisconsin on Wednesday despite only yielding 12 free-throw attempts, which falls in line with how the Hawkeyes have operated this season. They are normally smart with their fouls and know how to disrupt on defense without it leading to whistles.
Opponents have taken only 425 foul shots in 27 games, with just .176 foul shots made per field-goal attempt. That ranks eighth in Division I and is a trait Iowa shares with many other 20-win teams.
The Wisconsin loss was an outlier in this respect, as four of Iowa's other six defeats came in games where opponents had the highest ratio of made free throws per field-goal attempt. That included recent losses at Penn State and Indiana.
No. 7 North Carolina
It took him more than a season-and-a-half, but the promise that Justin Jackson came to North Carolina with as a prized recruit is starting to show up. And it couldn't happen at a better time for the Tar Heels, who need someone beyond senior forward Brice Johnson to turn to in clutch situations.
With senior guard Marcus Paige unable to get out of a prolonged shooting slump, it's been Jackson who's emerging as the second-best option offensively. The 6'8” sophomore forward had 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in Wednesday's comeback win at North Carolina State—his fifth straight game with at least 13 points.
Jackson has shot 61.1 percent while averaging 15.8 points during that span, and he is up to 12.4 points per game on the season.
No. 6 Michigan State
No offense to Denzel Valentine, but he can't do it all for Michigan State. He may be the team's leading scorer, rebounder and assist man—and his four-game absence following arthroscopic knee surgery was noticeable—but that hasn't kept the Spartans from losing when he was available.
A much better indicator of success for MSU has been the play of Bryn Forbes. At 14.5 points per game, he's second-best on the team in scoring, but his production tends to fluctuate wildly. He's scored 20 or more points seven times (with the Spartans winning all of those games) but also has seven where he's been held to single digits. Four of MSU's five losses fall in this category.
Forbes' accuracy and frequency from three-point range sets the tone for everything else. He's at 49.4 percent on the season, shooting 16 percent (4-of-25) in MSU losses and 54.9 percent (84-of-153) in wins.
No. 5 Xavier
The mark of a legitimate national title contender is a lineup that lacks weaknesses, where there's no one player who stands out above the others or no area that can be exploited. Xavier is starting to look that way, even before Wednesday's impressive home win over top-ranked Villanova.
Six Musketeers scored in double figures in the 90-83 victory, which was par for the course. That's how many players came into the night averaging at least 9.5 points per game, including two reserves, and Trevon Bluiett's 15.1 points per game is the top individual average.
That scoring balance typifies an overall share-the-wealth approach by this team, with seven players grabbing at least 2.6 rebounds per game and four chipping in at least 2.1 assists per night.
"They simply possess the know-how and desire to crash the glass, push the tempo and avoid stupid fouls—each of which goes a long way this year," Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller wrote.
No. 3 (tie) Virginia
London Perrantes still doesn't shoot as much as Virginia head coach Tony Bennett would like, but it's still more than he did during his first two seasons. And with that rise in attempts has come a greater involvement in the Cavaliers offense, which must continue for the two-time ACC regular-season champs to have a shot at another title.
The 6'2” junior guard has already taken more shots this season (191) than a year ago (189), despite seven fewer games. He's also taking better shots, resulting in a 46.1 percent efficiency compared to 35.4 percent in 2014-15.
Nowhere does this stand out more than from behind the three-point line, where Perrantes is hitting at a 52.5 percent clip. Four of Virginia's six losses have come when he's shot poorly from outside or didn't attempt a three.
No. 3 (tie) Oklahoma
Ryan Spangler started his 95th consecutive game on Wednesday for Oklahoma, and it only seemed like the Sooners had been waiting that long for him to have a breakthrough performance. Now they hope he can do that more often and give the Sooners a consistent inside presence on the offensive end.
While Khadeem Lattin serves as the defensive stopper down low with 65 blocked shots and countless others he's altered, Spangler is the one who needs to produce on the other end. He had a career-high 26 points with 14 rebounds in Wednesday's win over Oklahoma State, shooting 10-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-6 from three-point range.
The 6'8” senior averages 10.9 points per game, yet he's only made 88 field goals inside the two-point line this season. Three of Oklahoma's five losses have come in games when he's made two or fewer two-pointers.
No. 2 Kansas
The dual point guards
Devonte' Graham is Kansas' starting point guard, except when it's Frank Mason. Actually, it's both—a luxury the Jayhawks are making the most of this season as they move close to a 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.
The symbiotic relationship between Graham and Mason also has Kansas in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a likely return to the top of the AP rankings if it wins Saturday against Texas Tech.
Mason, a 5'11” junior, and Graham, a 6'2” guard, have combined to produce 24.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists. Most importantly, however, they've committed only 94 total turnovers in 1,840 minutes of action.
No. 1 Villanova
It's understandable that such a guard-heavy lineup would take lots of three-pointers, and few teams do more so than Villanova. This continued on Wednesday when the Wildcats attempted 31 threes (making 12) in their loss at Xavier.
It was the 14th time in 28 games this season that at least 46 percent of Villanova's shots came from beyond the arc. All four of their losses have come in those games.
It's a strategy Villanova has tried to stray from during Big East play, with 10 of its 13 conference wins coming when at least 60 percent of the field-goal attempts are two-pointers, but it's one the Wildcats can't completely scrap based on the makeup of the team.
All statistics from Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.