Men's NCAA Tournament 2021: Biggest X-Factors in Every Sweet 16 Game

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2021

Men's NCAA Tournament 2021: Biggest X-Factors in Every Sweet 16 Game

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    It's no surprise that star players are generally the most important in any game, but lesser-known pieces will occasionally have a massive impact.

    For every game in the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament, we've identified a key player or matchup to watch.

    Some of the players highlighted are familiar, but many hold complementary roles and have a particular strength that could be valuable in the upcoming round.

    The term "X-factor" is subjective. For our purposes, we removed the leading scorer from consideration.

No. 12 Oregon State vs. No. 8 Loyola-Chicago

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    During the regular season, Oregon State shot just 34.2 percent from three. Since the start of the Pac-12 tournament, however, the Beavers have converted 42.1 percent of their looks from beyond the arc.

    Zach Reichle's performance follows that trend perfectly.

    Before the postseason, he'd posted a 31.8 percent three-point clip. In the last five games, Reichle has buried 50.0 percent of his triples, including a 3-of-4 mark against Tennessee in the first round. Overall, he's shot 20.0 percent from the perimeter in losses and 44.3 percent in wins.

    Loyola-Chicago only has four losses this season, but opponents hit at least 44.4 percent of their three-pointers in three of them.

No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 1 Baylor

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Collin Gillespie's knee injury complicated Villanova's NCAA tournament outlook, but Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has carried the Wildcats into the Sweet 16. So far, he's collected 40 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists.

    And now, JRE is approaching his biggest test yet.

    Not only is Baylor a No. 1 seed and top championship contender, but it also has a star defender in Mark Vital. The senior forward is a three-time Big 12 All-Defensive selection and is bound to draw the assignment of guarding Robinson-Earl.

    The simple truth is that if Robinson-Earl has trouble dealing with Vital, Villanova will have low odds of winning.

No. 15 Oral Roberts vs. No. 3 Arkansas

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    While both Justin Smith and Kevin Obanor are obvious team leaders, their one-on-one matchup is a defining factor.

    Smith does a little of everything for Arkansas, averaging 13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 combined steals and blocks. His ability to crash the offensive glass and be a thorn defensively will be a great challenge for Obanor, who has excelled against more traditional bigs through two March Madness games.

    Obanor, meanwhile, has posted 30-point, 11-rebound and 28-point, 11-rebound games to help Oral Roberts make a surprise Sweet 16 run. Smith must be ready to chase him all over the court.

    Because they're both so involved and neither team has a true replacement, the winner of this individual battle figures to have a substantial impact on the result.

No. 11 Syracuse vs. No. 2 Houston

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Health is the major question for DeJon Jarreau.

    During the opening round against Cleveland State, the senior injured his hip and only played a minute. He returned to score 17 points opposite Rutgers but played through pain, which is something that will remain a factor going forward.

    Along with Quentin Grimes, Jarreau is a key to breaking down Syracuse's zone defense off the dribble. If they do it successfully, Houston should have an excellent chance to win. If not, Buddy Boeheim and the Orange may spring another upset.

    According to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said he expects Jarreau to play but is hoping for him to be around 70-75 percent.

No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 1 Gonzaga

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Creighton has the unenviable task of either containing Gonzaga's offense or trying to break the scoreboard, too.

    The Bluejays are best positioned for the latter, but that's contingent on complementary pieces having a big day. Damien Jefferson's trends are a good example of the challenge.

    Creighton has eight losses, and Jefferson didn't have an assist in five of them. While he's connected on 39.3 percent of his threes and averaged 3.0 assists in 22 wins, he's at just 28.6 percent and 1.0, respectively, in the Bluejays' losses.

No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 1 Michigan

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Even before Isaiah Livers' foot injury, Eli Brooks had started to heat up. Because of his star teammate's absence, though, his production has only become more important for the Wolverines.

    Since the start of the Big Ten tournament, he's drilled 14 of 27 threes and averaged 15.0 points and 4.0 assists. After notching 11 points and five assists against Texas Southern, he piled up 21 points and seven assists in the victory over LSU.

    Plus, he'll be responsible for defending the three-point line opposite Florida State's 17th-ranked perimeter group. FSU is 14-2 when it shoots at least 33.3 percent from three.

    Michigan has a relatively small margin for error without Livers, but a strong performance from Brooks should keep that intact.

No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 2 Alabama

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Alabama plays at the nation's 12th-fastest tempo, per, and launches three-pointers at the 19th-highest rate. The short version: There are often a whole lot of rebounds to grab.

    UCLA shares the burden across five players, but Cody Riley is particularly important in this clash. While he averages 5.4 rebounds, he just grabbed 12 in the victory over Abilene Christian and helped limit the Wildcats to only seven offensive boards. They had snared 13 in the upset of Texas.

    And he'll probably have the toughest matchup. Alabama forward Herbert Jones, the SEC Player of the Year, has notched 2.4 offensive rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.

    If Riley, who commits 2.1 turnovers per game, can contain Jones' impact, UCLA will have a great chance to pull off the upset.

No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 6 USC

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The final contest of the Sweet 16 will be a familiar matchup as Pac-12 opponents Oregon and USC square off.

    During the regular season, USC earned a 72-58 victory, and Tahj Eaddy was the primary reason. Oregon has a guard-heavy rotation but struggled to contain him as he buried six of 11 threes for 24 points and also dished out two assists.

    Because USC is 309th in three-point attempt rate, one of two things must happen in this game. Either the Trojans must limit Oregon's 16th-ranked perimeter attack, or they'll need someone to knock down a few triples. For the latter, Eaddy is their best option.