I love a good x-factor.
You know, the guys that are not a team’s star that will determine just how good said team is going to be.
So we’re going to talk through them.
For each and every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.
Because that’s how you #PreviewSZN properly.
1. MICHIGAN STATE: Joshua Langford
This one is easy.
We know what Michigan State can be without Joshua Langford. They played 26 games without him last season. They won 21 of them. They won the Big Ten regular season title without Langford. They won the Big Ten tournament without him. They made it to the Final Four without him. And while Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward are gone, this is more or less the same team that did all of those things.
So we know how good Michigan State is without Langford.
But what we don’t know – and what we will hopefully find out in January – is just how good the Spartans can be when they get their former McDonald’s All-American, a guy that averaged 15 points before hurting his ankle last year, back.
2. KENTUCKY: E.J. Montgomery
Kentucky has a ton of talent in their backcourt and plenty of bodies on the wing. Where they are going to lack depth – and, frankly, ability – is going to be up front. Nate Sestina is fine. He’s big, he’s strong, he can make threes, he’s not going to beat himself. He’s a solid player. Nick Richards is … Nick Richards. He’s big and he’s athletic and he is good at being both big and athletic.
But we know what both of those guys are and aren’t. Put another way, we know that neither of them are going to come in and be all-SEC players. Montgomery, on the other hand, at least has the talent to be. He’s 6-foot-10 with some perimeter skills and impressive physical tools. If it all comes together for him, he’s the guy that can let Kentucky play small, either as a small-ball five or a mismatch four.
3. KANSAS: Ochai Agbaji
The key to this entire Kansas season is going to be figuring out what to do at the four. I don’t think Silvio De Sousa is the answer, because De Sousa is a big, physical post player that will do nothing to create space for Udoka Azubuike. I don’t think Mitch Lightfoot is good enough to play that role, and I don’t know if Bill Self is going to be ready to trust a freshman like Jalen Wilson or Tristan Enaruna to play there full-time. That leaves Agbaji, who has the size and athleticism to guard fours with the perimeter ability to cause all kinds of problems for teams that try to play big. At the very least, he can do what LaGerald Vick did during the Kansas run to the 2018 Final Four.
4. LOUISVILLE: Fresh Kimble
The Cardinals have a point guard problem, and the truth is that the x-factor for that group is going to be whoever actually wins the job. But here’s the thing: Darius Perry isn’t winning that job, and David Johnson is out for a while with a shoulder injury. That leaves Fresh Kimble, the grad transfer from St. Joe’s, with the weight on his shoulders. He averaged 15 points in the Atlantic 10 last season, so he has some scoring ability, but playing on a Cardinals team that is this good means that he is going to be asked to do a lot more than just score.
5. VILLANOVA: Bryan Antoine
This is another one that is really quite easy. Antoine is arguably the best recruit that Jay Wright has landed during this run that the program has been on. He’s a 6-foot-4 combo-guard that can defend and provide the kind of versatility that the Wildcats have been known for. He’s a potential one-and-done player. He’s also a freshman at a program where freshman tend to have a muted impact, and he has been out of action all summer after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Villanova will be fine either way, but if they are going to reach their ceiling, it will be because Antoine shows up in league and plays like a five-star prospect.
6. DUKE: Tre Jones
Jones is the single-biggest x-factor in all of college basketball this season. I wrote all about it here.
7. FLORIDA: Tre Mann
Florida is going to be a very, very good team this season. The addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. was a game-changer, and I fully expect that Andrew Nembhard will take a major step forward as a sophomore. Let’s not forget Scottie Lewis and the impact that he will have.
But if they are missing something, it’s perimeter firepower. Kevaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson were flawed basketball players, but they were unequivocally bucket-getters, guys that could make threes and create offense out of nothing. I think Tre Mann is going to be that guy for Florida this year, and I’m not sure how many players on this roster are capable of doing what he can do.
8. GONZAGA: Admon Gilder
This one is simple, really. Gonzaga lost basically everything from their backcourt. Their bigs are loaded once again, and Corey Kispert has All-WCC potential on the wing, but Mark Few needs a playmaker and some scoring pop in his backcourt. Gilder is the guy that’s most capable of providing that.
9. MARYLAND: Eric Ayala
The biggest question mark with the Terps is Anthony Cowan. I love the sophomore class that Mark Turgeon has on his hands, but I love them as guys that can play a role alongside Cowan. And while Cowan has had great games during his three seasons in College Park, consistency has not been his strong suit. That’s where Ayala comes into play. He can handle point guard and playmaking duties in a pinch, and on the nights when Bad Cowan shows up, Ayala can carry the water.
Put another way, we know how good Maryland will be when Cowan plays well. If Maryland can win games at a high level even when he doesn’t, that’s when they become a real title contender.
10. VIRGINIA: Braxton Key
We know more or less what Mamadi Diakite is going to be this season. We have a pretty good idea of how Virginia is going to use Jay Huff. We know that Kihei Clark looks like the next in line to develop into a good ACC guard. And we know that we shouldn’t expect too much from the rest of that UVA backcourt.
What we don’t know is how Braxton Key is going to respond to being asked to play a bigger role. Key can do all of the things that De’Andre Hunter was able to do, he can play that same role, he just isn’t quite as good at it. If he can play near the level he was at as a freshman at Alabama, then Virginia will have a difference-maker.
11. TEXAS TECH: Chris Clarke
Chris Beard has proven himself capable of turning over a roster in one season and then getting the absolute most out of what he has left. He did it in each of the last two years. He did it in his one season at Little Rock. This is how Beard operates. But the key to the entire process is getting buy-in from his team, and that’s where I think they are going to be some issues this season. There are just three guys on this Texas Tech roster that are upperclassmen. The best player on the roster, the guy that is going to be asked to be Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver, is top 35 freshman Jahmius Ramsey. He’s the highest-rated recruit that Beard has ever landed, and he’s good enough to do what Tech needs him to do … if he buys in.
And that’s where Clarke comes into play. There are already some rumblings that Ramsey’s ego may be a problem for this team. The Red Raiders need a strong, veteran presence on the roster to help keep the myriad freshmen and sophomores in that locker room heading in the right direction and on the same page. Clarke, and to a lesser extent Davide Moretti, is the guy I’m looking to.
12. OREGON: Francis Okoro
Oregon’s best teams under Dana Altman have featured someone at the five that is capable of protecting the rim, controlling the defensive glass and switching out onto smaller guards when necessary. N’Faly Dante might be a five-star recruit, but he’s not that guy. If there is anyone on the roster than can fill that Jordan Bell-Kenny Wooten role, it’s probably Okoro.
13. SETON HALL: Myles Cale
Here’s the dirty little secret about Seton Hall – they brought basically everything back from last season, but the Pirates weren’t much more than a bubble team last season. They won games when Myles Powell went nuts. They also got swept by DePaul. They need to have Powell’s supporting cast be better, and Cale is the guy with the highest ceiling. He’s a smooth wing with three-point range, some sneaky athleticism and the the ability to get 15-20 points on any given night. If we see that ability on a consistent basis this season, if Cale plays his way onto an All-Big East team by the end of the season, then the Pirates will be able to live up to their preseason ranking. If he doesn’t, this looks like a roster that is going to live and die with Myles Powell’s heat checks.
14. NORTH CAROLINA: Justin Pierce
Cole Anthony is going to be awesome, and I think Garrison Brooks is good enough that Armando Bacot can be brought along at his own pace without having issues in their frontcourt. And I believe that Christian Keeling will be good enough to play at the two this season; he was a big time scorer and shooter for Charleston Southern and should be just fine spacing the floor for Anthony, et al. Pierce is the x-factor to me because: A) I’m not convinced that Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson are good (or healthy) enough to start at the three, and B) I’m not convinced that Pierce is actually a three and not more of a combo-forward.
15. UTAH STATE: Neemias Queta
Just how healthy is Queta? The 7-foot-1 Portuguese sophomore injured his knee playing in the U-20 Euros over the summer, and while he didn’t tear anything significant, Utah State had played a little coy on the actual nature of the injury. Even without Queta, the Aggies are the favorite to win the Mountain West by a landslide. With him, they are a legit top 15 team with some Final Four upside.
16. ARIZONA: Zeke Nnaji
Arizona has plenty of talent in their backcourt. Nico Mannion and Josh Green are five-star freshmen and potential first round picks. Max Hazzard proved himself as an experienced, veteran point guard while leading UC Irvine to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. There’s still a chance that they can get Jemarl Baker, the Kentucky transfer, eligible as well. The questions come in the frontcourt. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I do not think that Chase Jeter, Ira Lee and Stone Gettings will be enough for the Wildcats to beat out the likes of Oregon, Washington and Colorado for a Pac-12 title. Zeke Nnaji, however, is a freshman that has created some buzz during the preseason. Is he the difference-maker Sean Miller needs?
17. SAINT MARY’S: Aaron Menzies
There are two things that Randy Bennett’s best teams in Moraga have had in common: 1. A dynamic, NBA-level lead guard. 2. An All-American big man – think Jock Landale, or Brad Waldow, or the GOAT Omar Samhan. We know that Jordan Ford is going to be awesome at the point. We also know that the 7-foot-3 Menzies was a double-digit scorer at Seattle. Can he provide that same production for the Gaels?
18. XAVIER: KyKy Tandy
Xavier’s Big Four is very well known at this point. Naji Marshall, Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs and Tyrique Jones are all upperclassmen that have established themselves as good Big East players at this point. But what that quartet lacks is perimeter shooting, and freshman KyKy Tandy is a guy that can shoot. He brings a different dynamic to their perimeter, and he shoot be ready to contribute as a freshman.
19. LSU: Trendon Watford
We know that LSU has a pair of really good guards in Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart. We also know that Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor provide the kind of elite athleticism that will let Will Wade do some pressing, crash the glass and have defensive versatility. Watford is the guy that compliments those athletes well, because he’s more of a finesse player, a four-man with a reputation for being something of a face-up scorer. If he can provide 12-14 points and create a little bit of space in the paint, it will raise the ceiling of a team that has a starting five that can match anyone in the SEC.
20. BAYLOR: Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague
Baylor is toughest team to figure out because it feels like every player on their roster is something of an “x-factor.” Is Tristan Clark going to be healthy? Can Baylor continue to survive on 6-foot-5 Mark Vital’s ability on the glass? Can Devonte Bandoo or Jared Butler do what they did last season now that they are known entities? To me, I think that the real answer is going to be Mitchell and Teague, and that’s because we more or less know what everyone else on the roster is capable of. Mitchell is a talented Alabama transfer and Teague had success at UNC Asheville, but how they adjust to the Big 12 will be something to monitor.
21. MEMPHIS: Lester Quinones
This one is simple: Memphis doesn’t have all that much shooting on their roster. Lester Quinones is a big-time shooter and, unlike Tyler Harris, he’s 6-foot-5. Not 5-foot-9.
22. AUBURN: Isaac Okoro
The key to Auburn last season, what made them so difficult to guard and so tough to score on, was Chuma Okeke. He was that versatile defensive weapon. He was the four-man that could pull bigs away from the rim and bury smalls in the paint. He made Auburn matchup proof, and while he’s gone, people that know Okoro’s game best think that he is going to be able to fill that role. The question, however, is whether or not the four-star prospect is going to be able to do so at the highest level as a freshman.
23. TENNESSEE: John Fulkerson
Tennessee has some very, very good guards on their roster. Josiah-Jordan James is a five-star prospect. Lamonte Turner is underrated. Jordan Bowden has talented. Hell, even Yves Pons has a roll as a small-ball four on this roster. When they are missing is a bully in the post, which is a problem for a team that got more than 55 percent of their offense off of two-point field goals last season; that was in the 92nd percentile nationally. Fulkerson seems to be the guy that will start at the five. Will he be ready for it?
24. VCU: Marcus Santos-Silva
Santos-Silva is coming off of a season where he averaged 10.0 points, 7.4 boards and 1.1 blocks as the anchor for the Rams. Most people are going to think of Marcus Evans and De’Riante Jenkins when they think of the Rams, and justifiably so, but Santos-Silva is the guy who that staff thinks is in for a monster junior season. If he plays like one of, if not the best big man in the Atlantic 10, then VCU has a chance to be a second weekend NCAA tournament team.
25. OHIO STATE: D.J. Carton
The big question mark on this Ohio State team is in their backcourt. They graduated both of their starting guards, and while they add C.J. Walker, a transfer from Florida State, they also bring in Carton, an uber-talented, four-star lead guard. The kid is an elite athlete, but he’s also raw. If he’s ready to be a starter as a freshman and not just starting because there isn’t anyone else, Ohio State’s ceiling grows.