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College Basketball Preseason Top 25: The X-Factor for every ranked team

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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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.