It's been a wild season in college basketball, and we've still got more than two months until the NCAA tournament. As teams jockey for position on the national radar, the big names of the sport are pretty clear—the likes of Cassius Winston, Myles Powell, Markus Howard, Vernon Carey and more. But what about those players who aren't the star, but nonetheless will play a pivotal role in determining how far their team will go? We look at eight X-factors in college hoops and what their team needs from them:
Auburn: Anfernee McLemore
Auburn’s undefeated start has been tricky to parse. On one hand, it’s been the byproduct of an exceptionally blah non-conference schedule, with close wins over NC State and Furman the closest the Tigers have come to being challenged. On the other hand, they’re having their way with pretty much everyone, leaning on five seniors who contributed to last year’s Final Four team and stellar freshman Isaac Okoro, who’s been their most valuable player. On paper, it looks like a team capable of winning the SEC, particularly given how much thinner the conference looks, top to bottom. Auburn’s fast and punishing style won’t be quite as overwhelming in conference play, but safe to say this team hasn’t missed a beat, even with all the turnover on the roster.
McLemore has long been a versatile lynchpin of Auburn’s defense, and after starting the majority of games in each of the last two seasons, he’s shifted into a key bench role, although his minutes per game are actually roughly the same. His production has been up and down as a result, but his presence enables Bruce Pearl to deploy two very different types of lineups: Auburn can bludgeon teams up front with Wiley at center, or it can go smaller and more mobile with McLemore, an instinctual shot-blocker who runs the floor and does the dirty work. Those two have effectively been a platoon, with Okoro and Danjel Purifoy spending time at the four.
As the Tigers move deeper into the SEC slate, expect opponents to try and take advantage of the slower-footed, foul-prone Wiley, who’s one of the best rebounders in the country, but can struggle against the type of athletic bigs he’ll face the rest of the way. McLemore’s minutes will become even more important as a result, and if he can hold down the backline adequately and find ways to get more involved offensively, Auburn can maximize its chances at winning the conference.
Florida State: Devin Vassell
With just two losses on the docket—an opening-night stumble at Pitt and a random dud at Indiana—and wins over Louisville, Florida, Tennessee and Purdue, Florida State has built a case as the second-best team in the ACC, behind Duke. Leonard Hamilton has another big, athletic team that turns opponents over at an elite clip and can scramble you with length, and employs an egalitarian approach on offense. The Seminoles’ lack of a real go-to scorer matters less when they’re choking teams out defensively. Trent Forrest does most of the ball-handling, but at some point, Florida State will need another guard to emerge as an aggressor. Vassell, their second-leading scorer, may need to take another leap accordingly.
In addition to being a competent defender who fits their scheme, Vassell is the Seminoles’ most dangerous shooter, with compact mechanics and the size to shoot over smaller guards. Entering Wednesday, he was attempting just 3.4 threes per game, tied for second most on the team, but he still seems underutilized. Florida State doesn‘t take a ton of threes on the whole, and has the size and depth to punish teams on the inside, which is working just fine—the Noles’ absurdly intimidating defense (according to KenPom data, they ranked third in turnover rate, second in block rate and sixth in steal rate nationally) minimizes the need for them to bomb away. But there are going to be games where things stagnate and they fall behind, and in those situations, the lack of shot-creating guards on the roster means they’ll have to work even harder to manufacture looks for their best players. Vassell, who’s been situationally efficient and hard to keep off the floor, may need to be that guy.
Maryland: Aaron Wiggins
Wiggins was supposed to be the third wheel of a Maryland offense anchored by the inside-out combo of Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, after shooting 41% from three as a freshman last year and adding an athletic dimension to the Terps’ wing rotation. The knock was that he wasn’t a particularly efficient scorer inside the arc, making just 34.3% of his twos. With that in mind, it’s not a total shock that Wiggins hasn’t exactly made the leap everyone was hoping for—he’s now shooting an improved, but still iffy 42.3% on two-point shots, but has dipped to 29.5% from three. Maryland needs him to bomb away and keep defenses honest, but what they really need is more of his shots to start dropping—or, worst case, for him to stop shooting them.
It certainly helps that Wiggins adds value in other areas—he’s a notably improved passer, useful rebounder and a versatile option on defense. But perimeter scoring is proving to be Maryland’s primary flaw, with Cowan the only shooter opponents truly have to account for. But he also happens to be their primary ballhandler and slight of stature, and can be coerced into taking tougher looks and forced into drive-and-kick situations that put the onus on his teammates. They’ve been staunch defensively and have an enviable amount of depth. But someone is going to have to start knocking down threes for Maryland to win the Big Ten, and it’s probably going to have to be Wiggins. If he inches closer to what he’s shown last year and can build his confidence back up, the outlook here could change greatly.
Memphis: Alex Lomax
It goes without saying that Memphis can’t replace James Wiseman, but the Tigers have been pretty competitive without him, executing well defensively but narrowly dropping Saturday’s game to Georgia, with D.J. Jeffries, one of their primary scorers, sidelined with an illness. The AAC isn’t daunting enough to think the Tigers can’t get by, and they’ve competed impressively for a freshman-driven team, particularly given the extenuating circumstances surrounding the program. What’s clear is that their guard play will have to improve, with freshmen Boogie Ellis and Damian Baugh enduring real growing pains. Lomax, a sophomore, has been coming off the bench, but it’s looking more and more like Memphis needs him to be a stabilizing force that ties their pieces together.
Lomax is small in stature and hardly ever shoots the three, but he’s a tough, opportunistic player who does a good job getting his teammates involved. He’s the closest thing Memphis is going to have to a veteran presence in crunch-time minutes, and key decisions are going to start falling into his hands, particularly given the way Baugh has struggled with ball security and finishing at the rim, and the fact Ellis has been a trigger-happy wild card. Lomax has managed double-digit points just four times this season, but rebounds extremely well for his size, has seven games with five or more assists and has proven a pesky on-ball defender. He’s far from the biggest name on the roster, but it won’t be a surprise to see him earn more playing time moving forward. Memphis needs to better establish an offensive pecking order, and Penny Hardaway is going to have to turn to someone.
Ohio State: Kyle Young
In December, Ohio State looked like the team to beat in the Big Ten, knocking off Kentucky right before Christmas as a convincing statement of quality. They’ve since lost three straight games, falling to West Virginia, Wisconsin and Maryland, and dropping the latter two sans Young, who’s been sidelined after an appendectomy. The Buckeyes failed to crack 60 points in all three games, and Young’s absence has something to do with that. According to HoopLens data, the Buckeyes’ offense has been significantly more effective with him on the floor, averaging 1.18 points per possession as opposed to 0.98 without him, with their defensive quality remaining near-constant. He’s formed a particularly strong pairing with Kaleb Wesson, as a canny interior cutter who can take advantage of the big man’s passing skills.
The Buckeyes’ capacity to defend with both bigs on the floor can be matchup-dependent, but on whole, they’ve been roughly as good with Young out there. Particularly with freshman E.J. Liddell struggling of late, more minutes for Young upon his return might be a reasonable salve for what ails them against better defensive teams. His individual offensive rating of 141.6, despite using just 14.7% of possessions, says a lot about the way he greases the wheels, and his rebounding and finishing skills allow Wesson to function unencumbered as a uniquely skilled five-man. It’s becoming clear Young is the type of glue guy who can swing games with all that he does natively.
Oregon: Anthony Mathis
After a 30-point breakout game against Boise State on Nov. 9 in which he made 9-of-11 threes, Mathis has mysteriously disappeared from Oregon’s regularly scheduled offensive programming. It would be fair to characterize him as somewhat one-dimensional, but he’s quite good at that particular dimension: the grad transfer is a career 43% shooter who’s making a career-best 48.7% of his threes (and has only taken 25 two-pointers, to boot). So it’s probably fair to posit that he should be using more than just 13.9% of Oregon’s possessions, particularly given he’s remained a fixture in the starting lineup. The Ducks are legit Pac-12 contenders, and they’ve been a Top-10 team in offensive efficiency, but that doesn’t mean they should just leave one of the best shooters in the country lying around.
There’s a notable trend here: Mathis scored just seven points in Oregon’s loss to Colorado on Jan. 2, and scored just two and three points in their other two losses, to Gonzaga and North Carolina at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. He attempted just one three in the Ducks’ five-point road win over Utah on Saturday, while Chris Duarte and, inexplicably, Shakur Juiston (who’s 1-of-18 from outside on the season) shot 2-for-8 combined. As long as the Ducks are giving Mathis the lion’s share of minutes at shooting guard, they should be redirecting their perimeter attack through him.
Payton Pritchard is one of the better playmakers in the country, but for Oregon to take another step forward, just about everyone else has to be far more unselfish. Not all threes are created equal, and in a vacuum, a Mathis three is statistically preferable to just about anything anyone else on the Ducks' roster wants to shoot. He may not be a threat in any other area, but this isn’t rocket science. There should be an emphasis on getting him involved consistently.
Texas Tech: Terrence Shannon Jr.
In a development that should surprise no one, the Red Raiders are back in strong form as the Big 12 slate opens up, smacking the daylight out of Oklahoma State in a 35-point blowout over the weekend and dropping a tight one at home against Baylor on Tuesday night. Freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech’s leading scorer, is back at full strength, and as a team, it's held just about everyone it's played under 70 points. All of this is to say that Texas Tech doesn’t necessarily need Terrence Shannon to emerge as a star for this to be another successful season. But it certainly bears mentioning that Shannon has actually been one of the better freshmen anywhere in the country this season, with his 24-point breakout game against DePaul on Dec. 4 standing as proof of his game-changing ability. He struggled against Baylor, shooting just 2-of-7 from the field while his team managed just 52 points. And if we’re talking about the Red Raiders hitting their ceiling as a group, that means Shannon emerging as their second go-to guy.
Shannon is an exceptional athlete and emerging all-around talent who has filled in the gaps as needed: when Ramsey was out, he became the guy tasked with creating shots late in games. He’s a below-average and occasionally reluctant three-point shooter (5-of-23 on the season), although it matters less in the context of Texas Tech’s grind-it-out style, where his length and versatility on defense add value. But there have been some serious flashes of long-term potential strewn throughout his season. Further unlocking Shannon in Big 12 play might go a long way in March, and something close to a proper breakout will vault him firmly into the NBA draft discussion for 2020. The Red Raiders will inevitably have to eke out some close games, and this can be a somewhat anemic halfcourt offense on the wrong night. They can’t be over-reliant on Ramsey, and to a lesser extend, Davide Moretti to close them. Shannon is the guy who can take their attack to another level.
Villanova: Cole Swider
Villanova remains exceedingly competent, and after weathering the departures of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, it will shock nobody if they roll to another Big East title. Although they’re still learning to win games together, the Wildcats haven’t exactly been thrashing the competition yet to piece together a truly convincing win against a high-major opponent. They’ve been efficient offensively, but there’s room for improvement in one critical area: no Villanova team has shot under 35% from three-point range since 2013, and this group currently sits at 32.9% on whole. For as much as they tend to rely on the three-ball (they shot just 6-of-33 in Tuesday’s win over Creighton), that’s a clip that has to improve. And the easiest pathway is more minutes for Cole Swider, who’s shooting 45.6% from the field, but only playing a little more than half their minutes, as he’s struggled defensively, been foul-prone and has somehow shot just five free throws this season.
Swider has to be able to stay on the floor defensively in order to earn more minutes, but he does lead the team in individual offensive rating, according to KenPom, and assuredly, if the shooting woes continue, there will be times where it’s preferable to lean on Swider over Jermaine Samuels (13-of-58 from three) in order to better space the floor for Collin Gillespie and Saddiq Bey to attack the paint. He won’t magically transform into a defensive dynamo, but it’s not too much to ask for him to play more disciplined, and at least fit better into Villanova’s team concept. Swider picked up three quick fouls in the first half against Creighton, didn’t start the second half, then picked up a fourth immediately after checking in. Not only do the Wildcats struggle to shoot the three without him, they just aren’t particularly deep, which exacerbates the issues. Swider turning his season around is their best chance of reaching their ceiling.