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#pounditSunday, October 17, 2021

5 X-Factor players to watch in the Sweet 16

Marcus Sasser

March Madness is great at creating stars.

The players who rack up points or hit buzzer-beaters become the names we remember for years to come. Deeper down each roster though, there are players acting as unsung heroes and helping their teams survive and advance.

Whether it’s with defense, rebounding, or smart decision-making, the X-factors on every roster have a chance to change the outcome of games up and down the bracket.

These five should be major players during the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

Chaundee Brown – Michigan

Michigan is playing shorthanded without shooter Isaiah Livers. His scoring ability stretches defenses thin enough for Michigan to find points in the paint or driving lanes to the rim.

In the second round against LSU, Livers’ role was filled by Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown. He was everywhere on both ends of the floor, adding 21 points on just nine attempts from the field. If Florida State has to give him the same level of respect teams typically pay to Livers, the Wolverine offense opens up. Against a long and rangy Seminoles team, that’s a crucial difference.

Christian Bishop – Creighton

Beating Gonzaga is not easy, but teams are starting to see the avenue towards competing with the undefeated top seed. Although Gonzaga’s offense is not solely driven by Drew Timme’s scoring on the block, that is the Bulldogs’ first option. Timme’s work in the paint allows the Zags to play from inside to outside. If no double team comes, Timme is likely to find a high-percentage shot. When help does come, Timme is a smart passer and the Zags find an advantage somewhere.

Bishop will be tasked with slowing Timme down. It’s unlikely that he can survive without help on the post against the All-American. Bishop is a strong rim protector but ill-suited to handle Timme’s spin cycle on the block.

Look instead for Creighton to attack Timme on the other end of the floor. If Bishop can be an active and effective screener for the Bluejay guards, Timme has to expend energy and possibly personal fouls on the defensive side of the floor. Without the pieces to stop Timme, that has become a frequent alternative.

Marcus Sasser – Houston

To score against the Syracuse zone, Houston will need to penetrate into gaps and make jump shots from the perimeter. In theory, Sasser is the kind of player able to do those things. In practice, he can be incredibly inconsistent. He’s a streaky shooter who can disappear for long stretches of games.

Just in the postseason, Sasser has gone 2-for-10 from outside the arc against Memphis, and 1-for-9 from the field against Rutgers. Houston needs Sasser to play sharply and not settle for bad looks against the zone.

Tyger Campbell – UCLA

The Bruins have a tall task in front of them this weekend. Stopping Alabama is difficult for any team, yet for this UCLA team, it’s an even steeper uphill climb. The Tide have played the 12th-fastest pace in college basketball this season, per KenPom. UCLA is on the other end of the spectrum, ranking 337th in pace.

This game will be a battle of styles. As UCLA’s primary ball-handler, it will be up to Tyger Campbell to do his best to control the pace of the game. UCLA can’t beat Alabama at their own game, running in transition throughout the game. Instead, the Bruins need to limit possessions and execute in the half court. Keep an eye on Campbell’s attempts to do so, slowing his team down to avoid mistakes and find the right shots offensively.

Mark Vital – Baylor

It’s hard to write an article about X-factors and not include Vital, the ultimate glue-guy in college basketball. His unique size, shape, and athleticism make him a Swiss Army knife on the defensive end of the floor.

That will come in handy against a new-look Villanova team. With point guard Collin Gillespie sidelined for the season with an injury, the Wildcats have turned to big man Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The sophomore has become the lead offensive initiator for Villanova, thanks to an ability to step out to the perimeter or score in the post.

Vital will be asked to wrangle Robinson-Earl, both inside the paint and on the perimeter. It should make for one of the most compelling matchups this weekend and could determine if Villanova can hang around with Baylor late into the game.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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