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March 23rd, 2017

16 X-Factors to Keep an Eye on In the 2017 Sweet 16

Def Pen Sports
2017 Sweet 16

Nigel Hayes (Elsa/Getty Images)

The 2017 Sweet 16 is upon us and the second weekend of the 2017 NCAA Tournament is missing some of the top teams. The Duke Blue Devils, Villanova Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals are some of the big name schools that were eliminated before the round of 16. But we still have Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and Malik Monk headlining the weekend of hoopers in the NCAA tournament.

But beyond the stars and big names, there are the unheralded players that many don’t pay attention to. Every school has them and every school needs them, that one guy who can make a different for their school and they also could be the difference in wins or losses. Check out the 16 players who could be the deciding factors going into the second weekend of action.

2017 Sweet 16

East Region

Wisconsin

Nigel Hayes

by Kam Harper – @BeantownLegacy

For the Wisconsin Badgers to advance to another weekend of March Madness, they will need senior forward, Nigel Hayes, to step up. Hayes has proven to be a reliable scorer for the Badgers and was an essential part of the upset over Villanova. Hayes is a tough matchup for many teams due to his size. Not big enough to play power forward but bigger and slower than most small forwards. He has also had plenty of big game experience in his career, including making it to the National Championship game as a sophomore.

Florida

Canyon Barry

Austin Reed

The Gators resident granny shooting free throw shooter, thanks to his Hall of Fame dad Rick, will need to be a key contributor if the Gators want to be one of the remaining four teams on Monday. Barry has never been a high percentage shooter, but his ability to get points has never been questioned. Now coming off the bench for the Gators after averaging 19 a game for the College of Charleston last year Barry is still getting 11 a game as the Gators sixth man. The last time Florida lost a game Barry didn’t score at all which cannot happen at Madison Square Garden this weekend. In five of Florida’s eight losses, Barry has not reached double figures highlighting just how important the Gator’s sixth man is.

Baylor

Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.

Dylan Hargis – @DylanHargis9

The Baylor Bears find themselves in a favorable situation as the three seed in the East Region. The region’s top seed remaining after Villanova and Duke both found themselves upset at the hands of Wisconsin and South Carolina respectively. Johnathan Motley is a fantastic forward, but fellow forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. could prove to be the x-factor against a scrappy South Carolina team. The junior forward averages 9.1 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and a very impressive 2.5 blocks per game. Baylor will need his defensive presence in the paint to beat a South Carolina team that is itching for another huge upset. Lual-Acuil Jr. struggled against the Trojans in the round of 32 and will need to bounce back to avoid any potential upsets from happening. This Bears team has to feel confident about its chances at a Final Four bid as the highest seed left.

South Carolina

Duane Notice

By Justin Hodges – @HodgepodgeHoops

The South Carolina Gamecocks, fresh off the upset of the year against Duke, have two-star players. The SEC Player of the Year in Sindarius Thornwell and a potential first-round NBA Draft pick in PJ Dozier has led the Gamecocks to where they’re at now. However perhaps the most undervalued player for South Carolina is guard Duane Notice. Notice is the only Gamecock other than Thornwell and Dozier to average double figure scoring at 10.1 points per game. Offering senior leadership and giving his team a little bit of everything when on the floor. Notice is a player that South Carolina doesn’t do well without him. He put up 17 points in their game against Duke, and for the Gamecocks to get to the Elite Eight and further they will need everything they can get from perhaps their least glamorous player.

West Region

2017 Sweet 16

Przemek Karnowski (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Gonzaga

Przemek Karnowski

by Kam Harper – @BeantownLegacy

In their Sweet Sixteen game, Przemek Karnowski will play a vital role for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Karnowski obviously isn’t a high volume scorer, but against a smaller West Virginia team, he could have his way down low. West Virginia has a few lanky forwards, but nobody with the girth to get in the way of 7’1”, 300-pound Karnowski. Aside from his play, Karnowski brings the leadership needed to get through tough games. Now a fifth-year senior, he’s been around for multiple NCAA Tournament runs but has fallen short of passing the second weekend every year.

West Virginia

Nathan Adrian

By Dylan Hargis – @DylanHargis9

West Virginia has had a strange run to the Sweet 16, but are a threat that Gonzaga should not take lightly. The team edged by 13 seed Bucknell but had a very impressive and convincing win over the five seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish. While Gonzaga will certainly be worried about the Mountaineers two leading scorers Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad they also need to focus on the third-leading scorer and the team’s leading rebounder for the season Nathan Adrian.

The six foot nine inch senior forward is a West Virginia native who provides a rebounding presence that this team needs. Adrian averages a team-high six rebounds per game with the second closest being Carter at 4.9 per game. Adrain also chips in 9.7 points per game and a solid 2.9 assists per game. Adrian is also a big factor on defense averaging just under one block per game along with 1.3 steals per game as well. Adrian playing well could pose an enormous threat to Gonzaga. Could this be another one seed ready to go down?

Xavier

JP Macura

By Austin Reed

With Edmond Sumner out for the year with a torn ACL, Macura has upped his game in the backcourt. He already is averaging over ten more minutes per game than last year and with it upped his point per game from 9 to 14. Macura does a little of everything on the court, knocking down threes, averaging three assists a game while doubling as a pesky defender. Macura has been instrumental in Xavier’s turnaround the last few weeks when some thought they might miss the tournament. If Macura plays his Swiss army knife role to perfection this weekend, Xavier might pull off another upset or two and find themselves in Phoenix.

Arizona

Rawle Alkins

By Justin Hodges – @HodgepodgeHoops

Arizona is a talented team with excellent players at each position. The great thing about this Wildcats team is that there’s not one over-the-top superstar player, but instead, several excellent players that all know how to play as a team. The best thing about that is if one player has on off day another can step up, and the team will still likely win. A player that the Wildcats cannot afford to have lacking off though is freshman Rawle Alkins. A highly rated recruit for Arizona, Alkins as a slasher and on the dribble-drive which opens up everything for the Wildcat’s offense. Lauri Markkanen and Alonzo Trier are fantastic, but when Alkins is fully on his game, Arizona is one of the more unstoppable teams in the country.

Midwest Region

2017 Sweet 16

Devonte’ Graham (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Kansas

Devonte’ Graham

By Austin Reed

Frank Mason and Josh Jackson get all the credit when Kansas wins, and it is well deserved, but Devonte’ Graham is a forgotten reason the Kansas backcourt is considered maybe the best in college basketball. Graham is clearly the Jayhawks X-Factor and has been all year. As cliche as it sounds when Graham is knocking down threes like he did against Michigan State, this team goes to another level. Kansas lost just four games all year, but Graham’s rough shooting games in 3 of the 4 contributed to the losses. Against Indiana Graham was 3-11, versus Iowa State he was 4-13 and in the loss, to TCU he was 2-10. Now compare those to the 11-17 he’s shot in Kansas first two tournament games where the Jayhawks have put up 100 and 90 points. They’ve won those games by an average of 29 points showing just how important Graham is to the Jayhawks success.

Purdue

Vince Edwards

By Justin Hodges – @HodgepodgeHoops

When you’re a team that dominated with powerful big men, such as Purdue is, you have to have production from the perimeter. For the Boilermakers that production comes from Vince Edwards. Shooting 42.5% from three this year Vince is an absolute difference maker on the floor. Not only can Edwards hit jumpers, but he has size at 6’7″ and 220 pounds. He can post up, get easy looks around the rim, grab rebounds and man up on defense. Any success for Purdue going forward is going to have to rely on one Vince Edwards.

Oregon

Payton Pritchard

Austin Reed

Pritchard is the perfect point guard for Oregon’s potent attack. Just a freshman Pritchard plays with a poise of a 5th-year senior. His teammates talk about his maturity with most being juniors and seniors on a team returning all but two players from an Elite 8 team. The freshman puts up an unspectacular but steady 7-3-3, but it’s his poise and constant cool that makes him Oregon’s X-Factor. He’s shown his ability to hit big shots like he did against UCLA so don’t be surprised when Oregon needs a big shot this weekend, and with everyone keying Dillon Brooks the ball gets swung to Pritchard, and the freshman comes through.

Michigan

Zak Irvin

By Dylan Hargis – @DylanHargis9

The Wolverines have had a miracle run to the Sweet 16 after having another miracle run to win the Big Ten Tournament by winning four straight games. The Wolverines are the closest thing we have to a Cinderella team this year. Michigan has some real talent with Derrick Walton Jr and D.J. Wilson, but there’s one player who fans need to watch against Oregon on Thursday.

cSenior guard Zak Irvin provides a lot for his team including veteran leadership. Irvin also averages 12.9 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, and three assists per game. Michigan looks to survive and advance against yet another opponent that they aren’t supposed to beat. Irvin will have to provide a reliable scoring option as well as a calm and steady leadership presence for the Wolverines to stop the onslaught of Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey of the Ducks. Irvin will be responsible for helping his teammates shock the world one more time.

South Region

2017 Sweet 16

Lonzo Ball and Thomas Welsh (Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)

UNC

Theo Pinson

By Dylan Hargis – @DylanHargis9

The Tarheels pose an interesting case after winning a nail bitter against Arkansas. Carolina players and fan alike were certainly sweating bullets during the closing minutes of that game. Joel Berry and Justin Jackson are obviously the faces of Roy Williams’ team with Kennedy Meek and Isaiah Hicks anchoring the much-needed paint presence in a Carolina system. The guy that is often overlooked on this team is junior forward Theo Pinson. The talented forward isn’t a stat stuffer, but provides a little bit of everything for his team and is without a doubt provides much needed light hearted humor.

Pinson averages 5.9 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, and 3.7 assists per game. It’s the things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet that Pinson provides for Carolina. He is an excellent defender and can quickly provide an explosive offensive play that brings energy and life into the crowd and his teammates. While some fans could be looking ahead to an elite eight matchup against a powerhouse like UCLA or Kentucky, the Tarheels must look at the Butler Bulldogs first. The offensive turnout has to be better or Carolina will not be dancing anymore this year. Pinson will be a player to watch this weekend.

Butler

Kamar Baldwin

by Kam Harper – @BeantownLegacy

Kamar Baldwin was certainly a pleasant surprise for the Butler Bulldogs this season. Only a Three-Star recruit last season, Baldwin worked his way into the starting lineup and has been a great piece for the team ever since. The blend of pesky defense and athleticism has helped him carve out a significant role for the Butler Bulldogs. Moving forward, Baldwin’s defense will be crucial in their upcoming game against the North Carolina Tar Heels, specifically in his matchup with Joel Berry.

UCLA

Thomas Welsh

by Kam Harper – @BeantownLegacy

Thomas Welsh has been an incredibly reliable player for UCLA this season. The junior center has scored just under 11 points per game on 58.5 percent shooting, while also leading the team in rebounding with 8.7 per game. Welsh is also one of the few defensive-minded players on this Bruins team, which makes him a valuable player if they were to get in a shootout against Kentucky or possibly UNC in the Elite Eight. For UCLA to make a National Championship run, Thomas Welsh will be an essential part of making that happen.

Kentucky

Derek Willis

By Justin Hodges – @HodgepodgeHoops

On a Kentucky team that is stacked with freshman talent, as they always are, the X-Factor for the Wildcats heading into the Sweet Sixteen is senior forward Derek Willis. He is far from the most exciting player Kentucky has, but more times than not he is the most important.

Not only is Willis Kentucky’s most experienced player, but he is perhaps the most pivotal player when it comes to the Wildcats winning games. His floor spacing and perimeter shooting are keys to seemingly every Kentucky victory. Always having a knack for knocking down threes right when Kentucky needs them most, his contributions are often the key to winning his team games perhaps more so than any of Kentucky’s freshmen. Willis often does the dirty work as well, as he is proficient in grabbing defensive rebounds and is an excellent shot blocker as well. For Kentucky to defeat UCLA and advance further into the tournament, Derek Willis will have to be on his game.

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