March Madness 2023: These X-Factors Among NCAA Tournament Contenders Can Help You Fill Your Bracket

When Kansas added three-time All-Pac-12 performer Remy Martin of Arizona State after the 2020-21 season, the Jayhawks made an addition that ultimately helped them win the national title. Though Martin’s year-long tenure at Kansas had its ups and downs, he played an “X-Factor” role for the team when it mattered most, as KU won the Big 12 tournament and guided them through the NCAA tournament.

Over a 12-game span that spanned much of conference play, Martin averaged just 3.7 points on 37.3% shooting as he and coach Bill Self appeared to have difficulty coming to terms with the 6-footer’s role -Guardians on a talented list on the same side. But in the final two games of the conference tournament and six games in the Big Dance, Martin came alive, averaging 13.3 points per competition and becoming a fixture alongside stars Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.

Having free players like this is vital for any team looking to hold out during March Madness. While star power is central to any team that has made it this far, having reliable support around your best players is essential to sustaining a post-season run.

So who are the X Factor players for this season’s national title contenders? Let’s take a look. Thirty-one of the last 33 champions were seeded in the top three, so let’s start there.

No. 1 seed

Alabama: Noah Clowney

Brandon Miller is the well-known lanky freshman forward and future first-round NBA draft pick on Alabama’s team. But he’s not the only player in this squad who fits the description. Fellow clown Clowney was better than announced after finishing 99th in the 247Sports recruit rankings for the 2022 recruit class. Starting as a power forward for Alabama, he is second on the team in rebounds and blocks and third in points per game. Defensively, he’s versatile enough to protect anyone and he can also step out to shoot 3-pointers. Taking away Miller is a chore for opposing defense. Throw in Clowney and it’s just a nightmare to mess with the Crimson Tide.

Houston: Jarace Walker

It’s well documented that a future first-round NBA draft pick on your roster is one of the most important ingredients for championship teams. The player checking that box for Houston is Walker, a 6-foot-8 power forward. The five-star freshman was the AAC Freshman of the Year and is second on the team in points and rebounds. Walker has scored 15 or more points nine times, and Houston has won every one of those games. It’s also encouraging that some of his best performances were away from home.

Kansas: Dajuan Harris

Kansas is 21-1 if Harris reaches six points. At its core, the 6-1 guard is a pass-first player, as he averages 6.1 assists per game. But the Jayhawks need him as an offensive threat to keep opposing defenses from sagging and taking out Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick. Harris only averages two attempts from 3-point range per game, but he’s making 41.2% of those, and his goal threat helps make the KU offense a dynamic machine.

Purdue: Braden Smith

Everything Purdue does revolves around 7-4 center Zach Edey. That’s why it’s so important that the Boilermakers’ complementary pieces shoot the basketball well. If opponents have to worry about insults coming from other sources, it keeps them from fully focusing on taking Edey away. Smith is the team’s third-best goalscorer at 9.8 points per game and has the best 3-point shooting average on the roster at 38.9%. Purdue is 9-0 if he makes two or more 3-pointers.

No. 2 seeds

UCLA: Amari Bailey

With UCLA wing Jaylen Clark out with an Achilles injury, the Bruins will need Bailey’s best during the NCAA tournament. The five-star freshman is the team’s third-top scorer and he also needs to hold on defensively to make up for the loss of Clark, who is one of four finalists for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Bailey is a little unpredictable offensively but has scored 19 or more points five times this season and can take the pressure off Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez if he plays well.

Texas: Tyrese Hunter

Sometimes less is more with Hunter. The sophomore point guard made headlines with his intra-conference move from Iowa State to Texas after winning Big 12 Rookie of the Year last season. But with a 38.6% team low percentage when shooting from the ground, the Longhorns don’t need Hunter’s Hero Ball. In fact, Texas is 8-0 if he scores five or fewer points. If Hunter can stay in control, play a fighting perimeter defense against the opposing team’s point guard, and hit the occasional 3-pointer, he’ll provide Texas with what it needs.

Arizona: Courtney Ramey

Ramey is the definition of a “3-and-D” player in college basketball, as he leads Arizona in 3-point matches and has the best team effort from beyond the arc at 40.9%. He’s only Arizona’s third-leading scorer, but is also considered the Wildcats’ top full-back, according to The former four-year-old Texas guard is in his fifth season in college basketball and has the experience and skill to be a steady hand for a sometimes unpredictable Arizona roster. X-Factors are the types of players who can hit clutch shots like this one Ramey did in the Pac-12 tournament title game, even after an otherwise bad game.

Marquette: David Joplin

Joplin is Marquette’s sixth man, alternating between quiet minutes and loud posts. At the Big East Tournament, he proved the latter with 17 points on 5 of 7 shots in a 70-68 win over UConn. If the Golden Eagles hit a deep run, there will be a moment when Joplin emerges as a key figure to complement the core scorer of Kam Jones, Tyler Kopek and Olivier-Maxence Prosper.

No. 3 seeds

Baylor: Jalen Bridges

The guards get Baylor going, but Bridges is the kind of dynamic player at 6-foot-7 needed to drive the Bears deep into the tournament. He has a career-high 28 points in Baylor’s loss to Iowa State during the Big 12 tournament, which is an encouraging sign. If he can stay hot and play the kind of defense he should be capable of, he could be instrumental in helping Baylor fulfill his immense potential.

Gonzaga: Rasir Bolton

Drew Timme and Julian Strawther are the leading scorers and top players for Gonzaga, but Watson is the team’s most improved player. Taking a full-time starting role for the first time this season, the 6-8 senior shoots 61.4% from the ground and is considered the Zags’ top defenseman. He produced 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and a block in a win over Saint Mary’s to end the regular season. That win earned the Zags a chunk of the WCC title, and it’s that kind of box-score stuffing that Watson’s Gonzaga will need to reach the Final Four.

State of Kansas: Desi Sills

Kansas State had lost four of its last five games in the second half of the Big 12 gauntlet. Then first-year coach Jerome Tang placed Sills in the starting XI for the first time this season. The Wildcats promptly had four straight wins to wrap up the regular season. With so much focus on star guards Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, it’s important that the Wildcats get help from elsewhere. He’s only 6-1, making him a defensive problem to play against him with the 5-8 Nowell in some matchups. But there are moments and games in this tournament where Sills has to play an X Factor role.

Xavier: Adam Kunkel

Xavier is third in 3-point shooting with 39.5% and Kunkel is an important part of the equation. If he scores 15 or more points, the Musketeers are 6-0, and he hits at least two 3-pointers in each of those games. With key forward Zach Freemantle out for the season, it’s crucial Xavier continues to receive substantial input from outside the trio of Souley Boum, Colby Jones and Jack Nunge. With 39.6% 3 point shooter on 4.5 tries per game, Kunkel is a crucial role player for Xavier.

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