College basketball power rankings: Pay attention to these X-factor players – The Athletic

Brendan Marks and Kyle TuckerFeb 8, 2024

You know the drill by now. This isn’t the 16 best teams in America; it’s the 16 we’re most intrigued with right now, the 16 we want to talk about. (And in the spirit of fairness, we always save our last spot for a noteworthy mid-major.) Not that anybody ever reads the intro …

Oh, and one more thing: It’s X-factor week for Power Rankings. We’re talking glue guys, underrated contributors, the ones not plastered all over ESPN’s pregame previews. OK. Think we’re caught up. Carry on.

1. Purdue (21-2)

Last week: No. 2

X-factor: Lance Jones

In a statement win at then-No. 6 Wisconsin on Sunday, Jones had 20 points, six boards, three assists — and an answer for every Badgers surge. Four separate times in the second half, they got within two or three points, and Jones immediately scored to keep them at bay: and-one, 3-pointer, 3-pointer, layup. Then his bucket with under a minute to go pushed the lead to seven and effectively sealed the victory. Jones, a two-time All-Missouri Valley selection at Southern Illinois, might just be the transfer that puts Purdue over the top.

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When he’s good, the Boilermakers are great. They’re 13-0 when he makes multiple 3-pointers at a clip of 33 percent or better. They’re 14-0 when he scores more than 10 points, also 14-0 when he shoots better than 35 percent from the field. Basically, if Jones doesn’t no-show, good luck beating Purdue. Zach Edey is likely to repeat as national player of the year and Braden Smith (12.4 points per game, 7.3 apg, 5.4 rpg) is playing lights out. Fletcher Loyer (43 percent from deep) is always a threat too. But Jones is looking more and more like he could be the missing piece that’ll help avoid another March meltdown. – Kyle Tucker

2. Connecticut (21-2)

Last week: 1

X-factor: Stephon Castle

Seems a little silly to call a five-star freshman anybody’s X-factor, because that sort of implies that he is underrated. And Castle was rated a consensus top-10 recruit in the Class of 2024, a McDonald’s All-American. He’s supposed to be awesome. But it’s taken some time. A knee injury and minor procedure to fix it cost Castle most of a month early in the season. Then it was slow going upon his return: 5.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists in his first five games back. Solid, but nothing special. For much of the year,Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan have been the headliners. (That headline Tuesday was Clingan putting together his best game since December with 18 points and 14 boards against Butler.)

Lately, though, Castle has been special. And that takes the Huskies to a whole other level. In back-to-back wins over Providence and St. John’s, Castle totaled 41 points on 14-of 26 shooting, and against the Red Storm he put on a defensive clinic. After Clingan and Samson Johnson picked up their fourth fouls, the 6-6 Castle was pressed into emergency five duty and held 6-11, 250-pound Joel Soriano scoreless.

“What freshman in the country is playing better than him?” said Dan Hurley, whose team has now won 11 in a row. “What freshman currently is playing better than him all over the court and has his team winning the way he is?” — Tucker

3. Tennessee (17-5)

Last week: 5

X-factor: Josiah-Jordan James

You gotta love those sneaky, under-the-radar McDonald’s All-Americans. Somehow, James fits the X-factor criteria, despite his former five-star status and the fact he’s played in 130 college games. He’s averaged a perfectly respectable nine points and six boards in his career, but James is always a threat to get rolling and remind everyone what all that hype was about. Like Saturday at Rupp Arena, when he punished Kentucky for zeroing in on Dalton Knecht by pouring in a career-high 26 points. James also had 23 and seven boards in a neutral-site win over NC State, 14 and six in a win at Wisconsin, 12 points, seven assists, six boards in a win over Illinois.

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Knecht might be SEC Player of the Year, Zakai Zeigler might be the SEC assist leader and Jonas Aidoo might be the best big man in the league not named Johni Broome, but James is sneaky important to these Vols. They’re 11-1 when he has at least eight points and five boards in a game — the only loss coming at No. 3 UNC. They’re just 5-4 when James — who scored eight points and didn’t miss a shot from the field in Wednesday’s 88-68 win over LSU — is held below five. “He is a huge part of this program,” Rick Barnes said after UT’s statement win in Lexington. “What we told our guys is we aren’t going to sit around and watch Dalton do it. We have too many good players.” — Tucker

4. Kansas (18-5)

Last week: 8

X-factor: Johnny Furphy

There’s only one real option here for Kansas, considering the team’s well-established Big Four. (And the fact that the Jayhawks are 344th nationally, out of 362 D1 programs, in bench minutes.) We’ve already expounded on Furphy’s emergence in this space — like, the last three weeks — but an eight-game sample size of him starting does provide a little better context. Per BartTorvik, since Bill Self inserted Furphy into the starting five, KU has the fourth-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the nation, behind only Purdue, Kentucky and Marquette. Plus, among all lineups the team has played this season for at least 15 minutes, Kansas’ three best in terms of net rating all include Furphy, per CBB Analytics. The Aussie is making 44.2 percent of his 3s in Big 12 play, eighth-best in the conference — and dramatically improving the Jayhawks’ spacing.

KU is now 5-3 with Furphy as a starter, but all three losses have come on the road and by two possessions. We’re talking margins here. (The more worrisome thing about Kansas’ loss to Kansas State on Monday? The team’s defense, which knew Wildcats guard Tylor Perry was getting the ball every possession late … and yet couldn’t stop him from dropping eight of his game-high 26 in overtime.) The Kansas State game was Furphy’s worst as a starter — he didn’t make a 3 for the first time in 11 games — but we’re betting that’s more aberration than anything. When Furphy is on, Kansas might have the best starting five in America. — Marks

Harrison Ingram does a little bit of everything for UNC. (Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

5. North Carolina (18-5)

Last week: 4

X-factor: Harrison Ingram

Can one of a team’s top three players be an X-factor? Debatable. What isn’t, though, is how impactful Ingram has been for the Tar Heels. The Stanford transfer turned in arguably his best performance of the season in his first UNC-Duke game — a season-high 21 points, 13 rebounds, a career-high-tying four steals, and a career-best five made 3s — and has been the do-everything wing piece Hubert Davis lacked last season. Ingram didn’t have a single double-digit rebounding game last season for the Cardinal … but he’s already got 10 such performances in only 23 games at UNC. (And eight of those 10, importantly, have come in conference play.) Plus, he’s shooting 42.3 percent from deep, more than 10 percent better than he shot at Stanford. UNC is 7-0 this season when Ingram has a double-double.

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When Ingram is out, UNC doesn’t have a replacement for everything the 6-foot-7 junior brings to the table. He temporarily left the second half vs. Clemson on Tuesday with cramps — of course, he also drained a game-tying corner 3 as soon as he re-entered the game — and then didn’t attempt a shot over the final four minutes of UNC’s 80-76 loss. For as good as R.J. Davis has been all season, and as strong as Armando Bacot has come on this week, it’s Ingram’s inside-out versatility that makes the Tar Heels’ offense work. Brady Manek has been the gold standard for UNC transfers under Hubert Davis, but Ingram is quickly nearing that same vaunted territory. Expect a heavy dose of him from here on out, as the Tar Heels move on from losing two of their last three games. — Marks

6. Marquette (17-5)

Last week: 10

X-factor: Stevie Mitchell

Marquette’s three offensive stars — Tyler Kolek, Oso Ighodaro, and Kam Jones — deserve plenty of credit for the team’s six-game winning streak, which has vaulted the Golden Eagles to second in the Big East. But you know who isn’t getting enough love for Marquette’s surge? Stevie Mitchell, the Golden Eagles’ shortest and least-heralded starter. Per BartTorvik, Marquette is 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency since Big East play began, and Mitchell is a huge reason why. He’s seventh amongst high-major players and 22nd nationally in steal rate, per KenPom, with at least three takeaways in five of Marquette’s last nine games. All that makes sense, too, considering Mitchell plays like he was shot out of a cannon. “Stevie playing one minute requires the energy of a normal player playing three minutes,” Shaka Smart said after his team beat Seton Hall two weeks ago. “Him playing 36 minutes is like a normal person playing over a hundred minutes.”

Of late, though, Mitchell hasn’t just been the Golden Eagles’ best perimeter defender; he’s been playing some of the best offensive basketball of his career. His 10.2 points per game over the last nine isn’t anything historic, but it has provided Smart with another consistent scorer outside of his Big Three. Mitchell is making 56.5 percent of his shots the last nine games, and he’s especially thrived at the rim; per CBB Analytics, he’s been making 90 percent (!!) of his at-the-rim shots over Marquette’s last five games, which is in the 98th percentile nationally. Between that and Mitchell’s steadiness as a ball-handler — he has the lowest turnover percentage on the team, per KenPom — he’s been an ideal complement to Marquette’s three-pronged offensive attack. The epitome of a glue guy on a team that suddenly, again, looks like a national contender. — Marks

7. Houston (20-3)

Last week: 3

X-factor: J’Wan Roberts

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What Jamal Shead is to the Cougars’ backcourt, J’Wan Roberts is to the frontcourt: a rugged defender who developed over time — and who now epitomizes how Kelvin Sampson wants to play as much as anyone. Roberts leads the Cougars in rebounding with seven per game, and he’s integral to Houston’s offensive strategy because of that. Houston doesn’t necessarily shoot the lights out — the Cougars make about 35 percent of their 3s, but are sub-250 nationally in 2-point percentage — but it thrives on the offensive glass and creates second-chance points. That’s where Roberts comes in; per KenPom, Houston is sixth nationally as a team in offensive rebounding percentage, and the 6-foot-7 senior is one of three individual Cougars who rank in the top 150 nationally. (Ironically, by fouling out in 12 minutes vs. Oklahoma State on Tuesday, Roberts had his first game since his sophomore season without a single rebound.) That he’s doing all this with a nagging knee injury only speaks further to Roberts being the heart of Houston’s roster.

And while his stats have taken a slight dip since last season, when he won AAC Most Improved Player, he’s been just as effective for a Houston team tied atop the Big 12 standings. Entering Tuesday night, he had the fourth-best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in the Big 12, behind only Hunter Dickinson (Kansas), Yves Missi (Baylor) and Richie Saunders (BYU). (Yes, even one spot ahead of Shead.) The former three-star recruit with a 7-foot-3 wingspan is exactly the type of player Sampson loves — and needs, if the Cougars want to make their second Final Four in four years. — Marks

Arizona often goes as Pelle Larsson goes. (Zachary BonDurant / USA Today)

8. Arizona (17-5)

Last week: 9

X-factor: Pelle Larsson

Larsson is the third-leading scorer for a potential No. 1 seed — a 6-foot-6 do-everything wing who also chips in 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game — but on a star-studded roster, it’s easy not to highlight him. Larsson is, statistically, the team’s best 3-point shooter, and on a team flush with guards and bigs, he’s the only true wing at Tommy Lloyd’s disposal. (Keshad Johnson can masquerade at the three, but he’s much better — and starts every game — at the four.)

Per KenPom, Arizona has the 12th-best adjusted defensive efficiency nationally this season … but per BartTorvik, since Pac-12 play began, the Wildcats have dropped to 38th. (Alternatively, the team’s offense is 11th over that stretch and sixth on the season. Not worried there.) So, what gives? Some of that is the team’s wild home-versus-road swings; all five of Arizona’s losses have come away from the confines of McKale Center. But digging in a little deeper, Larsson’s individual defense maybe hasn’t been what Lloyd needs it to be. Per Synergy, Larsson currently allows opponents to score 1.068 PPP, more than anyone else in Arizona’s rotation not named Oumar Ballo. (Which also isn’t shocking, given the big man’s limited mobility and foot speed.) Opponents are seemingly hunting Larsson with ball screens and motion. On film, there are ample examples of him getting lost ball-watching or not closing out hard enough. Opponents average 1.068 PPP against him in spot-up scenarios and 1.0 PPP as the pick-and-roll ballhandler; those marks are in the 24th and 16th percentile nationally. Couple that with Larsson’s recent shooting slump — he’s only making 25 percent of his 3s the last seven games — and it explains a little bit more of Arizona’s inconsistency. — Marks

9. Iowa State (17-5)

Last week: 6

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X-factor: Milan Momcilovic

Iowa State is 0.1 seconds away from being on a five-game winning streak in the best conference in America. Alas:

The reason we bring up that play is because it’s just the latest flash from Momcilovic. Is going with one of the most productive high-major freshmen in the country — a cop-out? Possibly … but also, we make the rules, and we want to talk about him, and we’re not sure that’s happening enough yet at the national level.

The wild thing is that Momcilovic — who scores the 10th-most points amongst high-major freshmen — wasn’t even the Cyclones’ top incoming recruit last summer! That was top-15 forward Omaha Biliew, who averages less than eight minutes a game and hasn’t seen the floor in Iowa State’s last three contests. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Momcilovic — who was ranked No. 37 in his class — has started every game for T.J. Otzelberger’s team. The most noteworthy skill with Momcilovic, if the above clip didn’t make evident, is his shooting; he’s 10th in 3-point percentage amongst high-major freshmen attempting multiple 3s per game. He’s also leading Iowa State in 3-point percentage (40.4), with multiple made 3s in four of the team’s last five games. (The only exception? Baylor. Not to twist the knife or anything …) What makes him such a neat fit is that he doesn’t command a ton of usage; Momcilovic is fifth on the team in the percentage of shots he takes while on the court, and he hasn’t been above a 20 percent usage rate yet this season. Meanwhile, he has the lowest turnover rate on the team, and he’s a sneaky good defender without fouling. The real question is whether Iowa State — which is absolutely in contention for its first conference title in over 20 years — will get Momcilovic back for his sophomore season or not. If he keeps thriving, and the Cyclones keep winning, the NBA Draft may beckon. — Marks

10. Illinois (17-5)

Last week: 11

X-factor: Quincy Guerrier

The Oregon (by way of Syracuse) transfer runs hot and cold for the Illini, but a super senior with 153 games of experience, 107 starts and a dozen career 20-plus-point games at the high-major level is a real asset on a team that already has a stout Big Three of Terrence Shannon Jr., Marcus Domask and Coleman Hawkins. Guerrier can disappear at times, but he’s also had recent heaters — averaging 15.3 points and 12 boards in a three-game stretch, 18.5 points and 8.6 boards in another six-game burst — that can elevate Illinois from good to great.

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The 6-7, 220-pound Guerrier was second in the ACC in rebounding in 2021, and he’s eighth in the Big Ten this year. His dirty work on the glass is a constant, even as the scoring ebbs and flows (seven games with 15-plus points, eight games with seven or fewer points). Guerrier has at least five boards in 18 of 22 games this season — and in every game in which he’s played more than 22 minutes. He helps Illinois dominate the glass, ranking eighth nationally in rebound margin. The Illini have out-rebounded their opponent in 15 of 17 victories this season. — Tucker

11. Auburn (19-4)

Last week: Not ranked

X-factor: Tre Donaldson

What a luxury Bruce Pearl has when five-star freshman point guard Aden Holloway hits a lull, that he can just move a linebacker-sized sophomore into the starting lineup and keep trucking. Donaldson (an actual former football star) became a starter four games ago, and he’s been instrumental in the Tigers’ move to retake a share of first place in the SEC. In consecutive blowout wins at Ole Miss and against rival Alabama, Donaldson played a total of 49 minutes, made 9 of 17 shots, scored 24 points, dished 10 assists, had six boards and turned it over just three times.

Auburn is 17-2 this season when he has at least three assists. He’s only scored in double figures 10 times in 55 career games, but he’s a steady hand on a team with tons of options. Donaldson is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter with a 2.2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. With Johni Broome and Jaylin Williams both playing at an All-SEC level — they combined for 50 points in a 99-81 shellacking of the Crimson Tide on Wednesday night — a poised point guard is all Pearl needs. In Donaldson, he has a heckuva safety net on nights Holloway isn’t up to that task. – Tucker

12. South Carolina (20-3)

Last week: 13

X-factor: Collin Murray-Boyles

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The Gamecocks have relied heavily on veterans — returning junior Meechie Johnson and upperclass transfers B.J. Mack, Ta’Lon Cooper and Myles Stute are the team’s top four scorers — to flip from an 11-win season to 20 wins and counting in Year 2 under Lamont Paris (a strong candidate for national coach of the year, by the way). But they also signed a top-100 freshman, whose hometown was helpfully Columbia, S.C., and Murray-Boyles is beginning to play up to his ranking. Since he moved into the starting lineup on Jan. 13, USC is 7-1 and has vaulted to second place in the SEC.

GO DEEPER

Tucker: Lamont Paris keeps pushing all the right buttons in South Carolina’s rebuild

The 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward is averaging 9.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, a block and a steal per game as a starter, and the last two games have been his real coming-out party. In 51 total minutes against Georgia and Ole Miss, Murray-Boyles produced 32 points, 14 boards, five assists, three steals and made 15 of 20 shots. In a tight game against the Rebels on Tuesday night, he rose up and rejected 7-foot-5 senior center Jamarion Sharp at the rim with 1:20 to go, helping preserve the Gamecocks sixth straight victory.

South Carolina was good even before its prized freshman figured things out. Now? The Gamecocks could be a very tough out in March. — Tucker

13. Saint Mary’s (19-6)

Last week: 16

X-factor: Joshua Jefferson

After Saturday’s win over Gonzaga — we aren’t going to relitigate the no-call on Aiden Mahaney stepping out of bounds — Randy Bennett’s team is firmly in control of the WCC, and it’s time the nation again turns its eyes westward. Since the calendar flipped to January, per BartTorvik, Saint Mary’s is sixth nationally in adjusted efficiency; it’s one of just three teams with a top-20 offense and defense in that timeframe, alongside Connecticut and Tennessee.

We’re guessing not too many of our East Coast-based readers have been watching Saint Mary’s, or at least not until the wee hours of Saturday evening. But if you watched that game, you’re already familiar with Jefferson, the 6-foot-8 sophomore who has solidified the Gaels’ power forward position. Jefferson went for 16 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists against the Zags — in the Kennel, no less! — in a continuation of what’s been his breakout season. Jefferson previously dropped 22 and 13 in a December win at Colorado State, and he’s the second-leading rebounder for a team ranked in the top 10 (per KenPom) in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. Plus, Jefferson’s 3-point shot is slowly starting to become a real weapon; he’s made 39.1 percent of his 3s during the Gaels’ current 11-game winning streak, which — even on low volume — makes Bennett’s team that much tougher of a cover. — Marks

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14. San Diego State (18-5)

Last week: NR

X-factor: Darrion Trammell

He’s only started four games this season, after starting 37 games for an NCAA runner-up team last season, but Trammell is still hugely important to the Aztecs. The 5-foot-10 point guard who sent San Diego State to the Final Four with a clutch free throw last March and has played 113 games (with 90 starts) is averaging career lows in points (7.9) and assists (2.4). But it’s not hard to see the impact he has on this team from the bench. The Aztecs are 12-2 in games that he plays more than 22 minutes.

He scored 17 points in one of the season’s biggest wins at Gonzaga, and the team is 6-1 – including neutral-site wins over Saint Mary’s and Washington — when Trammell has at least four assists in a game. When you have a star like Jaedon LeDee and a glue guy like Lamont Butler and your sixth man is a former NCAA All-Region selection for his postseason heroics, including 21 points in an upset of No. 1 overall seed Alabama, you might have another team capable of going deep next month. – Tucker

15. Baylor

Last week: NR

X-factor: Jalen Bridges

All of Baylor’s guards — RayJ Dennis, Ja’Kobe Walter, Langston Love, Jayden Nunn — have their respective strengths, and they can all rip it from 3, but Scott Drew uses them somewhat interchangeably. So strictly from a roster construction perspective, we’re going with Bridges, the 6-foot-9 senior who adds some size to Baylor’s roster. Bridges can also shoot it from deep, making 40.4 percent of his 3s, but he does a little bit of everything for the Bears. He’s second in rebounds, third in assists, and fourth in points per game, making him the kind of malleable veteran every team wants to have. He’s also among the team’s top defenders, conceding less than two fouls per 40 minutes, easily the best rate on the team.

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With the Bears amid a three-game winning streak — the last two victories of which came against top-35 teams — it’s also worth asking: Is … Bridges getting better? He’s at the very least become more essential. Over Baylor’s last five games, the West Virginia transfer is up to 33 minutes per game, with an effective field-goal percentage (66.3) that ranks in the 95th percentile nationally, while also making 52 percent of his five 3-point attempts per game.Those increases have been more of an accumulation than consistent nightly, but still. Baylor’s defense generally still leaves a lot to be desired — BartTorvik ranks the Bears 88th in adjusted defensive efficiency since January began — but the offense is a fairly proven commodity by now. And on nights when Bridges is going? There just simply aren’t many teams in America that have the horses to score with Baylor. — Marks

Bucky McMillan and Samford get the weekly mid-major shoutout at the No. 16 spot. (Marc Lebryk / USA Today)

16. Samford (20-3)

Last week: NR

X-factor: Bucky McMillan

Yes, the rest of these are players, but there is no factor more important to the Bulldogs than their absolutely fascinating head coach. And if you don’t already know about him — or his delightful brand of Bucky Ball — then it is imperative that we use this space to spread the word. Is there anyone even remotely like McMillan in college basketball? He’s a super successful, 40-year-old Division I head coach who never worked as a college assistant and has never left his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

He played at Mountain Brook High in Birmingham, then played college ball at Birmingham Southern, then served as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater, then took over as head coach and led that program to five state titles in Alabama, then made the unusual leap from high school to college head coach in 2020 — staying home to coach Samford. He implemented a frenetic style: full-court pressing, mass-substituting regularly, getting shots up as quickly as possible and relying almost entirely on 3s and layups (plus free throws) to score points. The results? From six wins in 2021 to 21 wins the last two seasons and now a 20-3 record and recently ended a 17-game winning streak to take control of the Southern Conference. There’s nothing quite like Bucky Ball, and we’re here for it. — Tucker

Also thinking about: It was always going to be tough for Alabama (16-7) to win at Auburn on Wednesday, but sheesh. The Tigers shot 26.3 percent from 3 and still dropped 99 points on 1.29 PPP. Bama’s offense is as good as it gets, but leaky defense seems to be the flavor of the day in the SEC … Did Wisconsin (16-7) forget how to shoot at halftime of the Nebraska game? The Badgers have now dropped three straight, including a stinker at Michigan on Wednesday, and Greg Gard’s team is just 18-of-69 from 3 (26.1 percent) in those three losses. … There’s no shame — at least from a resume perspective — in losing to a top-5 rival on the road, which Duke (17-5) did at UNC over the weekend. But Kyle Filipowski hasn’t been himself lately, both from a production and body-language standpoint. The Blue Devils are still right in the thick of the ACC race after their win over Notre Dame, but Jon Scheyer’s team — like most listed here — needs to tighten up its defense to be a serious national contender. … Winners of three straight, including two over top-50 teams, Colorado State (18-5) is right back in contention in the Mountain West. But the challenges don’t stop here; the Rams go to San Diego State and New Mexico in the next two weeks, in games that will surely decide the league winner. … By God, is that the ACC’s music? Welcome back from the shadow realm, Virginia (18-5), courtesy of seven straight wins — and a defense that, per BartTorvik, ranks No. 1 nationally over that stretch. Tony Bennett, doing Tony Bennett things again!

(Top photo of Josiah-Jordan James: Jordan Prather / USA Today)

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