When Kansas added three-time all-Pac-12 performer Remy Martin from Arizona State after the 2020-21 season, the Jayhawks made an addition that ultimately ended up helping them win the national title. Although Martin’s one-year tenure with Kansas featured its share of highs and lows, he played an “X-factor” role for the team when it mattered most as KU won the Big 12 Tournament and continued its run to the NCAA Tournament .
In a 12-game stretch spanning much of the conference, Martin averaged just 3.7 points on 37.3 percent shooting as he and coach Bill Self seemed to struggle to agree on who would be the role of the 6-foot-6 guard on a talented roster. . But over the final two games of the conference tournament and six games into the Big Dance, Martin has come alive, averaging 13.3 points per contest and becoming an integral part alongside stars Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.
Having such free agents is crucial for any team that aspires to stay in March Madness. While star power is central to any team that’s made it this far, reliable help around your best players is essential to sustaining a postseason 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 have been top three seeds, so we’ll start there.
No. 1 seeds
Alabama: Noah Clowney
Brandon Miller is a well known top freshman forward and future first round NBA draft pick on the Alabama team. But he’s not the only player on this roster who fits the description. Freshman Clowney has been better than advertised after being ranked No. 99 in the 247Sports recruiting rankings for the 2022 recruiting class. He starts at power forward for Alabama and is second on the team in rebounds and blocks and third in points per game . Defensively, he’s versatile enough to guard anyone and can step out and shoot 3-pointers. Taking Miller away is a chore for opposing defenses. Throw in Clowney and matching up with the Crimson Tide is just a nightmare.
Houston: Jarace Walker
It’s well-documented that having a future first-round NBA draft pick on your roster is one of the key ingredients for championship teams. The player who checks that box for Houston is Walker, a 6-foot-1 power forward. The five-star freshman was the AAC freshman of the year and is second on the team in scoring and rebounding. Walker has scored 15 or more points on nine occasions and Houston has won each of those games. It is also encouraging that some of his best performances have come away from home.
Kansas: Dajuan Harris
Kansas is 21-1 when Harris hits six points. At his core, the 6-1 guard is a passer as he averages 6.1 assists per game. But the Jayhawks need him to be an offensive threat to keep opposing defenses from relaxing and shutting down Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick. Harris averages just two attempts from 3-point range per game, but makes 41.2 percent of them, and his scoring threat helps make KU’s offense a dynamic engine.
Purdue: Braden Smith
Everything Purdue does revolves around 7-4 center Zach Edey. That’s why it’s so important that the Boilermakers’ free throws shoot the basketball well. If opponents have to worry about offense from other sources, it prevents them from fully focusing on taking Edey down. Smith is the team’s third leading scorer at 9.8 points per game and has the best 3-point shooting percentage on the roster at 38.9 percent. Purdue is 9-0 when making two or more 3-pointers.
No. 2 seeds
UCLA: Amari Bailey
With UCLA wing Jaylen Clark out with an Achilles injury, the Bruins need Bailey at his best during the NCAA Tournament. The five-star freshman is the team’s third-leading scorer and will also need to lock down defensively to help make up for the loss of Clark, who is one of four finalists for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Bailey is a little shaky offensively, but he has scored 19 or more points five times this season and can take pressure off Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez when he’s playing well.
Texas: Tyrese Hunter
Sometimes, less is more with Hunter. The sophomore point guard made headlines for his in-conference move from Iowa State to Texas after winning Big 12 Rookie of the Year last season. But shooting a lowly 38.6% from the floor, the Longhorns don’t need any hero balls from Hunter. In fact, Texas is 8-0 when scoring five points or less. If Hunter can stay in check, play tough perimeter defense on the opposing point guard and hit the occasional 3-pointer, he’ll give Texas exactly what it needs.
Arizona: Courtney Ramey
Ramey is college basketball’s definition of a “3-and-D” player as he leads Arizona in 3-pointers and shoots a team-best 40.9 percent from beyond the arc. He’s just Arizona’s third-leading scorer, but also rates as the Wildcats’ best perimeter defender, according to EvanMiya.com. The former four-year Texas guard is in his fifth season of college basketball and has the experience and ability to be a steady hand for a sometimes shaky Arizona team. X-factors are the types of players who can hit clutch shots like the one Ramey made in the Pac-12 Tournament title game even after an otherwise bad game.
Marquette: David Joplin
Joplin is Marquet’s sixth man and alternates between offering quiet minutes and powerful contributions. In the Big East Tournament, he proved the latter with 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a 70-68 win over UConn. If the Golden Eagles are going to make a deep run, there will be a time when Joplin emerges as a key figure to compliment the scoring core of Kam Jones, Tyler Kopek and Olivier-Maxence Prosper.
No. 3 seeds
Baylor: Jalen Bridges
The guards are what make Baylor go, but Bridges is the type of dynamic player at 6-foot-7 that will be needed to propel the Bears deep into the tournament. He’s coming off 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 type of defense that indicates he should be capable of, he could be essential in helping Baylor reach its immense potential.
Gonzaga: Rasheer Bolton
Drew Timme and Julian Strawther are the leading scorers and best players for Gonzaga, but Watson is the team’s most improved player. Stepping into a full-time starting role for the first time this season, the 6-8 senior is shooting 61.4 percent from the floor and ranks as the Zags’ best defender. He had 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and a block in a win over Saint Mary’s to close out the regular season. That win clinched a share of the WCC title for the Zags, and it’s the kind of stuff Gonzaga will need from Watson to reach the Final Four.
Kansas State: Desi Shills
Kansas State had lost four of its last five games during the second half of the Big 12 gauntlet. First-year coach Jerome Tang then inserted Sills into the starting lineup for the first time this season. The Wildcats immediately reeled off four straight wins to close out the regular season. With so much focus on star guards Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, it’s important the Wildcats get help from elsewhere. He’s only 6-1, which makes playing him with the 5-8 Nowell a defensive problem in some matchups. But there are moments and games in this tournament during which Sills will need to play an X-factor role.
Xavier: Adam Kunkel
Xavier ranks third nationally in 3-point shooting percentage at 39.5 percent, and Kunkel is a key part of the equation. When he scores 15 or more, the Musketeers are 6-0 and have hit at least two 3-pointers in each of those games. With starting forward Zach Freemantle out for the season, it’s important that Xavier continues to get meaningful contributions out of the trio of Souley Boum, Colby Jones and Jack Nunge. As a 39.6% 3-point shooter on 4.5 attempts per game, Kunkel is a crucial player for Xavier.