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The 16 X-factors of the Sweet 16

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A casual fan’s guide for who to watch in the Sweet 16

With the field of 68 fizzled down to just 16 teams, we can finally start to analyze who’s left, how they got here, and how they’ll keep advancing. The 16-game days of March Madness are over and now, with more breathing room in between tip-offs, we can finally see how freakin’ wild the opening rounds of the 2018 NCAA tournament were.

Had this story been written a week ago today, I would’ve felt safe prepping words on Miles Bridges’ need to assert his way through the paint to get Michigan State to the Elite Eight. I would have written about Kyle Guy’s task as the go-to scorer in Virginia’s offense, Trevon Bluiett’s need to take the reigns for Xavier, and about Joel Berry and Theo Pinson shooting the lights out for UNC.

Somehow, all of those players are gone now, as are most of the familiar faces from this college basketball season. Trae Young, Mo Bamba, DeAndre Ayton, and Michael Porter Jr. all left in the first round, and Jaren Jackson and Collin Sexton joined them after the second.

The spotlight is there for the taking for this year’s overlooked talent.

In alphabetical order by team, here are the players to watch for on each of the remaining Sweet 16 teams, and how they can help their teams advance to the Elite Eight.

Gabe Devoe, Clemson

New Mexico State v Clemson
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Kansas

Position: Guard

Year: Senior

Clemson wins if: Devoe can out-duel Kansas’ Devonte Graham. Both the Jayhawks and Tigers have deep backcourts, so Clemson needs its 40 percent three-point shooter to be on-the-money to beat a superior opponent. Devoe has scored 22 points in each tournament game so far, and made 8-of-14 shots from deep in total.

Marvin Bagley III, Duke

Rhode Island v Duke
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Syracuse

Position: Forward/Center

Year: Freshman

Duke wins if: Bagley can fight his way through ‘Cuse’s zone defense — especially past 7’2 center Paschal Chukwu — and dominate the paint like he has all season. Bagley will be an NBA lottery pick in this summer’s draft, and needs to prove he’s the best player on the court and finish over Syracuse’s length, and power through their traps. It won’t be an easy task.

Phil Cofer, Florida State

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Nashville
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Gonzaga

Position: Forward

Year: Senior

FSU wins if: Cofer can shoot over the length of the Bulldogs’ bigs. On four attempts this year, the 6’8 son of a former Pro-Bowl NFL linebacker is shooting 39 percent from deep. He only made one of his five attempts from three (10 points) in a close win over Xavier, and the ‘Noles will need more from him against to upset the Zags.

Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga

UNC Greensboro v Gonzaga
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Florida State

Position: Forward

Year: Senior

Gonzaga wins if: Williams dominates the boards and scores like he has been. Williams made a name for himself in last year’s Final Four run, and now, with Zach Collins and others gone, he’s assumed a lead role. He leads the team in scoring at 14 per game, and also has help from Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr., and Killian Tillie. The Zags are deep with Williams leading the way.

Devonte Graham, Kansas

Seton Hall v Kansas

Sweet 16 opponent: Clemson

Position: Guard

Year: Senior

Kansas wins if: Graham shoots the lights out. The senior is having a spectacular final season, and was already awarded the Big 12 Player of the Year Award. He fires at 40 percent from deep, and if he can make plays off the dribble, it’s over for Clemson.

Barry Brown Jr. , Kansas State

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Charlotte
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Kentucky

Position: Guard

Year: Junior

KSU wins if: Brown can exploit Kentucky’s guard deficiencies and force turnovers. Brown averages two steals per night, and has one of the best steal rates in the nation. If Kentucky’s freshmen get sloppy, K-State can steal another one.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky

Buffalo v Kentucky
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Kansas State

Position: Guard

Year: Freshman

Kentucky wins if: Gilgeous-Alexander can outlast KSU’S pesky defense, and continue to be Kentucky’s leading scorer. SGA has put himself into the NBA Draft lottery conversation averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and 6.5 assists in two tourney games. He’ll face the toughest defense he’s seen on Thursday.

Clayton Custer, LoyolaChicago

Loyola v Tennessee
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Nevada

Position: Guard

Year: Junior

Loyola Chicago wins if: Custer maintains his 46 percent three-point shooting, and maybe hits another game-winner. Both Loyola=Chicago and Nevada have made it further in the tournament than even they could’ve hoped for, and this will be a grind. Custer needs to step up even more than he did in the opening two rounds.

Mo Wagner, Michigan

Michigan v Oregon
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Texas A&M

Position: Forward/Center

Year: Junior

Michigan wins if: Wagner can assert himself among A&M’s many physical bigs. He’ll need to remain a deep-ball threat to lure the Aggies’ bigs out and open lanes for his teammates, and play physical enough to secure boards down low. This is Wagner’s biggest test to date.

Caleb and Cody Martin, Nevada

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Nashville
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Loyola-Chicago

Position: Forward

Year: Junior

Nevada wins if: The Martins crash the boards and score in the mid-range like they have in the opening two rounds. The identical twins were downright beastly in the win against Cincy. Cody, the brother who wasn’t the MWC Player of the Year, dropped 25 points and seven assists, and Caleb had 10 points and five rebounds. They’ll need to repeat that.

Matt Haarms, Purdue

Butler v Purdue
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Texas Tech

Position: Center

Year: Freshman

Purdue wins if: Haarms plays lockdown defense and protects the rim. The 7’2 freshman is only starting because his 7’1 teammate, Isaac Haas, broke his elbow in the opening round. He was brilliant in a second-round win over Butler. Can he do it again?

Paschal Chukwu, Syracuse

Syracuse v Michigan State
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Sweet 16 opponent: Duke

Position: Center

Year: Junior

Syracuse wins if: Chukwu protects the paint from a barrage of supersized bigs in Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. The NBA Draft lottery-bound forwards both can take over a game, but if 7’2 Chukwu’s height and length can throw them out of rhythm, ‘Cuse can steal another win and shock everyone again.

Robert Williams, Texas A&M

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Charlotte
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Michigan

Position: Forward/Center

Year: Sophomore

A&M wins if: Williams, along with Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, clog the lane and force Mo Wagner to take tough shots. The Aggies are here because of their defense, and if they’re able to contain the Wolverines’ top scoring threat, they can pull off another upset. Williams is averaging 2.6 blocks per game.

Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

Florida v Texas Tech
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Purdue

Position: Guard

Year: Senior

Tech wins if: Evans attacks the hoop, gets to the free-throw line, and forces Matt Haarms into foul trouble. Evans is one of the best in the nation at getting to the stripe, averaging seven attempts per game. He hits them at an 81 percent rate, too. He’ll need to be assertive and help get Purdue’s 7’2 replacement big off the floor for as long as possible.

Jevon Carter, West Virginia

Marshall v West Virginia
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: Villanova

Position: Guard

Year: Senior

WVU wins if: Carter can shutdown Jalen Brunson, or at least force him to commit turnovers. Carter has 11 steals in two games — along with 49 points — and is undeniably the engine that makes the Mountaineers move. Can he succeed against the best offense in the country?

Mikal Bridges, Villanova

Radford v Villanova
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Sweet 16 opponent: West Virginia

Position: Forward

Year: Junior

Nova wins if: Bridges can leak out on WVU’s traps, and make them pay by attacking the rim and making open threes. He roasted Alabama when he was given any space, finished 5-of-8 from deep, scoring 23 points on 16 shots. If Nova can break the press, WVU is in trouble.

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