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These Role Players Could Decide March Madness

What’s the difference between a glue guy and an X factor?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Here are my power rankings of the five greatest gifts that college basketball has given the world:

1. March Madness and everything that comes with it

2. Tom Crean GIFs, photographs, and memes

3. Point-shaving scandals

4. Bill Walton

5. The term “glue guy”

I’ve become particularly fascinated by that last one. What exactly are glue guys? Why is college basketball the only sport that has them? And what’s the difference between a glue guy and an X factor? My initial impression was that glue guys were X factors who happened to be white, but there seems to be more to it. After doing a comprehensive study of college basketball media members (i.e., scrolling through “glue guy” and “X factor” searches on Twitter for hours), I’ve deduced that glue guys can be any race, size, and age, and the amount of playing time someone receives has no bearing on his label. So, does the distinction come from scoring average, meaning that role players who score a lot are considered X factors and role players who score infrequently are glue guys? In some cases. But players can still be labeled as X factors without being great scorers, so who the hell knows?

It’s all very confusing. Here’s where I think I stand: Glue guys and X factors are both role players, which means they have obvious flaws in their games. The difference is that glue guys are aware of their flaws and know exactly how good they are. As a result, their production is consistent. Meanwhile, X factors either lack confidence or have way too much confidence, traits that cause them to be unpredictable. Thus, X factors can be frustrating as hell, while glue guys tend to leave you thinking they’re squeezing every ounce of talent out of their abilities.

Whatever the case, with the NCAA tournament right around the corner, I thought it would be helpful to highlight the glue guys and X factors on the nation’s best teams so you aren’t surprised when they step up in a big spot come March. Let’s do this.

12. Florida (23–5)

Player of note: Kevarrius Hayes

Florida is riding a nine-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s mammoth showdown against Kentucky in Lexington, and while a players-only meeting deserves much of the credit for that, Hayes’s impact of late does too. The 6-foot-9 sophomore is averaging only 17.9 minutes per game during the streak, yet he’s also averaging 8.8 points (on 73 percent shooting), 4.9 rebounds, and an absurd 2.3 blocks. And what he’s done to this point isn’t nearly as important as what Florida will need him to do moving forward. Gators starting center John Egbunu tore the ACL in his left knee on February 14, leaving Hayes with the responsibility of protecting the rim and anchoring one of the best defenses in college basketball. Hayes has the potential to be the best defender in America next season, so he just might be up to the task. But he also has an alarming foul rate (5.7 fouls per 40 minutes), which is worrisome considering that his backup, Schuyler Rimmer, is a senior walk-on with 68 career points to his name.

Glue guy or X factor? X factor

11. West Virginia (22–6)

Players of note: The entire roster

I know this is a cop-out answer, but I also know that West Virginia fans won’t mind one bit since it’s become a programwide point of pride that the Mountaineers are considered a bunch of no-names who rally together to be so much better than the sum of their parts. Here’s all that needs to be said to drive that notion home: West Virginia has 11 players averaging seven or more minutes per game, and the scoring averages of those seven guys range from 4.4 to 12.6 points per game. If you aren’t great with numbers, let me step in and confirm that having a team both that deep and that balanced is virtually unheard of. (By comparison, Florida State also plays a ton of guys, and the scoring averages of the 11 players who see the court most for the Seminoles range from 3.1 to 16.8 points per game.) It’s like Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins heard the “Why don’t they just make the entire airplane out of the black box?” joke, thought it was an astute observation, and said, “Whoa, if X factors and glue guys are so important, why don’t I just make my entire team out of them?”

Glue guys or X-factors? Glue factors

10. Baylor (23–5)

Player of note: Ish Wainright

It’s difficult to talk about Wainright without sounding like a broken record of clichés, as the lone senior on Baylor’s roster really is a team-first guy who does things that don’t show up in the box score, is willing to do whatever it takes to win, plays the game the right way, and [insert your favorite saying that makes smart-asses on Twitter roll their eyes here]. Wainright is Baylor’s best perimeter defender and can play all five positions, which makes it easy to see why he’s been called “a great glue guy” by his coach, a “glue guy extraordinaire” by the second-most powerful power rankings in college basketball, and the “Epitome of a Glue Guy” by the glue guy czar himself. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder can’t really shoot and might have been better suited for a career as a linebacker, but he’s earned his reputation as a player every coach in America would love to have.

Glue guy or X-factor? First-ballot glue guy Hall of Famer

9. Louisville (22–6)

Player of note: Anas Mahmoud

The man who was once known as the Egyptian in head coach Rick Pitino’s “four white guys and an Egyptian” comment has blossomed into one of my favorite college basketball players. I wrote in the most powerful power rankings last week that I’d pick Louisville to win the national championship if the NCAA tournament started then, and even though the Cardinals were smacked around in a 74–63 loss at North Carolina on Wednesday, I’m still irrationally bullish on them, thanks in large part to Mahmoud. There’s just something about seeing a 7-footer who moves like a 6-footer that blows me away, especially when the 7-footer in question comes off the bench and gives the impression that he’s not quite sure what he’s doing. To be clear, I mean that as a compliment: Mahmoud is so physically gifted that he often looks like even he can’t believe what he’s capable of, and that he’s trying to figure it out as he goes along. Those times he does seem to have it figured out — like when he racked up 17 points and 11 boards in 26 minutes of action in a 78–69 win over Duke on January 14 — Mahmoud looks like a future NBA lottery pick and Louisville looks like the best team in America.

Glue guy or X-factor? X factor

8. Duke (22–6)

Players of note: Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones

Amile Jefferson (Getty Images)
Amile Jefferson (Getty Images)

While it’s no secret that Duke has shifted its recruiting philosophy in recent years to target more one-and-done talent, the backbone of the program will always be seniors like Jefferson and Jones. Jefferson, who almost never has a bad game, is the perfect glue guy for the Blue Devils: He’s the heart and soul of the team, and he appears to have zero ego, has persevered through lingering foot problems over the past couple of seasons, and embodies the culture of Duke basketball. Yet it’s Jones, the Blue Devils’ best (and at times only solid) defender, who is second on the roster in minutes played (behind Luke Kennard), most often taken for granted. I have no hard data to back this up, but I swear every shot Jones has made in his career has been a 3-pointer that either capped off a long Duke run or put away an opponent for good. (I felt certain that he was going to hit a dagger 3 in the waning moments of Wednesday’s 78–75 loss at Syracuse.) While Kennard, Jayson Tatum, and Grayson Allen have had a (possibly ongoing?) power struggle over who should man the oars of the Duke canoe, Jefferson and Jones have been content to just keep the damn thing afloat, which makes them invaluable glue guys who just might glue their way to another title.

Glue guys or X factors? QUITE POSSIBLY THE GLUIEST GLUE GUYS TO EVER GLUE

7. Oregon (25–4)

Player of note: Payton Pritchard

As the starting freshman point guard on a top-10 team that’s loaded with experience, Pritchard has been forced into a glue-guy role despite having X factor talent. He’s a former top-100 recruit with a tight handle, great court vision, and enormous stones, but he also has plenty of moments when he looks like a freshman point guard, meaning he hasn’t quite figured out how to strike the right balance between facilitating and hunting for points. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Pritchard, who is content to take a backseat to his five teammates averaging 10-plus points per game, is doing exactly what Oregon needs right now. As much as I want to say he should be more aggressive because it’s clear that he’s going to be a stud, the Ducks seem to win when Pritchard has a lot of assists and few shot attempts, and they seem to lose when the opposite is true. It wouldn’t surprise me if he blossoms into an X factor when the NCAA tournament rolls around, but for now Pritchard is a traditional point guard who plays within himself and defers to his teammates. That’s a quintessential glue guy.

Glue guy or X factor? Glue guy

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Wednesday’s Duke-Syracuse game, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus?

A. ESPN runs a graphic showing that Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim are the two winningest coaches in Division I men’s basketball history, prompting Vitale to mention that he still counts the wins that the NCAA forced Syracuse to vacate as victories for Boeheim. He then says Boeheim and Syracuse’s issues are basically irrelevant compared to real problems, like the sexual assault scandal involving Baylor’s football team. Vitale goes on to scold former Bears coach Art Briles, the Baylor administration, and the NCAA for their handling of that case, stating that they allowed it to turn into something resembling the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

B. Karl Ravech, who is calling the game with Vitale, mentions that Duke-Syracuse is the first game in a Wednesday-night doubleheader featuring four Hall of Fame coaches, as Louisville and North Carolina will play next. Vitale says he believes that the Louisville-Carolina game will be a good one before confessing that the Tar Heels will remain his pick to win the national title no matter what they do against the Cardinals. Ravech reminds Vitale that North Carolina recently lost to Duke, which was riding a seven-game winning streak. Dickie V. replies that he loved the way the Tar Heels responded to that loss by beating NC State by 24 points on February 15. Vitale then argues that that game is what got Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried fired, a move that he feels was unjust and was made only because the culture surrounding NC State basketball has turned into the equivalent of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

C. Ravech mentions that Vitale will be in Cleveland on Thursday to see the Cavaliers play the Knicks, a tidbit he finds relevant given that Duke’s Luke Kennard passed LeBron James on Ohio’s high school career scoring list. Vitale says he hopes that Carmelo Anthony isn’t traded before the game, and then explains how he doesn’t get Phil Jackson’s criticism of Anthony. Dickie V. says all Anthony does is play hard and make shots, and that the one person who will back him is Krzyzewski, who won three Olympic gold medals with Anthony. Vitale notes that he respects what Jackson has done as a coach, but says that Jackson’s tenure as Knicks president has turned the organization into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

6. UCLA (25–3)

Player of note: Thomas Welsh

Welsh hit only three 15-foot baseline jump shots in UCLA’s 97–92 upset win over then-top-ranked Kentucky in Rupp Arena on December 3, but I could’ve sworn he hit 30 of them. That’s because every time he got ready to release his jumper in that game, commentator Bill Raftery mentioned how Welsh never misses from that spot on the floor. He wasn’t saying that in a joking way, either. Raftery was so matter-of-fact that, ever since that day, I can’t watch Welsh without thinking about his automatic 15-footer from the baseline. And while I don’t have the numbers in front of me, I’m pretty sure Welsh has hit 793 of them this season and is shooting something like 206 percent on those attempts.

Why is this relevant? Well, everything about Welsh screams “glue guy.” He plays solid defense (at least by the Bruins’ standards), he sets screens, he moves the ball, he rebounds, and he consistently doesn’t try to do too much. But that baseline 15-footer is so deadly that I think it’s enough to push him into X factor territory, especially given that he averages 8.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks and shoots 93.8 percent from the free throw line. He is UCLA’s sixth-leading scorer and isn’t even the team’s best big man. Yet if you wanted to argue that Welsh is one of the three most important players on the roster, I’d at least be willing to hear you out.

Glue guy or X factor? Extremely gluey X factor

5. Arizona (26–3)

Player of note: Kobi Simmons

I know that UCLA doesn’t play defense. I know that it’s a trap to put too much stock into what any player does offensively against the Bruins. I know that Simmons just played out of his mind in a 96–85 win in Westwood a month ago, and that the real Simmons is the one we’ve seen since, who has shown flashes here and there but can’t seem to put it all together for 40 minutes. And yet I can’t quit thinking about how he was arguably the best player on a floor full of future first-round draft picks. The dude dropped 20 points, six boards, and five assists in the most-hyped West Coast game of the season, and it was soooo tempting to think it was going to be the start of something special for him. But he’s scored in single digits in six of Arizona’s eight games since, including a 1-for-9 outing at Washington and a 1-for-8 performance at Oregon. The Wildcats don’t need Simmons to be as great as he was at UCLA to win a national title. If he could be even 60 percent of that, though, Arizona has the pieces to be as good as any team in America.

Glue guy or X factor? X factor

4. Villanova (26–3)

Player of note: Mikal Bridges

Mikal Bridges (Getty Images)
Mikal Bridges (Getty Images)

It’s so obvious that Bridges is destined to be a star at Villanova that his development as a redshirt sophomore has been agonizing to watch. This has more to do with my impatience than anything else. I just want to get my hands on Adam Sandler’s remote control from Click so I can fast-forward to the part where Bridges and Jalen Brunson are forming a senior tag team that just wrecks shit for the Wildcats, night in and night out. Bridges is a 6-foot-7 guard with a solid stroke, a knack for rebounding, and national-defender-of-the-year potential. But he isn’t always aggressive, which explains how outings like Wednesday’s 74–66 loss to Butler — when Bridges played 37 minutes and attempted just three shots — are possible. (Bridges’s averages in two games against Butler this season: 32.5 minutes, 1 point, 3.5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 0.5 blocks, 2.5 fouls, and 2 turnovers.) If Villanova hopes to repeat as national champion, Bridges has to be more assertive. That doesn’t necessarily mean shooting more, but it does mean recognizing his potential and making an impact on both ends of the floor.

Glue guy or X factor? X factor

3. North Carolina (24–5)

Player of note: Theo Pinson

It’s probably no coincidence that North Carolina became the trendy pick to win the national championship shortly after Pinson returned from a foot injury that kept him out of the Tar Heels’ first 16 games of 2016–17. It’s also probably no coincidence that Pinson has upped his season-high number of minutes over Carolina’s past three games — at NC State, against Virginia, and against Louisville — which just so happens to be the Heels’ best three-game stretch of the season. He brings defensive skill, energy, and playmaking ability to a team that needs varying degrees of all three, and his presence in the Carolina lineup makes such an obvious difference that it’s becoming difficult to tell who’s the most valuable member of the roster. Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have been in the national player of the year discussion at times this season, yet the Heels’ title hopes could hinge on Pinson, who has the energy of an X factor, the attitude of a glue guy, and, as a career 29 percent 3-point shooter, the jump shot of someone wearing a blind fold.

Glue guy or X factor? Glue guy who was built at the X factory

2. Kansas (25–3)

Player of note: Landen Lucas

If you’ve followed Kansas for more than 10 seconds this season, you have likely heard about how the Jayhawks are shorthanded on the front line, how head coach Bill Self has switched his style from an inside-out approach to a four-guard lineup that spaces the floor, and how Lucas’s responsibilities as a big man are solely to rebound, set screens, and try to stay out of the way. All of these discussions seem to be loaded with disrespect toward Lucas, a senior who’s had moments in his career when he’s looked like he could have been the next in a long line of great Kansas big men. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the Jayhawks should stop running the offense through a national player of the year front-runner (Frank Mason III) and a potential top-three NBA draft pick (Josh Jackson). I just think that Lucas’s primary issue is a lack of confidence, and that if he can convince himself he’s on the floor because he’s good and not because he’s Kansas’s only serviceable big, he can become a rebounding machine for the Jayhawks and play a pivotal role in their national title pursuit.

Glue guy or X factor? X factor

1. Gonzaga (29–0)

Player of note: Zach Collins

The first McDonald’s All American ever to commit to Gonzaga coming out of high school is exactly the kind of player that separates this Bulldogs team from all the ones that came before it. I mean, how many college basketball teams have had a 7-foot high school All-American come off the bench? And of those, how many used that 7-footer as a reserve because the player who starts is undeniably better, not because they were trying to pull a gimmick, because the coach wanted to play with rotations, or because the All-American was a shell of his former self? The Zags start Przemek Karnowski ahead of Collins as part of an embarrassment of riches on the low block. And yet considering that Collins is averaging 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game (despite never playing more than 22 minutes in any game this season), he could be crucial to the Bulldogs’ title hopes, as he’s more than capable of filling a void for the Zags if Karnowski runs into foul trouble or gets injured during the NCAA tournament.

Glue guy or X factor? X factor

The Dancing Coach of the Week

I first fell in love with Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga when the Hurricanes beat Illinois in the second round of the 2013 tournament and his postgame speech featured a Muhammad Ali dancing impression and one of his players yelling, “Mama made pizza rolls!” My love for him grew in December 2015, when he busted out the Whip/Nae Nae/whatever the hell it’s called after Miami took down Florida. And now, following the Hurricanes’ 54–48 overtime win at Virginia on Monday, we received the third installment in a series I’m calling “Every problem in the world could be solved if everyone just tried to be more like Jim Larrañaga.”

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.