We're changing up the definition of X-factor. Wait ... doesn't the whole notion of an X-factor relate to this ambiguous, nebulous-yet-necessary intangible ability? Something like that, sure. Which is why we're switching it up. Which is to say: X-factors are no longer merely players. Sure, for some teams, a player applies. For others, it could be schedule, a player's health, a new coach, a dynamic within the team, anything.
It opens up the conversation and deals more in reality. Because coaches fear the unknown, and for good and bad, they know that true X-factors, the things that games or moments can hinge on, sometimes are more about environment or happenstance than a specific player's nose for rebounding.
Without further adieu, here are the X-factors to look for in the Big East this season.
- Jalen Brunson
Brunson's an X-factor, a breakout player, and he play a vital role on this year's team. Nova's loaded with these types of guys. Hell, Nova's loaded period. But Brunson's the five-star point guard who quietly did his thing last year. He's not going to have the massive pop from frosh to soph year like Grayson Allen did at Duke, but it will be in the orbit of what Allen did. Brunson will wind up as a top-three player of importance for Villanova this year, right behind Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. He takes over running the offense, and I think he'll flourish.
With the loss of D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas lose an important veteran piece. But last year, GU ranked 245th in turning the ball over and 283rd in forcing turnovers. Those numbers will need to pop into the top 150 if Georgetown is to make a run in this league and become at-large worthy. The Hoyas were just 15-18 last season. They've got top-40 talent. They'll need to force the issue on defense more and be more careful with the ball all the same.
- Not relying on Kelan Martin to be another Roosevelt Jones.
Roosevelt Jones was unlike any player college basketball's had in the past 10 years. He had an old-man game -- and it was an ugly game. But he was smart, efficient, tough to the bone and absolutely vital to Butler throughout his career. The team was better whenever he was on the floor.
This year, Butler's best player is Kelan Martin, but he's a different kind of player than Jones. He has more natural talent. He's also not the mold of leader Jones was. Butler will need to win by committee while letting Martin take his cues. It's a different dynamic this season, one we haven't seen since Brad Stevens left.
- Khyri Thomas.
I'll go with a player here. The Bluejays are projected by many people to be a top-30 team this season. Thomas shot 42 percent from deep last year -- but he averaged less than two 3-pointers per game. If that doubles -- and it should; Thomas is now a sophomore and will average more than 20 minutes -- Creighton's going to have threats on the floor in Marcus Foster, Cole Huff, Mo Watson, Jr., Thomas and Isaiah Zierden.
- Dave Leitao's system and culture.
The Blue Demons need to find any type of consistency. A reason to have positive momentum and a sense of improvement within the Big East. This is a program that's made the NCAAs once in the past 15 years. I actually believe DePaul has the infrastructure, recruiting bed and potential to be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team in the next decade. And middle-of-the-pack is a huge step up. But Leitao, now in his second run as DePaul coach (the first lasting from 2002-05), will need at least four years to establish a foundation.
Filling the void of Henry Ellenson.
Ellenson is the highest-rated recruit in Marquette history. But he was too good for college, leaving after one season and being taken in the top 20 of the NBA Draft. Now the Golden Eagles have good pieces but no one with near the all-around skillset as Ellenson; the freshman's ability to rebound and pass out of the paint and score in unconventional ways made Marquette's games worth tuning into last season. Ellenson did have a flawed game, but he was pivotal to MU's scheme. So now Steve Wojciechowski must work around that.
- Kyron Cartwright's playmaking.
Ed Cooley believes Cartwright will have a very good chance at being a top-three disher in the Big East. In terms of assist ratio, he'll have his shot. And Providence will need Cartwright to be a reasonable replacement for superstar Kris Dunn. Cartwright can be less of a turnover worry than Dunn, and he won't force as many shots, but he's not nearly the defender or physical player Dunn was. The Friars aren't projected to be an NCAA Tournament team this year due to the loss of Dunn and Bentil, but Cartwright has enough promise that he could push the Friars to being a bubble team.
- Angel Delgado's ability to become a top-40 player in college hoops.
Because if he can do that, it will completely change the way we view Seton Hall. Isaiah Whitehead's early departure for the NBA presents a playmaker problem for Seton Hall. Look at it this way: If Whitehead was back, the Pirates would be a consensus top-20 team. Without him, they don't crack the top 30, or even 35 for many prognosticators. I'm one of them. Delgado's a hoss, though, and if he's able to build on a very good sophomore season (9.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg), it will be the difference between Hall finding itself in the top four or bottom half of the Big East.
- The collective coaching philosophy of Chris Mullin and his assistants
I'm far from convinced that St. John's hiring a program legend like Mullin will translate to consistency in recruiting and on-court success. To be fair, I and most others said the same thing about Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State -- and then Hoiberg went out and built a perennial top-25 program. Mullin won't turn St. John's into a top-25 national program, I don't think, but there's still a lot of time to see what he's capable of.
The Johnnies went 8-24 last season. So double digit wins should be coming. But with the caliber of coach in this league, you can't just put blue-chip recruit Shamorie Ponds out there and expect wins to follow. Scheme is vital. I'd love to chat with Mullin on his approach this year and what he learned from last season.
- How it responds to a tough schedule by the time it gets to Big East play.
Chris Mack doesn't schedule scared. The Musketeers will face at least two of these teams in the Tire Pros Invitational (formerly the Puerto Rico Tip-Off): Oklahoma, Clemson, Northern Iowa, Davidson, Arizona State, Tulane. The first four mentioned have solid chances at being NCAA tourney teams. Then Xavier and Northern Iowa -- perhaps for a second time -- on Nov. 26.
It then hosts a solid North Dakota State team, then travels to Baylor and follows up that road game with a home tilt against respectable Utah. The annual rivalry game with Cincinnati is dropped in the middle league play, too. Xavier should have a better team, on the whole, than the group that got a 2 seed last season. But it might wind up "losing" its way to a 3 seed with how tough the schedule is. More coaches should schedule like Mack.