The 2018-19 NCAA college basketball season is under way. From now until April, we'll be following along, closely watching. But instead of just box scores and highlights, we're going to profile a player from each class, plus one additional story. With TSFJ and the help from Josh Naso, we present to you The Sports Fan Journal's Box And One.
Freshman: Nassir Little, North Carolina
"Right now, we stink. Right now, my coaching sucks." These are the words of North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams after an ugly loss to Michigan last Wednesday. Now, I won't harshly question a Hall of Fame coach with multiple national championships to his credit, but part of the reason why the Tar Heels are perhaps not playing their best basketball is because freshman Nassir Little is not receiving as much time as his talent suggests. Little was the MVP of the 2018 McDonald's All-American Game, and appears to be a prototypical NBA forward. Slowly and surely, Coach Williams is placing more responsibility on the 6'6" Florida wingman, so his 11.8 points per game should increase as the Heels move towards ACC conference play.
Sophomore: Kris Wilkes, UCLA
In basketball, good things favor the aggressive player. The more a player takes his game to his or her opponent, the more likely he or she is able to dictate the successful outcome for his or her team. On offense, the perimeter players who fit this mold are called, "slashers," after the way they seem to penetrate the defense at will. UCLA has a very good second-year forward in Kris Wilkes, who fits that mold. While he can step out and shoot from distance, he prefers to operate in the paint. Wilkes excels in transition and already on the move, as he seeks and dishes out contact while playing a more physical style to make up for any lack of vertical explosion. Wilkes is averaging 17.5 points for the Bruins in his sophomore campaign and is a big reason for UCLA starting the season 6-2.
Junior: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
It's difficult to consider a 21-year-old D1 basketball player a late bloomer, but that may be an apt description of Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura. The 6'8" forward has shot up NBA prospect rankings, and could possibly hear his name being called very early in next year's Draft if he decides to enter. He passed his early test, helping Gonzaga beat Duke, outperforming each of the freshman Blue Devils. He showed the ability to score and keep up with elite athletes, and may be a quality pro for some team in the Association.
Senior: Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn
The running joke for seniors in collegiate athletics is that it feels as if they've been in school longer than the four or five years of eligibility they're allotted. This definitely rings true for UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson, who I thought had already graduated at least two years ago. Joking aside, Samuelson is one of if not the best women's players in the nation. While Geno Auriemma's Lady Huskies are loaded once again, Samuelson is UConn's pillar of consistency and there when the team needs her. After being held scoreless in the first half against Notre Dame, she scored 15 points in the second half, helping UConn beat last year's champs 89-71 on Sunday. Samuelson will have her name near a lot of season awards yet again, and her final season will be a successful one.
This section is reserved for highlighting the Furman Paladins, who are ranked #25 in the AP poll as of December 3rd. This is the first time ever that Furman has been ranked. Furman is so unknown that my phone's dictionary didn't recognize the school name or its mascot name as real words. For the record, a paladin is a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry. But for Furman, the school is off to its best start in history, tallying wins in its first eight games without any losses. Their biggest win came when the Paladins shocked Villanova (apologies to the TSFJ Philly contingency) 76-68 in overtime. Furman beat last year's champs in Philadelphia, notching a win over their second Final Four team from a season ago--a win against former darlings Loyola-Chicago was first.
Furman is led by junior guard Jordan Lyons and senior forward Matt Rafferty, the team's top scorers at 21 and 18 points per game, respectively. Head Coach Bob Richey has improved the school's program after taking over in 2017. At 35, he's still one of the younger coaches in the country, and Furman plays a more uptempo style, averaging 82 points per contest as a team. It doesn't hurt other areas like rebounding, as Furman pulls down seven more than their opponents. Many college sportsbooks are still unsure whether the Paladins are a tournament team, but they definitely deserve to be honored for their impressive start.
Four weeks in, and we're still in the zone. Enjoy the college basketball season, folks.
Poemer. 8-time Hug Champion. Pick&Roll Enthusiast. Guardian of Logic and Tact. Apocalypse's good Brother. Collector of muted souls for Mt. Filtermanjaro.