The 2018-19 NCAA college basketball season is in full swing. 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.
In The Zone:
The Baylor Lady Bears beat the UConn Huskies on Sunday (watch the entire game here). While we’ve seen Geno Auriemma’s team lose in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, we had not seen them defeated in the regular season since 2014.
That’s over four seasons of defeating both conference rivals and other high-ranked non-conference opponents. It is understood that UConn boasts the best women’s program in the nation, but to be undefeated for any extended period of time requires mental fortitude, talent and luck. Consider the way UConn lost in the tournament last year. It took an incredible shot by Arike Ogunbowale to beat them.
Then understand that in any of those games UConn won, an opponent could have an amazing night while they’re off and they could lose. And, while understanding that, grasp the fact that there are players on the Huskies team who had not known what it is like to lose before March. That is a level of sustained excellence that is arguably unrivaled in sports. Kudos to Baylor for winning the game, but let’s not lose sight of the broader concept of dominance the UConn Huskies have provided for us for years.
On to our highlighted players, focusing on those playing well at lesser-exposed programs. The beautiful thing about basketball is that not all the best players go to all the best schools. Some players fall through and get overlooked, then sign with a school where they can elevate themselves and their team. The players listed have very few internet mentions and YouTube videos, including a couple not even having any film from this season. Here are a few of a host of those kinds of hidden gems around the nation.
Freshman: Antoine Davis, Detroit-Mercy Titans
How every school in the southern United States passed on Alabama-born Antoine Davis is mind-boggling. Yes, he’s on the shorter side of guards at 6’1″. But Davis is almost an indefensible scorer as a freshman. Twenty-seven points per contest is amazing for anyone, and while he isn’t shooting as efficiently as he will in later years of his basketball life, his impact is evident.
He is also apparently another product of watching guards like Steph Curry and Kemba Walker take way more threes, as Davis is averaging more three-point attempts (12.2) than two-point attempts (11.1). He’s shooting them both at roughly the same clip of 41 percent, so it makes sense that he’d try more shots from long distance. Detroit-Mercy had a similar guard a few years ago in Ray McCallum, Jr., who ended up being drafted in the NBA. Hopefully Antoine Davis continues to grow and reaches the professional level.
Sophomore: Ja Morant, Murray State Racers
Like I mentioned with Nevada last week, Murray State is one of those men’s programs that have been consistently good while maintaining their reputation of being a small school. The Racers have even turned out a couple NBA players, such as Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne.
They now have a sophomore in Ja Morant who is quietly having a year that rivals anyone’s across the country. At 6’3″, Morant is pouring in 24 points, pulling down nearly 7 rebounds and leading the country in assists at 9.9 per contest. Last Sunday against Eastern Kentucky, he had 34 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists, continuing his stellar play into 2019.
He is always in attack mode, seeking out the lane in order to attract the defense for either a tough finish or pass to an open teammate. This has led to his turnover rate to more than double from his freshman year, but his aggressiveness leads to way more positive plays than negative. Watch for him should the Racers make yet another NCAA tournament.
Junior: Keith Braxton, St. Francis (PA) Red Flash
I love guards who love to rebound. Keith Braxton is clearly that, as he’s the shortest player in the country averaging at least 10 rebounds a game. Braxton has had at least nine rebounds in every game for the Red Flash except two, including a season-high 17 last Thursday against Mount St. Mary’s. He’s also a capable scorer, chipping in 15.3 points per contest. Guards who enjoy the physicality of things like rebounding will never been timid or shy away from big moments. Standing at 6’4″, Braxton had the size at guard to be a capable defender.
Senior: NaJai Pollard, Delaware State
As a team, Delaware State’s women’s basketball program is having a down year. At just 2-11 on the season as of Tuesday, it’s no secret that wins have been hard to come by for them. However, that has not stopped senior forward NaJai Pollard from individually playing excellent basketball. She’s averaging almost 24 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. While 5’11” is tall in women’s basketball, she isn’t towering over anyone. Her effectiveness speaks to her ability to score anywhere on the floor and correctly position herself on the court on a consistent basis. Hopefully, the Hornets can turn it around as a team this year.
One final word on dominance. This won’t mention any names, but we’re nearing that point of the college basketball season where players get evaluated as potential pros. There are quite a few players who look imposing and are undeniably effective. But when looking at that intricacies of how their stats are acquired, the term dominant does not fit. This does not mean said players will not become amazing pros. However we must be better understanding of what players can and cannot do and how that potentially translates to the next level.
Nine 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.