After wowing the Southland Conference a year ago, sophomore superstars Jaylen Franklin and Jaren Lewis are ready to take on the 2016-17 season, the last season in the four-year Div. 1 transition for the Wildcats.
Neither of the players are originally from Texas, Franklin coming from Arkansas and Lewis from Florida, and like many they said they have dreamed of playing collegiate basketball since they were young.
It’s not too common that you see a couple of freshmen come into a collegiate program and make their mark right from the start, but Franklin and Lewis were not your common freshmen. Head coach Joe Golding said that the two played a big role in making the team competitive on the floor last season, and they continuously improved and handled their leading positions well.
“I expect both of these guys to play a bigger role this year in not only the numbers they put up, but how they grow as leaders of this team,” Golding said.
Statistically, the two filled out the box score, leading the team to an overall record of 13-18 and eight conference wins. Double their overall record from the previous year. Lewis said it gave him great confidence to perform so well as a new face to the team, but at the same time their success made them hungry for more.
“We’re all focused and ready to compete.” Lewis said. “I feel good about the team this year and I’m ready to show what we can do.”
Last year, Lewis played in all 31 games with 10 starts and finished the season as the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 5.8 rebounds per game. One of the most dynamic freshmen in the league, he led all Southland Conference freshmen in total rebounds and rebounds per game. He was the Wildcat’s second leading scorer behind Franklin.
Franklin, a 6′ 2″ guard, was seventh in the league in scoring as a freshman, averaging 16.2 points per game, and scoring over 20 points in eight games of last season. He finished sixth in the league in steals per game and was named the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year for the 2015-16 season. Franklin was the first Wildcat since Willie Calvert and Andrew Prince to earn all-Southland honors when they did it 1972-73. He was the only sophomore selected to the Southland Conference preseason all-conference first team this year.
“What I’m looking for is to have a chance to win conference and do anything it takes to help my teammates out,” Franklin said. “I’m honored for getting selected as that but my focus is on winning this year and how I can make my team better.”
Franklin said that the most important thing to him for this season is to help his team finish in the top three of the conference. The Wildcats, who finished 8-10 in the league last year, have been picked to finish sixth in the Southland Conference in this year’s preseason polls released in October.
The two standout players aren’t content with where they are at in the game, but feel confident about the season that is about to start and where the team is at both physically and mentally. Franklin and Lewis said that the team has been working vigorously on the court and in the weight room to improve and are having fun while they’re at it.
“We know that hard work and consistency are the only ways to accomplish our goals,” Lewis said. “Winning a conference championship motivates me, and I know it won’t be easy but that is what this team is striving for.”
Though they are only sophomores, Franklin and Lewis have been catapulted into roles of leadership on and off the court, and have had to adjust to being not only members of the team, but being the members that the rest of the team look to for an example.
“The new guys are following our lead and they are learning fast. With them we are bigger and stronger.” Franklin said. “We have a lot of pieces this year and that’s going to play a big part in helping us win.”
On and off the court, Franklin and Lewis rely on each other to be leaders and help make the best decisions for the team as well as themselves. They said that because they can read each other’s moves while understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses, it enables them to aid one another to be successful. Lewis said trust has played a big role in bringing them closer together as teammates and helping the rest of their team as a whole become a tight-knit group and depend on one another.
“To have [Lewis] on the court with me is lovely because he gets the job done and would do anything in his power to win,” Franklin said. “We are both winners and that is what this program is all about.”
Golding says a winner’s heart is evident in both of the men, and they are willing to do anything to lead their team to victory and help their teammates be successful. He said coaching Lewis and Franklin, along with the other Wildcat players, has been a great experience because of how they genuinely care and strive to be the best that they can be for each other.
“They both are unselfish kids who just want to win,” Golding said. “They understand that to win at this level there is more to it than putting up numbers. They’ve bought into the concept of playing together and becoming a true team.”
The idea of being a “true team” rings as a mantra for the men’s basketball program as they prepare to fight for a conference title. Golding and the rest of the coaching staff are confident and excited for the journey this season will bring, and are ready for Franklin and Lewis, along with the rest of their teammates, to continue to raise the standard in men’s basketball at ACU.
The Wildcats opened their season with 73-59 victory over Schreiner and traveled to the Northeast for the first time in 96 years to take on New Hampshire.