Junior forward Jaren Lewis has been a valuable asset for the Wildcats ever since arriving and starting as a true freshman. But after posting 15-plus points and rebounds in consecutive games last week, the 6-foot-6 Orlando, Florida native may be playing the best basketball of his ACU career.
In a losing effort against league-leader Nicholls State on Feb. 7, Lewis hauled in an ACU Div. 1 record 20 rebounds and scored a game-high 18 points. He followed that up with a 20-point, 17-rebound outing against Incarnate Word in an 80-69 win, which resulted in Southland Conference Player of the Week honors.
“Really it’s just a testament to a lot of hard work,” Lewis said. “First and foremost actually it’s just a testament to my teammates and coaches staying on me. My coaches not letting me settle, not letting me rest, always wanting me to get better. My teammates believing in me and really just helping me out with everything.”
In fact, Lewis’ double-double against Incarnate Word was his third consecutive and seventh this season. Head Coach Joe Golding said the recent surge in rebounding was something he emphasized to Lewis at halftime of the Wildcats’ Feb. 3 matchup against Sam Houston State.
“I pulled him out of the locker room and got on him a little bit, and I really like where he’s been, you can tell that he’s definitely engaged, he’s invested in what we’re trying to do here,” Golding said. “You know he didn’t make Southland Conference Player of the Week because he scored points, he made Southland Conference Player of the Week because he averaged 18.5 rebounds a game this week. That’s doing the little things.”
But aside from his recent recognition and a first-team all-academic award last year, Lewis has really flown under the radar to many outside of the ACU circuit. Freshman year Lewis was in the running for freshman player of the year, after averaging 9.4 points per game and leading all freshman with 5.8 rebounds per game, but teammate and classmate Jaylen Franklin garnered the honor after averaging 16.2 points per game.
And last season after scoring career-high 26 points, averaging 13.7 ppg and grabbing 6.6 rpg, Lewis wasn’t given a spot on any of the three all-conference teams. However, that hasn’t phased Lewis in the slightest.
“I just try to help my team win every game, just do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Lewis said. “Really when one of us gets an honor, it’s a testament to all of us and how we push each other and how close we are.”
And it’s that type of mentality that has gotten the respect of teammates like Franklin.
“My favorite part about play with Jaren is that he never gives up, he always plays with the motor. He is a great teammate,” Franklin said. “Jaren is someone I would always want on my side playing together. He just brings something to the table that most guys don’t, and that’s why he’s a special player for us.”
Although Lewis has clearly taken his play to a whole new level as of late. Golding said he’s seen the talent and leadership capability since Lewis became a starter his freshman year, but it was really this summer and this current season he’s stepped into his own.
“I’ve said it from day one – I think he’s been a great player,” Golding said. “What he’s done lately is he’s really taken this team on his back, and he’s a leader; he started being a leader this summer. He’s not a very vocal kid, this whole team is not very vocal. And sometimes that can be misguided as they don’t have a motor or energy, but Jaren does. He’s played that way the last three or four games and really all year from us.”
And lucky for coach, his players are mimicking the winning team and winning mentality. Lewis said he doesn’t plan on easing up any time soon, and neither does the team.
“Really I’ve just got to stay hungry, got to keep working,” Lewis said. “I just know how important every game is, I’m just trying to do the best for my team so we get a better seed in Katy. Once we get to Katy, anything can happen, so that’s really what we’re shooting for, that’s really why we’re all just trying to stay focused, why we’re all so locked in.”
For Lewis and the rest of his recruiting class, this season’s mentality was something cultivated before they even played a game in an ACU uniform.
“I really wanted a chance to do something big in college basketball,” Lewis said. “ACU and coach Golding just told me that my class would be the first to go through this transition period and have a chance to compete for a conference championship in Katy and have a chance to play in that tournament. And that really just sold me, I just wanted to be the first to do something to make history.”
Lewis ranks 20th or better in the conference among eight different categories, headlined by the second-best field goal percentage at 59 percent, fourth-best rebounding clip at 7.7 rpg and seventh-best in steals per game with 1.7 per game. If maintains his level of play, Golding is confident, everything will even itself out.
“I’ve said it from the beginning, I think he’s an all-conference player, I think that’ll prove itself right,” Golding said. “I think if he continues to do what he’s doing right now. To be all-conference and to get multiple all-conference players, you have to win basketball games. It’s a team effort. Teammates have to do things for guys to get individual awards in men’s basketball, but the one thing that he’s doing that’s an individual effort is rebounding the basketball. It’s effort, it’s heart and it’s want and it’s an investment of where we’re trying to go.”
And not to mention, the Wildcats are on track to where they’re trying to go. With five games left in the regular season ACU sits in a tie for seventh place in the conference.
But Lewis and the rest of the Wildcats will have their hands full as they look to move into a tie for sixth this Saturday when they take on Southeastern Louisiana, who sits third in the conference, winners of four straight.