The Wittenberg Tigers would not be 21-0 and ranked third in the country without the play of three freshmen who arrived on campus ready to contribute and have thrived as key reserves all season.
James Johnson, Landon Martin and Rashaad Ali-Shakir have combined to average 20.5 points per game. That accounts for a quarter of the offense for Wittenberg, which averages 82.6 points per game.
“They come from great high-school programs, all three of them,” Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said Monday after practice. “They’ve been well coached. They’ve been in big games. They know what high-level competition is like. We thought those three would be ready early in their careers to help us.”
Here’s a glance at the freshmen heading into a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday game against Wabash at Pam Evans Smith Arena:
Johnson: The 6-foot-6 forward from Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati averages 8.7 points and 2.6 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game. He’s shooting 41.6 percent from 3-point range (32 of 77).
“James is a really tough matchup for people because of his size and strength,” Croci said, “but he can play like a guard.”
Johnson picked Wittenberg in part because it was the first school that recruited him hard. He said Croci stayed on him, texting him every day.
Roger Bacon was 46-13 in Johnson’s last two seasons and reached the state championship game when he was a senior. He scored 13 points in a 54-52 loss to Villa Angela-St. Joseph. That remains Johnson’s last loss.
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Wittenberg, which leads the North Coast Athletic Conference by three games with a 14-0 mark, is five wins away from matching the school record for consecutive victories.
“It’s been amazing,” Johnson said. “Coming here, we knew we had a lot of potential, but we never thought we’d be 21-0.”
Martin: A 6-3 guard from Columbus Africentric High School, Martin is averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16.9 minutes.
“Landon is just a tremendous athlete and a really good one-on-one player,” Croci said.
Of the perfect record, Martin said, “It’s really fun. We kind of did expect this, but 21-0 is shooting for the stars.”
The opportunity to play for Croci was one of the big reasons Martin chose Wittenberg.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Martin said. “He would call me all the time. I felt like I was at home here. I felt like it was a family. And it’s a great school.”
Ali-Shakir: A 6-2 guard from Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati, Ali-Shakir made an immediate impact by throwing a long pass from under the basket across halfcourt to Jake Bertemes in the final seconds of the third game of the season against Capital. Bertemes turned that pass into a game-winning layup in a 79-77 victory. It remains the closest game of the season for Wittenberg.
Ali-Shakir averages 4.6 points and 1.8 rebounds in 18.7 minutes.
“Rashaad shoots the ball extremely well and has become a really good defender for us,” Croci said.
Ali-Shakir graduated from high school in 2016 and planned to be a preferred walk-on at Wright State, but when Scott Nagy took over the program in 2016, Ali-Shakir was told there wasn’t a spot for him.
Croci discovered Ali-Shakir while recruiting Johnson at a Roger Bacon game. Roger Bacon and Purcell Marian are rivals, so Johnson and Ali-Shakir played against each other. Johnson said they hated each other, and now they’re roommates.
“(Croci) met my mom at a Roger Bacon game,” Ali-Shakir said. “He got me on a visit, and I just loved it from there.”