February 28, 2024 

The Weekly Fast Break: Fearless Freshmen

Spotlight on Hannah Hidalgo, JuJu Watkins and many more

When you step on a college campus in the fall, it is hard not to notice which students are freshmen. They are the ones trying desperately to find someone new to talk to, afraid to ask for directions to their 7:30 AM class and wondering if the plant their roommate bought will live through the first weekend. Then there are the life lessons to now deal with away from home – having to change a flat tire in the dorm parking lot, properly sorting laundry, getting a replacement student ID when the original magically disappears and remembering to eat breakfast, especially if you have an 8 am exam. 

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Take all those new experiences and pile on top the expectations of being a Division I student-athlete. What happens when the dining center is not open yet, but you must report to preseason conditioning at 6 AM? When you are so nervous for the first road trip of the season that you forget to tell your professor you will miss their quiz on Friday? When your new friends in the dorm are headed to a fraternity party but you have practice at 8 AM? And when you realize the first time you will go home to see you are parents will be for three days at Christmas?

We hold a special place in our hearts for freshmen college basketball players here at The Weekly Fast Break because we know that each one has a different experience. No matter the confidence that they may carry themselves with, the first year is incredibly hard. There are tears shed alone, with a fellow newbie on the team or on the phone with mom and dad. Doubt always starts to creep in – can I do this? Am I tough enough? Will I ever get any playing time? Any freshman season, no matter the sport, is about survival. You learn that you are so much tougher than you think and can make it in the classroom and on the court.

This week, with the help of our amazing colleagues at The Next, we shine our star power spotlight on a group of young women who are proving that being a freshman means you can be fearless and a force to be reckoned with. Some of these players will win awards in their respective conferences and nationally while others are simply contributing and doing what their coaches have asked of them this season. 

There are hundreds of other freshmen across the country we have not included, but know it is not on purpose or with any disregard for your talents. We see all of you and your effort, determination, and the impact you are making on your team and program. The hardest thing to do is to keep grinding, but if you believe that the loose ball you are chasing has your name on it, then your best moments are ahead of you. And just remember – the best thing about being a freshman is knowing that next season, you are not one.

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STAR POWER SPOTLIGHT (statistics noted are as of 2/27/24)

JUJU WATKINS, USC: Show business is full of people who moved to Los Angeles to follow their dreams, looking to hit it big in the City of Lights. For Watkins, in her first year at USC, she is hitting it out of the park in the city that is her home. The 6’2 guard has been the impact head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was hoping for when the 2023 National Player of the Year signed with the third-year head coach. She has scored in double-figures every season and is the top scoring freshman in the nation at 28.2 points/game (second overall nationally). Watkins is the first Division I freshman with multiple 40-point games in the last 25 seasons, including dropping 52 on Pac-12 foe Stanford on Feb. 2. She is smooth off the dribble where she finishes through contact but can step back and drill three-point shots in transition and in half court sets. Not only does Watkins light up a scoreboard, but she also leads USC in steals this season – creating her own offense with tough defense.

Freshman Megan Anderson of Fairfield has racked up individual awards all season while leading the Stags to a 22-game winning streak and a regular season conference title. (Photo credit: Fairfield WBB/Fairfield Athletics)

MEGAN ANDERSON, Fairfield: In just her second season, head coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis is building a mid-major contender at Fairfield. She and her staff will tell you that the key is finding the right players to fit the system and who embrace the culture of the program. They did not have to go far to find one of those perfect fits in the 6’1 Anderson. The forward from Wantagh, New York has posted double figures in all but four games this year and is a huge reason the Stags are on a 22-game winning streak. Anderson leads the team in scoring (16.4 points/game), rebounding (5.3 boards/game), and minutes played (25.3/game) while shooting a blistering 55% from the floor on the year. She has been named MAAC Rookie of the Week 10 times and Player of the Week twice. Anderson is also the only freshman to be named to the 2024 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award semifinal list, the first ever in the five-year existence of the award.

HANNAH HIDALGO, Notre Dame: It only took one game to see that without the services of Olivia Miles at point guard, Notre Dame was going to be just fine in the hands of Hidalgo. She posted 31 points in 37 minutes in the loss to South Carolina in Paris and since that debut, has not taken her foot off the gas. She leads the ACC in scoring and is third in the nation at 23.7 points/game on the season while leading the country in steals with 4.89/game. The 5’6 native of Haddonfield, New Jersey has set the ACC record for Rookie of the Week honors at 11 and was the AP National Player of the Week on Dec. 26, 2023. Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey has given the reigns of this team to the new kid and while the scoring and defense have been spectacular, she’s logging the most minutes of anyone on the roster and has over 145 assists on the year. Hidalgo is one of many freshmen on their respective team this season where this phrase rings true: as she goes, so do the Irish in March.

Texas freshman Madison Booker has delivered all season for the Longhorns, who 26-3 on the season due in large part to her consistent play all year long. (Photo credit: Texas Athletic Communications)

MADISON BOOKER, Texas: Not every freshman arrives on campus with such high expectations as those that accompanied Booker to Austin, Texas. She was named the preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year and as the season began, was a consistent and effective part of the Longhorns’ success. When All-American Rori Harmon went down in December with a season-ending injury, the load for Booker got heavier and she has delivered. The 6’1 forward has an almost unstoppable mid-ranger jumper that opponents must honor, and her strength and size allow her to get to the rim to finish. Booker has been named Big 12 Freshman of the Week four times and Player of the Week twice. She is averaging a team-high 16 points/game and is fourth in the Big 12 in assists. You will not see the court for head coach Vic Schaefer if you do not play defense and Booker has delivered in that area – she’s second for the Longhorns in defensive rebounding and steals on the year. Booker is calm, cool, and collected on the court, which is just what they need on the Forty Acres to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. 

AUDI CROOKS and ADDY BROWN, Iowa State: Head coach Bill Fennelly knew that coming into the 2023-24 season he would be going to battle in the Big 12 with one of the youngest teams he has had in 28 seasons in Ames. A crop of talented freshmen has proven to be integral to the Cyclones’ success this year and while each has had made an impact, two have stood out in the spotlight. Crooks, the 6’3 center from Algona, Iowa, is a back-to-the basket post but with great hands and footwork, has proven to be a handful for opponents. She is third-best scoring freshman in the country at 18.3 points/game this season. In the Big 12, which is packed with experienced post players, Crooks is averaging 19.9 points/game at an uber-efficient 53.4% from the field and is the top rebounder on the team. In the Cyclones’ win over BYU on Feb. 24, she broke the ISU freshman scoring record, a list packed with players who had stellar careers in Ames. Crooks swept the Big 12 Player and Freshman of the Week awards handed out on Feb. 26, her second and fourth of the season respectively.

Iowa State’s Audi Crooks (55) and Addy Brown (34) have been quite the freshmen tandem this season for the Cyclones who have double-digit Big 12 Conference wins and their sights set on the 2024 NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: Iowa State Athletics)

Brown, a native of Derby, Kansas, has been that all-around type of player that excels in Fennelly’s system at Iowa State. She is a 6’2 forward with three-point range and the ability to score in the mid-range and off the bounce. Brown is second on the team in scoring and rebounding behind her fellow freshman Crooks and is shooting almost 78% from the free throw line on year. She has also been asked to log big minutes on the floor, averaging over 33/game, especially when ISU was without senior guard Emily Ryan earlier in the season. Brown leads the team in assists for the year (over 135 so far) and is their top shot blocker as well. Versatility and toughness go a long way in college basketball and Brown has shown both and more in her first year as a Cyclone.

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IZZY SULLIVAN, Nevada: Not every freshman has things click overnight and immediately finds themselves in the starting lineup. For Sullivan, she played just three minutes in her first collegiate game for the Wolf Pack and missed her only shot attempt. Known as a perimeter sharpshooter coming out of high school, the 5’10 guard kept grinding and would see her minutes and production go up. She has started every game since the calendar turned to 2024 (14 to be exact) and has averaged over 28 minutes per game. She is averaging just shy of 10 points per game and is shooting 40% from three-point range on the season. Sullivan is also in the top ten of the Mountain West Conference in 3-pointers made per game. She could easily break the Nevada freshman 3-point record before the year is over. It has not just been the Wolf Pack coaches that have taken notice of her impact – she’s been named MWC Freshman of the Week on three separate occasions. A fun fact about Sullivan: she was born in Dublin, Ireland and her family relocated to the United States for her father’s job when she was younger. While you can always use the luck of the Irish in sports, Sullivan is letting her game make the mark.

A spark in multiple ways, Oregon State’s Donovyn Hunter has been a fearless freshman on the floor for the Beavers in 2023-24.
(Photo credit: Karl Maasdam/Oregon State Athletics)

DONOVYN HUNTER, Oregon State: On a team full of veteran guards, it sometimes takes longer to find your role and break into the rotation. For Hunter, it took just one game in a Beaver uniform (14 points and 6 assists in 27 minutes on Nov. 6) to solidify her spot as a key piece to the Oregon State success this season. The 6’ guard has logged just over 26 minutes per game this season and has had multiple double-digit scoring efforts. Her 17-point, 10-assist performance on Jan. 28 against a ranked Utah squad was one of the best of her young career and helped earn her Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. She is second on the team in assists and ranks in the top 20 of freshmen nationally in assists per game (3.3) Hunter has brought and energy and athleticism to the floor for both the Beavers’ offense and defense that they were missing a year ago. For a team that was not in the NCAA field last year, Oregon State is poised for a return, and we know Hunter will be ready for the spotlight of March Madness.

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JAILYN BANKS, Belmont: Head coach Bart Brooks knew that it could be ‘backcourt by committee’ this season for the Bruins without the services of all-conference guard Destiny Wells, who transferred to Tennessee last spring.  Enter Banks, the 5’9 guard who was up to the challenge to make her mark in her first season at Belmont. The Spring Hill, Tennessee native has started every game this season, and has scored in double figures in all but seven contests so far. Her 23-point debut in 32 minutes at Missouri Nov. 6 in the season opener was a sign of what she was bringing to the floor. Banks currently is in the top 15 in the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring (12.7 per game), assists (3.3 per game) and assist/turnover ratio. Her athleticism and playmaking ability has not gone unnoticed by others, earning six MVC Freshman of the Week awards. A staple of Brooks’ program at Belmont has always been defense and the Bruins lead the MVC in scoring defense again this season, with Banks doing her part to lock down opponents night in and night out.

MILAYSIA FULWILEY, South Carolina: None of us really understand how hard it is to break into starting lineups and rotations as a freshman, especially when you are one of the new kids at South Carolina. In a year that everyone said it could be a ‘rebuild’ for Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks, it is still a roster full of veterans who have been waiting their turn. Enter Fulwiley, the hometown product from Columbia, South Carolina, who has dazzled fans with her explosive athletic plays and found her place in Staley’s rotation. The 5’10 guard has played in every game this season, starting two, and is averaging 19 minutes per contest. She has added yet another guard to South Carolina’s rotation that can score in the open floor, off penetration, step out and knock down a three. Fulwiley is averaging 11.3 points per game and shooting 32% from behind the arc, which has earned two SEC Freshman of the Week honors this season. The Gamecocks are the only undefeated team left in college basketball — men’s or women’s — and Fulwiley is a big reason why.

While Lindenwood is in the midst of reclassifying to Division I, freshman Ellie Brueggemann has been a sharp-shooting force this season for the Lions, leading the team in scoring and helping her team compete in the OVC. (Photo credit: Don Adams Jr.)

ELLIE BRUEGGEMANN, Lindenwood: A year ago, the Owasso, Oklahoma native was headed to Drury University to play for head coach Amy Eagan and spend her career as part of a Division II powerhouse. When Eagan filled the job opening at Lindenwood University, a program that is in year two of reclassification into Division I, Brueggemann decided to also make St. Charles, Missouri home. Known as a pure shooter out of high school, the 5’11 guard quickly proved she was in exactly the right place. She has started every game and hit double figures in all but three games for the Lions, averaging 14 points/game on the year (top 25 for freshmen nationally.). She is second in the Ohio Valley Conference for the season in both 3-point percentage (35%) and 3-point shots made (2.88 per game). Lindenwood has more than tripled their win total from a season ago and with Brueggemann leading the way, the foundation is in place to build a program that can compete in the OVC.

S’MYA NICHOLS, Kansas: Keeping top talent close to home is a tough task in college athletics, but Kansas head coach Brandon Schneider knew that if they could land Nichols, a five-star high school prospect, she could be something special. The Overland Park, Kansas native went just 40 minutes west to Lawrence and has quietly made a name for herself in her first year as a Jayhawk. On a roster that has four “super seniors”, three which are starters, the 6’ guard is averaging a team high 14.6 points/game on the season, which ranks her 12th nationally for freshmen in scoring. She has hit double figures in 14 of 16 Big 12 games and has been tapped Big 12 Freshman of the Week twice this season. Her game is a mix perimeter shooting and aggressive penetration that results in drive and dish opportunities to her teammates or scoring over the defense. What you do not want to do is put Nichols at the free throw line – she is shooting 81% from the charity stripe on the season. KU missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but now with Nichols mixed in with their veterans, it could be the formula that gets them on the good side of the bubble in 2024.

Kansas freshman S’Mya Nichols stayed close to home to play for the Jayhawks and is having a breakout season, leading KU in scoring and hopefully back to the NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: Kansas Athletics)

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Sellout Central: It is such a joy for us to watch tickets be at a premium in the world of women’s college basketball. Even when schools do not announce an official sellout, to see lines around arenas and swarms of college students rush in before tipoff is what we want to see for the game. Take for instance the matchup then #25 Princeton at Ivy League rival Columbia. Officials at Columbia announced the sell-out ahead of the game, of which saw the Lions beat Princeton, 67-65, on Senior Day. It was an electric atmosphere for ESPN’s College Gameday program in Blacksburg, Tennessee when they rolled up for the North Carolina/Virginia Tech matchup on Sunday, Feb. 25. Not only did the Hokie faithful represent for the pregame festivities, but they filled Cassell Coliseum to the rafters for the game and their Senior Day sendoff. It was announced 19 days in advance on Feb. 6 that the game was sold out – Virginia Tech gave the fans a great show with a 74-62 win. Is it not fantastic to have some of the hardest tickets in college towns be for women’s basketball these days?

600 & Counting: We were reminded this week how remarkable it is that #1 South Carolina is the only team left in college basketball that still undefeated. Calmly and quietly the Gamecocks are 27-0 and cruising through to the end of the SEC regular season. This team reflects the calm but intense demeanor of their head coach, Dawn Staley, who is now on an elite list of coaches by joining the 600-win club. With a 72-44 dismantling of Alabama on Feb. 22, Staley achieved the milestone while also securing South Carolina’s eighth SEC regular season title in the last 11 seasons. While significant wins are ones to celebrate, you can bet Staley and the Gamecocks are looking for more in the upcoming weeks.

Poll Watch: It may feel like it is on repeat but yes, #1 South Carolina at 27-0 is the unanimous pick for the top spot this week. The rest of the AP Top 25 poll has movement all around, with #3 Texas up two spots and Virginia Tech up three to #5. The biggest drops came from Kansas State, down 5 positions to #15 and NC State, who dropped two road games last week to fall to #12. #21 Baylor stays in the poll this week after a bounce-back win to knock off West Virginia, who dropped two games to ranked teams but stays in the Top 25, tied at #24 with UNLV. With their upset win at home, Columbia receives votes and knocks Princeton out of the poll. Fairfield, who secured a MAAC regular season title last week and is on a 22-game winning streak, is the first team outside the Top 25, but gaining on the Power 5 schools in front of them.


While we spotlight fearless freshmen this week, we also want to recognize all the seniors across the nation who have already and will play their final games at home in the upcoming days. The regular season is ending, and the post-season will be upon us, so while we celebrate our conference championships, let us remember all the blood, sweat, and tears every senior has given to their team and program. And not just those that see the floor, but the managers and student trainers and even the senior pep band members who will play the fight song for the last time at home. Thank you for all you have done. Each of you have forged a path for the young ones behind you, do not ever forget that. (Check your local listings and broadcast schedule for times):

Feb. 28

Kansas at UCF

Holy Cross at Colgate

#3 Texas at #20 Oklahoma

Michigan at #2 Ohio State

Toledo at Northern Illinois

Iowa State at #15 Kansas State

Portland at #16 Gonzaga

#6 Iowa at Minnesota

Feb. 29

Washington State at #18 Utah

#19 Syracuse at #12 NC State

#5 Virginia Tech at #17 Notre Dame

Texas A&M at Tennessee

North Florida at Florida Gulf Coast 

#7 USC at Arizona

R/V Florida State at #22 Louisville

Washington at #13 Colorado

#4 Stanford at #11 Oregon State

March 1

R/V Columbia at Brown

Harvard at R/V Princeton

GA Southern at Marshall

March 2

TCU at #24 West Virginia

Washington at #18 Utah

Cincinnati at Iowa State

Chattanooga at Wofford

North Texas at Rice

North Dakota State at South Dakota State

#4 Stanford at Oregon

#20 Oklahoma at Kansas

Valparaiso at Drake

March 3

Tennessee at #1 South Carolina

#2 Ohio State at #6 Iowa

#22 Louisville at #17 Notre Dame

#23 Creighton at Seton Hall

Arkansas at Mississippi

Temple at East Carolina

March 4

Jackson State at Prairie View A&M

Sacramento State at Eastern Washington

Montana at Idaho State

March 5

#24 UNLV at Utah State

Boise State at Colorado State 

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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