One trend I've noticed this year — especially with the state's Conference USA team — is that freshman players have played some very good basketball. It seems like every time I open up my email, I've got something from a program about one of their players being named the conference's Freshman Player of the Week.
So, I thought this was a good chance to shine a spotlight on those players. These aren't all of the freshmen who are getting minutes in Conference USA, but they are six players who've been getting key minutes and have contributed to their team's success in varying ways. If you're someone who doesn't pay as much attention to basketball outside of the biggest conferences, here are some players who you can watch and follow for the next few years.
Avery Crouse, Katia Gallegos, Arina Khlopkova, UTEP
UTEP currently sits at 9-4 on the season and 2-0 in conference play, and these three have been a key part of UTEP's rise from the cellar.
Last season, UTEP was 9-22 on the year and 5-foot-11 in conference play. But this season's gone far better, and the Miners look like they could win CUSA due to the play of three important freshman players.
Crouse had a strong high school career at Sachse in which she led the team to the regional quarterfinals as a Senior. She's struggled some with her shot — especially from three — but is second on the team in assists. She's also played fairly well on transition possessions, scoring in the 60th percentile nationally on transition possessions. But she also is shooting just 22.2 percent on spot up looks this year, something that she'll have to figure out if she's going to be a key part of UTEP's potential rise in CUSA.
Gallegos is the team leader in assists at 4.2 per game, a mark that ranks just outside the top 100 natonally. Gallegos has quickly established herself as a player who can distribute the ball and get to the free throw line. Her turnovers are high, but she's also had five or more assists in three consecutive games and should continue to grow as a passer. Gallegos has international experience after playing for Mexico's U18 team, and that experience is likely a big part of how she's adjusted so fast to the college game. Like Crouse, Gallegos has been at her best in transition this year, scoring in the 70th percentile while using 24.1 percent of her possessions in transition.
Khlopkova was named Conference USA Freshman Player of the Week earlier in the year. A lot of her numbers come from a two-game stretch against Western Michigan and Georgia State in which she scored 34 points over those two outings. While she's only seventh on the team in scoring right now and has cooled off since her start, Khlopkova's definitely a key piece of a bright future for UTEP. She's been better as a spot up scorer than the other two and has the potential to be a great off-ball weapon.
UTEP really feels like a team that's at a crossroads right now. The past few years have been a rollercoaster of rock bottom years followed by solid years, but the team's set to lose their best player, Katarina Zec, to graduation after this season, so to avoid sinking back into the conference cellar in 2021, these players have to continue to deveop like they have so far.
Adryana Quezada, Mikayla Woods, UTSA
UTSA hasn't been as good as its fellow UT system team, but the Roadrunners have also gotten strong contributions from some first-year athletes.
The Roadrunners actually have eight freshmen on the roster, but Quezada and Woods have the been the best of them.
Woods leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game, despite the fact that she's shooting just 16.7 percent from three. She's scored 20 or more points in four of UTSA's last six games. Woods is a former Austin American-Statesman All-Central Texas Player of the Year out of Hendrickson HS and has already been named CUSA Freshman of the Week twice this year. Woods is a good ball-handler with strong defensive instincts.
Former Frisco Lone Star star and McDonald's All-American nomineee Adryana Quezada hasn't been quite as impactful as Woods, but she's still arguably the Roadrunner's second-best player. Quezada is averaging 10.4 points on 48.3 percent shooting while also adding 4.3 rebounds and a steal per game. She hit the go-ahead basket last month against Texas Wesleyan in a game where she tied the school record for points in a game by a Freshman with 32. As the season's gone along, Quezada has seen her offensive workload increase, and it seems like head coach Kristen Holt has a plan to build around Quezada and Woods skillsets.
And when you factor in that the Roadrunners haven't had a .500 or better season since 2014-2015, you have to think embracing the youth on this team is a potentially fruitful path moving forward, especially if the team can continue to bring in players like Quezada and Woods.
Lauren Schwartz, Rice
Rice was the preaseason favorites in the conference because of Erika Ogwumike and Nancy Mulkey, but the team hasn't played up to expectations for much of this season.
But one unexpected bright spot has been the play of Lauren Schwartz. She's third on the Owls in minutes per game behind Ogwumike and Sydne Wiggins, and her 9.6 points per game rank second on the team. Schwartz is hitting 37.1 preseason of her 2.7 threes per game while also adding 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 0.9 steals per game.
Per Synergy, Schwartz ranks in the 82nd percentile nationally in points per possession for a Rice team that currently sits at 7-6 on the year and still has its sights set on the conference title. With Mulkey's presense down low and Ogwumike leading the offense, having an efficient scorer like Schwartz who can operate as a spot up shooter can help the Owls space the floor and negate some of the potential issues that come with having a paint-bound center.