|Astron Francis took 62 field-goal attempts last weekend in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Photo by Robert B. Forbes, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
There are other stories like Aston Francis’ in college basketball.
You probably know a player who has increased his scoring average from 5 to 15 over the course of his career, or from 1 to 10. They may have even gone off for a 25-point night or two.
They put in the work, waited their turn and became major contributors to winning teams.
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Yes, Aston Francis has also increased his scoring average nearly 10 points from his first season at Wheaton as a sophomore in 2016-17 to now.
It’s just that he averaged 24.9 points as a sophomore.
It’s just that he’s averaging 33.0 points as a senior, more than any player in Division III.
And he happened to put up back-to-back 40-plus point nights in the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s unlike anybody most of us have seen,” said Wheaton coach Mike Schauer, “with the shots he’s able to take and make.”
Oh, does he take and make a lot of shots.
“Just trying to do whatever I could to help us move on,” Francis said.
|at North Park||12-32||.375||5-21||.238||3-3||1.000||8||4||1||32|
|at Illinois Wesleyan||10-21||.476||7-14||.500||0-0||.000||4||8||0||27|
|at Illinois Tech||11-24||.458||6-14||.429||6-10||.600||10||8||0||34|
|at North Central||17-27||.630||10-19||.526||5-8||.625||5||1||1||49|
|vs North Central||11-24||.458||4-16||.250||4-4||1.000||4||2||3||30|
Here’s what he did: 14 of 29 in Friday’s 84-73 first-round win over Hanover, in which he scored half the Thunder’s points, and 13 for 33 (12 of 13 at the line) in Saturday’s 78-70 victory against No. 16 Wooster, when he one-upped himself with 43 points. They were his seventh and eighth 40-plus nights of the season.
“We kind of joke about it on our coaching staff a little bit — we’ve sort of become moderately numb to it,” Schauer said. “I don’t mean that to diminish the accomplishment, but we see it all the time.”
This doesn’t just happen, though. Like the 3-point scorers you know who became 13-point scorers, Francis has put in the effort.
Go back to his freshman year of college, at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas. He played in 24 games, averaged 4.5 points, and he didn’t settle.
“I didn’t want to be just a guy who can spot up and shoot,” Francis said. “I wanted to be able to contribute however I could and help out however I could.”
That summer, Francis watched YouTube videos of Larry Bird, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry. He got in the gym on his own time, and with his dad, a high school coach. He played pickup games and incorporated new moves.
“I think I got a lot better, trying to play against guys that were bigger, stronger, faster than I was,” Francis said. “I had to get used to making those moves quickly and in a game-like situation.”
It all paid off his first season at Wheaton, when he earned first-team all-Central Region honors. But the team was 12-13, and his fellow sophomores (including fellow Texas native Trevor Gunter, who Schauer was recruiting when he discovered Francis) set out to fix that.
They wanted to take this program back to the NCAA Tournament, where it hadn’t been since 2014. The foundation toward accomplishing that goal this winter was laid in the weight room.
“Guys have really hit the weight room hard, which I think is an underrated aspect of success,” Francis said. “Teams that work hard in the weight room tend to see a correlation with their play on the court. I think it just speaks to the level of character on our team and the willingness of guys to work hard to achieve the goals that we set.”
All that lifting, along with shooting with the gun every day, is how Francis can get up nearly 24 shots a game, make better than 43 percent of them, and not wear down. He’s making 5.17 3-point shots a game (.381 3-point percentage), which leads the country. Second place happens to be a Grinnell player, Hannes Kogelnik, 0.71 behind.
“He’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached and it’s not particularly close,” Schauer said.
The other reason this is possible: those teammates, who shared the same NCAA Tournament goal as Francis. After all, someone has to set screens, make passes and everything else that goes into winning with the nation’s leading scorer.
“That is the part that I think people miss,” Schauer said, “is the caliber of young men on our team who are willing to sacrifice some of their own numbers to help him because he’s uniquely gifted and can help us. They’re constantly trying to find him, screen for him. They know.”
They’ve seen just about every kind of defense thrown at them. There’s your typical double teams, or a box-and-one. Elmhurst even put three defenders on the baseline, one on the top of key and the other chasing Francis.
At this point though, Schauer and his staff aren’t preparing for what they think opposing teams will come up with.
“(Francis) eventually figures it out most nights,” Schauer said. “He’s such a gifted offensive player and he’s fearless. He believes the next one is going in no matter what has happened previously.”
In other words, shooters shoot. Which Francis will do again at 7:30 p.m. CT Friday in Wheaton’s Sweet 16 game at CCIW rival Augustana. The third-ranked Vikings (26-3) beat the Thunder (21-8) twice this season, with Francis scoring 30 and 35 points in those games.
Augustana’s coaches won’t have the “stunned silence” from watching Francis that Schauer said inflicts many non-conference coaches.
On the Wheaton side, the mindset is not revenge, but opportunity.
“You kind of throw the past two games out the window,” Francis said. “The fact that they’ve beat us twice, it doesn’t matter.”
Neither will the next shot he misses.