Basketball is for the kids.
Such is the theme in the 2021 Colonial Athletic Association season, where freshmen throughout the conference have quickly grown into Big Men on Campus.
Freshmen are playing a critical role in shaping the CAA regular-season championship race. For first-place Northeastern, Jahmyl Telfort has made an instant impact. Telfort provides a scoring punch to complement points-per-game leader Tyson Walker — who was himself an immediate contributor a year ago.
But after hitting a career-high 23 points in the Huskies’ Jan. 23 win over James Madison, another facet of Telfort’s game earned Northeastern coach Bill Coen’s plaudits.
“He always gives us really good energy on the defensive end,” Coen said. “Which is kind of unusual for a freshman, but he’s able to guard multiple positions.”
Telfort’s versatility will play a crucial part in Northeastern’s pursuit of the CAA championship, much like the first-year tandem of Terell Strickland and Justin Amadi at James Madison.
The Dukes put themselves in prime position for a title push when they gave Northeastern a receipt on Jan. 24. In the win, Amadi scored 11 points and made two steals; Strickland pulled down 11 rebounds and dished three assists.
James Madison has run off another three straight wins since to keep pace with the Huskies atop the league. Its most recent win wasn’t without a fight, as JMU went back-and-forth with an Elon bunch that received a boost from freshman big man Michael Graham.
Graham’s sudden production may not have resulted in a Phoenix W, but the long-term implication is undeniably positive. Elon is a program in its second year under coach Mike Schrage, building up behind a young nucleus.
The freshman Graham, paired with current sophomores Hunter Woods and Hunter McIntosh, provides a foundation for Elon to grow into a CAA contender in the immediate future. It’s a formula not unlike that of William & Mary, also in its second year with its coach, Dane Fischer.
The Tribe’s young base features Yuri Covington, a savvy, all-around playmaker who can score, dish the ball and mix it up on the interior. Covington doesn’t shy away from fighting for rebounds, and will take the ball up against post defenders with the intent of putting them on posters.
Fellow William & Mary first-year wing Connor Kochera is quickly making his own name, too. Kochera has games of 26, 23, and 30 points in three of the Tribe’s last four outings.
“One of the big things, he didn’t get a lot of shots ,” Fischer said of Kochera. “That was something we focused on as a team and a staff. He started to play really, really well and continued to gain confidence, and we felt like we needed to get him more involved.”
Kochera made a splash in his collegiate debut with 19 points against Old Dominion back in November, but then faced some inevitable growing pains. He attempted just four shots against Hampton in December, then opened CAA play with a 1-of-12 shooting performance against Hofstra.
A process that might take other players a full season to work through, however, Kochera mastered quickly. Since that showing against Hofstra, he has games of 5-of-6, 6-of-6 and 11-of-17 shooting from the floor.
“The ball has been in his hands way more over the last couple of weeks than it was earlier in the season and he’s shown great versatility as a scorer,” Fischer said. “He’s always been a great catch-and-shoot guy. He can run off screens, but he’s really shown an ability to put the ball on the floor and create for himself and others.”
This crop of impressive freshmen throughout the CAA, which also includes Delaware’s Andrew Carr, Hofstra’s Kvonn Cramer and UNC Wilmington’s Jamahri Harvey, will only continue to get better.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.