The press release arrives in email inboxes every Monday afternoon. Almost like clockwork. It’s Rice announcing that guard Marcus Evans has been named the Conference USA Freshman of the Week. Five straight Mondays such an email has arrived. Those emails about Evans have come nine times this season.
Odds are that most college basketball fans — and most Houstonians for that matter — know who LSU freshman Ben Simmons is. But odds are that most of the fans wouldn't recognize Evans' name. It's not like Rice, now 12-18 on the season after last night's 88-75 loss to Charlotte, is at the top of the college basketball mountain. But Evans is having one of those magical seasons.
No freshman in the history of C-USA has ever won this award nine times — the previous record was seven times. He’s only the fourth freshman in the history of the conference to score 600-plus points in a season (he has 630 points for the season after last night's 27 point game). But here’s the key, according to his head coach, Mike Rhoades: Evans doesn’t think of himself as a freshman.
A “thing with Marcus, I don’t think he ever thought he was a freshman,” Rhoades said several weeks ago. “He just thought of himself as a player. He’s such an aggressive guy. He has a competitive edge that not everybody has as an 18-year old. That’s one thing I think that’s special about him. He’s so explosive and athletic, so even if he’s playing against a junior or senior, he can hold his own because of his strength and his explosiveness.”
Evans has started every game for Rice this season. Since the Owls generally only play seven guys a night, he’s seen lots of playing time, averaging more than 33 minutes a game. He’s scored 30-plus points three times this season, and he's eclipsed the 20-point mark 18 times. His scoring average for the season is way over 20 points a game. But he's not just about scoring points. He's one of those guys always striving to improve.
“He doesn’t want to let the coaches down, either,” Rhoades says of Evans. “Which is really cool for a freshman. Usually freshman fight you for awhile until they realize coaches are right and only trying to help. He’s learning that. He’s doing a great job of understanding that. When we challenge him about something, he’s doing a good job of adding that to his game. He’s continuously getting better this year.”
Evans is a part of a very young core of talent (fellow freshmen Marquz Letcher-Ellis and Connor Cashaw and sophomore Egor Koulechov) that will be returning next season. But it’s Evans who has stood out. His game looks effortless without a wasted move on the court. He’s got a smooth, pretty jump shot, but he’s excellent on the drive, penetrating and finding his teammates with passes.
That it all looks so effortless is just proof of how hard he works in practice, and how he has worked to mesh with his teammates on his court. Because Rhoades preaches teamwork and Evans realizes that for the team to be better, everybody on the court has to be good, not just himself.
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“The four of us [Evans, Letcher-Ellis, Cashaw, Koulechov], we have a lot of chemistry together. Playing this many minutes this season, I think guys are finally starting to feel where guys want the ball and we’re starting to play well together. When we have four or five guys playing well, we’re really a hard a team to play against.”
They’re becoming a hard team to play against not just because of Evans, but because as the team plays together, the faster the team plays. And the faster the team plays on the court — pushing the ball on offense, pressing on defense — the more trouble that the opposing teams have adjusting to what Rice can do. Rhoades can’t get the team to play his ideal form of basketball yet — what he terms of 40 minutes of havoc featuring fast breaks and full court presses — because of the short bench, but when they go fast, watching Evans, Letcher-Ellis, Cashaw, and Koulechov on the break is a thing of beauty that’s not been seen at Rice for a long, long time.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Evans says of when Rice goes uptempo. “That’s why a lot of guys come here, to play fast. And when we play that fast, we get a lot more possessions, guys get more shots. It’s just fun for everyone out there when we’re playing that fast.”
Sure, he might not get the same attention that LSU's Simmons' gets, but don't be fooled. Evans is the real deal. And his last regular season game of the year is tomorrow afternoon at Tudor Fieldhouse when Rice hosts Old Dominion. It’s one last chance to see Marcus Evans play as a freshman, and one more chance for him to earn the conference’s Freshman of the Week. And if he’s this good this year, just imagine how good he will be next season.