March Madness: Fabulous freshmen set to dazzle on big stage as NCAA Tournament arrives

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March Madness: Fabulous freshmen set to dazzle on big stage as NCAA Tournament arrives
There is no doubt this has been the season of Caitlin Clark, the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader from Iowa whose excellence has filled arenas and thrilled fans. Right alongside, though, is a group of flashy, talented newcomers elbowing their way onto the court shouting, “We’ve got next!”
Throughout the country, first-year stars like JuJu Watkins of Southern California, Hannah Hidalgo of Notre Dame, MiLaysia Fulwiley of South Carolina and Madison Booker of Texas are leading their teams and teasing even bigger things ahead in their first NCAA Tournament.
“I think our game is in pretty good hands for the next foreseeable future,” said Booker’s coach at Texas, Vic Schaefer. “All those kids are helping their teams, which is so unusual.”
It has become more commonplace this season.
Watkins, the 6-foot-2 Trojans forward, has 810 points, already surpassing Clark’s 799 points as a freshman and, with a deep tournament run, is within reach of the NCAA freshman record of 898 set by Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State in 1984.
Hidalgo in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Fulwiley in the Southeastern Conference and Booker in the Big 12 all were named MVPs after leading their teams to titles. And few would be surprised if several of them were climbing ladders and cutting down nets on the way to the Final Four in the seasons ahead.
“It’s my first year so I don’t know what to expect,” Watkins said. “I’m just ready to go with it.”
Not only is the first-year class talented, it is deep. Defending national champion LSU brought in Mikaylah Williams, a 6-foot guard who started 29 games this season and her 42 points in a win over Kent State were the most for a Tiger in 25 years.
Iowa State freshmen Audi Crooks and Addy Brown combined for 56 starts this season and 32 points a game for the 20-win Cyclones. Nebraska has Big Ten freshman of the year Natalie Potts and the Huskers went 1-2 against Clark and Iowa.
Southern Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb told anyone who’d listen she had the best of a great class of newcomers.
“Nationally, it’s unbelievable,” Gottlieb marveled. “Hannah and Booker and Mikaylah Williams and Donovyn Hunter (of Oregon State).
“I don’t know, we sometimes ask, ‘What are they feeding them now? What are they doing in club basketball?’” Gottlieb said. “They’ve come in really ready and it’s something to see.”
Hidalgo quickly became a team leader with Notre Dame star Olivia Miles sidelined after tearing a knee ligament in March 2023. Hidalgo leads the country with 147 steals this season, an NCAA freshman record.
Hidalgo said her coaches and teammates trusted her from the start and that helped make the transition to college easier.
“I learned to just kind of have confidence in myself,” she said. “Right when I came in, they were like, ‘Hannah, shoot the ball, score the ball.’ That was really big for me.”
Fulwiley, too, had a (mostly) green light from South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who offered her a scholarship as a seventh-grader. Fulwiley gained notice — even from NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson — in her first college game for a coast-to-coast drive where she put the ball behind her back to elude a Notre Dame defender before laying the ball in for a basket.
It was a steadier, more confident Fulwiley who took charge during SEC championship win over LSU with a career-high 24 points.
“It meant a lot to me considering the fact I’m only a freshman. It was my first time around,” Fulwiley said. “This is a great first experience for me and my team.”
Booker became the first freshman to win Big 12 player of the year. She also captured the league’s freshman honor after averaging 16.9 points and leading the Longhorns in assists. Booker became a centerpiece after Texas star Rori Harmon tore a knee ligament in December and was lost for the season.
Booker credited her coaches and teammates for keeping her confident. “They always kept my head up and told me to keep pushing,” she said. “They always tell me to keep going.”
Texas A&M coach Joni Taylor agreed the game’s future is bright with so many young stars. But she said the game has had freshmen at the forefront for years; it’s just more people are paying attention this year.
“Breanna Stewart was a skilled freshman. So was Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings. Now there’s more eyes on our game than ever before,” she said. “I think now the difference is our game has grown. There’s more eyes on it. More people recognize it as what it is.”

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