Wheaton’s Aston Francis was the best college basketball player you’ve never heard of
Yes, I know that above statement seems absurd, especially when I tell you Wheaton is a Division III college. Plenty of high-end Division I players don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament; ask Chris Clemons (30.1 PPG) or Justin Wright-Foreman (27.1 PPG) how that feels. But I really, truly believe that above statement is true. Aston Francis is responsible for my single favorite NCAA-related video of 2019:
And he’s responsible for an absurd 34.3 points per game in 2018-19. By the way, he scored 1,096 points in a single season, which is a feat accomplished in D-1 exactly twice in my lifetime. Here, have a view:
And have another:
Wheaton head coach Mike Schauer agreed with me. Schauer, now entering his 11th season as the Thunder head coach, has won a lot of games in his career – 316, in fact. 170 of those have come at Wheaton. He’s been around for a while. Don’t take it lightly when he says something like the following: “Aston Francis was the Stephen Curry of Division III last year.” Francis may have somehow been even more important to his team’s success. “You’re not having this conversation with me without him,” Schauer said. Francis, truly, is one of the greatest shooters I’ve ever seen at a non-high-major school:
Wheaton led the nation in points off of off-ball screens, per Synergy. Considering they had the best small college basketball player in America on their team, this is no real surprise, but it’s still interesting to see what they’d run. Check out this one for a non-Francis player, Anajuwon Spencer, who drains an open three because of the attention paid to Francis:
The reason for this is pretty simple: Schauer loves running sets and screens to get the ball to his most reliable players. Often, this was Francis, but Wheaton doesn’t make the Division III Final Four without a great supporting cast. “When we’re in half-court, I want to spend 50% of our time running a motion offense with an open post that creates passing and cutting lanes and spreads the floor,” says Schauer. “I want to spend the other 50% of the time running sets to our best players.” That, they did:
Wheaton’s offense finished in the 92nd-percentile nationally, with a 94th-percentile half-court offense. Despite Schauer’s desire to play more in transition, it was when the game was slower where the Thunder were at their best. In the game you’re seeing clips of – Wheaton’s Sweet Sixteen game versus Augustana College – they scored 91 of their 93 points in their half-court offense. When you’ve got it rolling, it’s really hard to stop:
Again, Schauer gives a lot of credit to Francis. “Anytime we used him as a screener, the guy he was screening for would be open. The normal screening rules didn’t apply. People just wouldn’t leave him for any reason,” he told me. When you have a guy that hits nearly everything he gets off of a screen, it makes sense that no one would be willing to leave his side. Schauer said it became extreme in some games: “Teams would literally not guard the other four guys at times, so if they could just make shots, we would probably win.” That’s what happens when you have a guy that can do this:
However, it doesn’t happen without a strong supporting cast. Guys like the Two Lukes – Peters and Anthony – can send you to the top.
“Luke Peters was probably as good a perimeter defender as I’ve coached,” said Schauer. Likewise, he got a huge bump at the turn of the spring semester: Luke Anthony’s eligibility. “He transferred in for the spring semester and could make shots at a very, very high rate. Teams couldn’t leave him either.” A team can have a star, but it needs its supporting cast to push it over the top. When I asked if this was more or less difficult to craft an offense around, Schauer was split: “It’s so counter-intuitive to everything you’ve grown up believing, to have one guy take 40% of our shots . . . At the same time, it’s really nice to have a guy that might score 60.”
Last thing: Aston Francis very nearly did not play college basketball. I’m giving a full space to Mike Schauer to tell you his story:
“I was actually down in Tyler, Texas recruiting Trevor Gunter (graduated with Francis in 2018-19). That night, Trevor Gunter happened to play for Grace Community High School, who was playing All Saints. As I was talking to Trevor’s dad, he mentioned “hey, we’re pretty good friends with the other team’s head coach. His son is their leading scorer, and you might want to watch him as well.” Honestly, 99% of the time someone says that to me, the kid isn’t good enough. It didn’t take me too long to watch that night and go “wow, he’s pretty good.” Obviously, I stuck around to talk to his dad, Coach Eddie Francis, and connected with Aston immediately. He actually decided not to play basketball and went to Texas A&M out of high school.
After about a week at A&M, he decided he didn’t like it there and wanted to transfer. However, at that point, a lot of your smaller schools couldn’t take him. He decided to go to Tyler Junior College. As soon as I got wind that he’d transferred to a two-year school, we started recruiting him again. At the end of that season, he transferred to Wheaton. I could tell right away that he was going to be pretty good. I don’t know that you ever think you’ll have the future National Player of the Year, but I remember after his sophomore year at Wheaton, I was playing golf and I said “we got a kid who may be the National Player of the Year, and we might win a national championship with him.”
It’s funny how these things work; sometimes, an all-time great can come incredibly close to choosing something else. Sometimes, they get the push in the right direction that they desperately needed. “I will forever be indebted and grateful to Aston Francis,” says Schauer. Wheaton College will look a lot different after him, but the basics will still be there: the hard-cutting motion offense, the metric ton of looks off of off-ball screens, the quick three-point looks, the cuts to the basket, etc. It’s impossible to replace an all-time great, but Schauer seems like a smart guy. He’ll figure it out pretty quickly.