Wittenberg's James Johnson talks about 21-0 start
Photo: David Jablonski - Staff Writer
Photo: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Three freshmen making big contributions for undefeated Wittenberg

Tigers take 21-0 record into Wednesday home game

James Johnson, Landon Martin and Rashaad Ali-Shakir have combined to average 20.5 points per game. That accounts for a quarter of the offense for Wittenberg, which averages 82.6 points per game.

“They come from great high-school programs, all three of them,” Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said Monday after practice. “They’ve been well coached. They’ve been in big games. They know what high-level competition is like. We thought those three would be ready early in their careers to help us.”

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Here’s a glance at the freshmen heading into a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday game against Wabash at Pam Evans Smith Arena:

Johnson: The 6-foot-6 forward from Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati averages 8.7 points and 2.6 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game. He’s shooting 41.6 percent from 3-point range (32 of 77).

“James is a really tough matchup for people because of his size and strength,” Croci said, “but he can play like a guard.”

Johnson picked Wittenberg in part because it was the first school that recruited him hard. He said Croci stayed on him, texting him every day.

Roger Bacon was 46-13 in Johnson’s last two seasons and reached the state championship game when he was a senior. He scored 13 points in a 54-52 loss to Villa Angela-St. Joseph. That remains Johnson’s last loss.

» LOOKING BACK: Freshmen part of big recruiting class

Wittenberg, which leads the North Coast Athletic Conference by three games with a 14-0 mark, is five wins away from matching the school record for consecutive victories.

“It’s been amazing,” Johnson said. “Coming here, we knew we had a lot of potential, but we never thought we’d be 21-0.”

Wittenberg's Landon Martin on 21-0 start
Video: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Martin: A 6-3 guard from Columbus Africentric High School, Martin is averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16.9 minutes.

“Landon is just a tremendous athlete and a really good one-on-one player,” Croci said.

Of the perfect record, Martin said, “It’s really fun. We kind of did expect this, but 21-0 is shooting for the stars.”

The opportunity to play for Croci was one of the big reasons Martin chose Wittenberg.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Martin said. “He would call me all the time. I felt like I was at home here. I felt like it was a family. And it’s a great school.”

Wittenberg's Rashaad Ali-Shakir on 21-0 start
Video: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Ali-Shakir: A 6-2 guard from Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati, Ali-Shakir made an immediate impact by throwing a long pass from under the basket across halfcourt to Jake Bertemes in the final seconds of the third game of the season against Capital. Bertemes turned that pass into a game-winning layup in a 79-77 victory. It remains the closest game of the season for Wittenberg.

Ali-Shakir averages 4.6 points and 1.8 rebounds in 18.7 minutes.

“Rashaad shoots the ball extremely well and has become a really good defender for us,” Croci said.

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Ali-Shakir graduated from high school in 2016 and planned to be a preferred walk-on at Wright State, but when Scott Nagy took over the program in 2016, Ali-Shakir was told there wasn’t a spot for him.

Croci discovered Ali-Shakir while recruiting Johnson at a Roger Bacon game. Roger Bacon and Purcell Marian are rivals, so Johnson and Ali-Shakir played against each other. Johnson said they hated each other, and now they’re roommates.

“(Croci) met my mom at a Roger Bacon game,” Ali-Shakir said. “He got me on a visit, and I just loved it from there.”

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