The Big 12 is all the rage in college basketball these days, and understandably so. But my eyes have been drawn to what is transpiring in the SEC. I’m a Missouri alum, and what Dennis Gates has accomplished in his first season in Columbia has been nothing short of remarkable. I’m even more captivated by what a pair of freshmen have been accomplishing in Lexington, Kentucky, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
It was only a year ago that a good number of us Richardson High School alums were giddily following the exploits of the No. 1 team in the nation and, in particular, the play of Cason Wallace and Rylan Griffen, the best backcourt tandem in the state, if not the country. RHS games became an event, some of us attending a dozen or so games and meeting for dinner beforehand to reminisce about the good old days. It was the best $3 ticket money could buy. The journey shockingly ended a couple of games short of where any of us imagined it would, but we were eager to see how Cason and Rylan’s games would translate to the next level.
We have an answer.
Wallace, the top-ranked recruit in the state and a top-10 player nationally, made an immediate impact at Kentucky, scoring 15 points, handing out nine assists, and grabbing eight rebounds in his college debut. Before retiring in May 2021, I worked as a college basketball editor at The Athletic. One of my writers was Kyle Tucker, who covers the Wildcats. After almost every RHS game I attended, I would report on Cason’s latest act of wizardry. Tucker, of course, knew all about Wallace and had already been singing his praises. Not 30 minutes after the Wildcats’ opener, I received a text from Tucker: Fine, Godich. You were right. He’s special. Not a month later, Tucker wrote this.
Like any freshman, Wallace has experienced the occasional struggle, but he continues to do jaw-dropping things on both ends of the court. In his third game, he had a program-record-tying eight steals against Michigan State. In a win against Michigan in London, he was named the player of the game after delivering 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and the dagger three-pointer in the last minute. He needed only 15 shots to score a career-high 27 points in a win over Florida A&M.
Wallace was doing all of this while playing alongside Sahvir Wheeler, the two-time SEC assists leader. As the offense grew stagnant and the losses mounted, the ever-patient crew known as Big Blue Nation pleaded for coach John Calipari to move Wheeler to the bench and Wallace to the point. The breaking point came in a January 10 home loss to South Carolina. Wallace played only eight first-half minutes due to back spasms, and the Gamecocks, a 20-point underdog, stunned the Wildcats.
Wheeler was sidelined with a shoulder injury for the next game, a road meeting against then No. 4 Tennessee. Wallace slid over to the point, and although he didn’t score, he ran the offense efficiently, finishing with six assists, three rebounds, and a couple of steals. The Wildcats won, 63-56, and they haven’t slowed down since, winning six times in seven games. (Wallace sat out last week’s victory at Ole Miss with a minor knee injury.)
Wallace has scored in double figures in each of his last five games. In the lone loss, he filled up the stat sheet against Kansas: 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, five steals, and a block. He was even better in a 72-67 win over Florida on Saturday night, with a team-high 20 points (on seven-of-10 shooting), three blocks, and a steal. But the numbers only begin to tell the story.
He scored a dozen points in the last 10 minutes and seven of the Wildcats’ last nine points: a three-pointer that just beat the shot clock, a driving layup on which he avoided the outstretched arm of Florida shot-blocker Colin Castleton, and the two free throws that iced it.
When it was over, Calipari offered this.
Griffen, meanwhile, has been on a steady climb. He set foot on the Alabama campus as a top-50 national recruit but only the third-highest-rated freshman on the roster. He is typically the second or third guy off the bench for the third-ranked team in the country (remember when Alabama was a football school?) yet he has continued to give coach Nate Oats reasons to play him more. Oats has repeatedly said he needs to find his freshman more minutes.
After enduring a mini shooting slump, Griffen jump-started the offense with a three-pointer in a win at Missouri (thanks, kid!) and made two other shots from deep, then scored five consecutive points to, at long last, put the struggling Tide ahead midway through the second half of a three-point win over Mississippi State.
Oats’ system is built around hoisting three-pointers and getting shots at the rim, which explains why Griffen is such a perfect fit for the offense. Against Vanderbilt, he took the ball coast to coast for a layup, then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and threw down a dunk. He has scored in double figures in each of the last three games while making nine of 15 three-pointers. He had the best game of his young career in a close win at LSU on Saturday, scoring a team-high 14 points on the strength of four-of-five shooting from deep. Two of those makes came in the second half, when LSU was hanging around. He chipped in a pair of rebounds and made a couple of big plays on the defensive end. He did all that in a mere 16 minutes.
When it was over, Oats offered this. (Stick around for the end of the video.) What freshman dying for playing time does that?
It has been a joy to watch this all unfold. Eerie as it might seem, these two kids look largely like the same players we watched last season in the Purple Pit. Smooth. Never fazed. Cason seamlessly looking to get his teammates involved while being a menace on the other end of the floor. Rylan at the ready, hands out in anticipation of the pass that will end with another three-point splash. They may be on rival teams now, but they are still like brothers. When you’ve played together going back to middle school, those bonds aren’t easily broken.
A small group of us RHS alums are on a text chain, and as the college basketball season tipped off, it was dominated by Wallace’s play. Now Griffen, too, is catching everybody’s eye while winning over the hearts of Alabama fans. (He also got the better of Cason in their head-to-head meeting, a 26-point Alabama win in which Rylan outscored Cason, 6-2. The two even guarded each other for a stretch in the second half.)
Wallace will undoubtedly be a one-and-done player. His name is popping up in every NBA mock draft as a lottery selection. Griffen will return for another season and will most certainly earn more minutes after a few of his more celebrated teammates depart. But that’s for later. For now, we RHS grads are content to marvel at the exploits of a couple of fellow Eagles. We will always be able to say that we knew them when.
“Our days of paying $3 to watch them in person are over,” Dave Goscin typed the other night.
It was money well spent, Dave. Very well spent.