It was a stop and go season for CJ, but he made quite an impression when he was able to get onto the floor.
Everybody and his mom has opinions on Travis Steele, but everyone but the most ardent haters has to agree that he was left a big task in rebuilding a roster gutted by some vital departures and a couple of years of weak recruiting. Steele showed a knack for patching holes through the transfer market, but building a roster that’s more than just a Ship of Theseus of replacement parts every year requires good classes of incoming freshmen. This year’s group was supposed to be just that, and a good portion of the optimism was based on the potential of big wing CJ Wilcher.
It’s hard to imagine a worse way to start a season than not participating in it, and that’s exactly what covid contact tracing subjected CJ to. While Xavier was tuning up with buy games against low-majors, CJ was making sure not to exhale on anyone. By the time he made it onto the floor, mid-major competition had arrived in the form of UC. His first Shootout was also his first game, and it saw him post an unspectacular line of 0/0/0 in 3 minutes of play. By the time the calendar turned, he had a total of 4 points to his name in 5 games.
January and February followed a single theme for CJ in that he posted solid offensive numbers in limited time, much to Mrs. Wilcher’s chagrin on Twitter. He stuck two big threes in a one-point win over Providence in which his performance was overshadowed by that of another freshman. He consistently got about 8 minutes a game through those 2 months, getting up 3-4 shots, scoring efficiently, and not getting super consistent run.
Off the shoulders of that, he showed a lot of potential in March. He averaged 24 minutes in 3 games and even got his first collegiate start. In that game – against Marquette – I think we got a glimpse of how Steele saw Wilcher’s future, as he played the four and did an admirable job of pushing Marquette big man Dawson Garcia out of the paint. He then dropped 7 on 3-8 shooting in his final game of the season. Next time he suits up, it will be in Nebraska Cornhusker colors.
It’s tough to judge CJ’s performance entirely. He sat out the part of the year in which freshmen can shake off the jitters and harvest some easy buckets. He improved as the year went on, posting an ORtg of 101.6 on the season and 110 even in conference play. Almost all of his value was derived from his 51.1% EFG% (55.7% in conference play).
Other than shooting, though, he didn’t contribute a whole ton on offense. His assist rate of 5.7% on the season led only that of Bryan Griffin, and his offensive rebounding was in the “solid for a guard” range at 5.2%. He kept turnovers down and shot well; for a freshman in his position, that’s a solid output.
CJ performed above his pay grade (if you will) against bigger men, using his strength and aggression to his work early and keep them out of the paint. His work on Dawson Garcia, who had 6″ and 40 pounds on him, was a master class. Unfortunately, most of the time he was assigned to a 3 instead of a 4 or a 5, and guys he couldn’t body quickly were occasionally able to expose him if he got left on an island. He was solid in the passing lanes and didn’t block shots like Noted Rim Protector Dwon Odom. Defense is often the toughest adjustment for a freshman to make, and Wilcher was illustrative of that at times.
What you think of Wilcher is probably based on what you think the real CJ was, specifically how much of the evaluation you think should be dictated by his last three games. I think he flashed a ton of potential, and frankly his expressive nature on the court made him a lot of fun to watch. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as a building block of the team for years to come.
I think what it came down to was his assessment of his position versus Coach Steele’s (this is mostly speculation based on observations, so don’t base your worldview on it). I think Steele saw him as a 3/4 who, at his best, could use his thick frame to hold his own defensively while using his skill set to be a matchup nightmare on the other end. I think CJ sees himself as a 2/3 who can knock down shots and body smaller guards at both ends. Ultimately, something led CJ to transfer to Nebraska, where I wish him all the success in the world.