Young Iowa guards Fredrick, Toussaint eager to prove themselves on college basketball's biggest stage

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — College basketball in March can be one defining moment for any guard looking to label himself a winner.

It is when reputations are made.

Iowa’s CJ Fredrick and Joe Toussaint were excited to climb onto the big stage for the first time in March 2020, pacing in their Indianapolis hotel rooms while waiting to get on the bus that would take them to the bright lights of the Big Ten Conference tournament.

The call they were dreading came shortly before departure. The postseason was gone before it started for the Hawkeyes. The COVID-19 pandemic got the final word in 2019-20.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I was mad,” said Toussaint, a freshman starting point guard for a 21-11 Iowa team he felt was coming off its best week of practices of the winter.

“It wasn’t a good 48 hours for anybody,” Fredrick concurred.

Looking back:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

Fredrick, Iowa’s starting shooting guard, stood forlornly in the hotel lobby after the announcement, consoled by parents Chuck and Laura. He said he found perspective by thinking about seniors Ryan Kriener, Riley Till and Bakari Evelyn seeing their Hawkeye careers come to an abrupt end.

Iowa backup point guard Joe Toussaint drives for a basket against Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Toussaint, a sophomore, is finally getting his first taste of the college postseason this week, and he said he is unlikely to sleep while he imagines what it will take for him to help the Hawkeyes be successful in Indianapolis.

Fredrick and Toussaint knew they’d be back. That hasn’t made the wait easy.

“It’s been a looooong time,” Toussaint told the Register on Wednesday, stretching the word out to indicate his impatience.

“But I’ve got the mindset since I stepped foot on the campus, I’m going to be the best version of me I can be. I’m going to play to the best of my ability. I’m going to do things to win for the team. March is definitely a month where it can change your life around. I’m just ready to produce.”

The No. 6 Hawkeyes have positioned themselves for a pair of March tournament runs after a 20-7 regular season that has them as a 3 seed in the Big Ten event and a likely 2 seed in the NCAAs. They won’t even have to leave Indianapolis after arriving Wednesday toting four weeks' worth of clothing.

Toussaint, who is backing up senior Jordan Bohannon this season, predicted he wouldn’t sleep much in the 48 hours leading up to Iowa’s 8 p.m. tipoff Friday. But he never does before big games, he said. He spends the time meditating, visualizing the high-profile competition to come.

Iowa awaits Wisconsin (the 6 seed) in its Big Ten tournament opener, to be broadcast on Big Ten Network. Iowa swept the Badgers during the .

Fredrick and Toussaint showed their mettle in March in high school. They believe that experience was valuable even in a college setting because they’ve experienced the magnifying glass that comes when championships are on the line, particularly for guards who have the basketball in their hands more frequently.

Fredrick led Covington Catholic, a small school south of Cincinnati, to a Kentucky state title as a senior. That state throws all of its high schools into a single class and brings the survivors to Lexington’s Rupp Arena for a winner-take-all frenzy. Fredrick didn’t flinch in that atmosphere, scoring 111 points on 63% shooting in four games, then cutting down the same nets he had just singed.

Iowa guard CJ Fredrick shows off his perfect shooting form in a game against Penn State last month. Fredrick won a Kentucky state championship while in high school, and looks forward to testing himself under the big lights of March again for the sixth-ranked Hawkeyes.

“My high school team was really connected,” Fredrick noted Tuesday. “That’s one of the reasons we were able to make a huge run there. And I see a lot of the same thing in this team now. We’re really connected and we’re ready to embrace the moment.”

Fredrick missed 5½ games this season while dealing with injuries to his right foot. But he still was an honorable mention all-conference selection by the Big Ten coaches, a sign of the respect he has earned in his first two seasons. He’s a steady ball-handler, a dangerous shooter and an important perimeter defender for Iowa.

Those are skills that are needed this month more than any, Toussaint believes. He agreed with the notion that it is guard play that often separates the great teams from the also-rans this time of year, expanding on that notion by saying:

“Especially having a big man like Luka Garza, you just have to be sharp getting him the ball. Knowing when you need to shoot. Knowing when you need to pass. Knowing when you need to penetrate. Being great on defense every single possession. It falls on the guards, where our defense begins, from the beginning to the end. They’re going to feed off our energy.”

Garza is Iowa’s all-American center and two-time winner of Big Ten player of the year. He is averaging 24 points a game and commanding double-teams. Junior wing player Joe Wieskamp is second on the team at 15 points a game, although his playing status is unknown after suffering a right ankle sprain in Sunday’s home win over Wisconsin. Bohannon is a fifth-year senior who has a school-record 625 career assists but also the moxie to take over a game late from the 3-point arc or the free-throw line.

Profile:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

Those are Iowa’s top options. But no team wins in March without role players on the rise.

Toussaint has seen his playing time increase recently, averaging 14 minutes per game in Iowa’s current three-game winning streak, with 13 assists against three turnovers. He’s not the leader on this team yet that he was as a sophomore at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, New York. He led his team to a City League championship that season, an ultra-competitive tournament in America’s largest city.

Toussaint said he quickly learned how different playoff basketball is as compared to regular-season contests.

“Every possession counts, and you’ve got to play smart. There’s no time for ‘My bads,’ ‘My faults,’ or ‘I missed this; I’ll get it next time.’ Because you never know, there might not be a next time until next year. You’ve got to be mentally sharp and focused,” Toussaint said.

Iowa's C.J. Fredrick, left, dribbles past Ohio State's Justin Ahrens during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

That’s what was keeping Toussaint up at night this week. Like Fredrick, he is largely unknown among college basketball observers nationally. What he does in March could shape that narrative. Helping Iowa win tournament games is the best way to be remembered positively.

“Once I get on the court, I’ve got to make sure people know I’m on the court. I’m here. My teammates. The other teams. The audience,” Toussaint said.

“At any given moment, it could be my time. And I’m sure I’m ready for it. I’m just here to win.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.