Mount St. Mary’s basketball coach Jamion Christian knows this all too well: Today’s college basketball climate is the equivalent to a prolonged roller coaster ride, a trek filled with adrenalized upswings and sudden twists and turns.
This past March, Christian and the Mount completed the most accoladed season in recent memory, winning the Northeast Conference tournament and regular season title in a 20-16 season (14-4 conference) highlighted with a staple win against George Mason and an admirable effort versus No. 1 Villanova.
Every starter was set to return and only two players were expected for departure. Two weeks into the 2017-18 season, and only one player who saw minutes last year in a Mountaineer uniform — 6-foot-10 center Ryan Gomes — is fully healthy.
Energetic 5-5 point guard Junior Robinson (33.3 minutes, 14.1 points, 2.9 assists a game in 2016-17) has been out the past two months with a hairline fracture and bone bruise in his left knee. Three-year player and starting forward Chris Wray (29.5 minutes, 7.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.5 blocks a game in 2016-17) is nursing a broken right wrist suffered before the fourth of July. Donald Carey (16.0 points, 4.0 assists a game as a senior in 2016-17), a 6-5 true freshman point guard expected to complement Robinson in the backcourt, is a little over a month into recovery from a torn meniscus.
Greg Alexander (26 minutes, 7.7 points a game in 2016-17), last year’s sixth man, is nursing a nasty ankle sprain and is just getting back into the swing of things.
For Christian, the predicament isn’t at the top of his worries, and the coach probably wouldn’t call it a predicament at all since it gives his 11 freshmen (eight true, three redshirt) more opportunities to grow.
“It’s a good problem to have because we’re getting the younger guys a lot of reps. Normally, we’re not able to do that,” Christian said. “I feel really good about where we are. … It’s an opportunity for us to build our roster. Guys are getting repetitions right now they wouldn’t normally have. I think that really helps us. I mean, we’re going to play a lot of guys anyway.”
Christian has repeatedly stated his plans for a nine- or 10-deep rotation this winter. This, in some cases, helps iron out the kinks and draw the line between players who are and aren’t ready to help them win in the now — since two or three redshirts need to happen before the season gets too deep.[Despite roster turnover, Mount St. Mary’s open preseason practice buzzing with optimism]
Robinson, the unquestioned leader for the Mount this season, was actually cleared to play on Friday, but suffered a setback when he felt discomfort in his knee attempting a routine fastbreak layup. The point guard is set for a doctor’s visit on Monday.
“It’s rough. It’s hard to sit here, honestly, and watch your teammates play, because you want to be out there playing with them,” Robinson said. “It’s hard for all of us. But at the same time, they’re gonna need us at the end of the season. … We just have to take our time and still be positive and help the other guys the get better.”
Wray, on the other hand, is hoping to be cleared this Thursday, Oct. 19. The senior forward’s injury is the least concerning of the four, since he’s been able to maintain most of his endurance throughout the process and the injury is on his non-shooting hand. It’s also worth noting he’s lost five pounds since the setback because of the inability to lift weights with his right arm.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Wray said after practice Saturday night. “Being here long enough, I know the system, I know where I need to be, what I need to do. I think it’s good now to know that this is a totally different team. It’s a different team every year regardless of who’s coming back. … I feel like it is easier for me to see it instead of just jumping right into it.”
Alexander, who is expected to start at the three this year, is progressing nicely from his ankle sprain and practiced without any hindrances on Saturday.
Carey, like Robinson, has a doctor’s visit on Monday, but is roughly three weeks away from a return to the court — right around the Mount’s scrimmage against Division III Hood on Saturday, Nov. 4.
Though the season is less than a month away, the Mount is already razor thin at the lead guard position. Elijah Long is long gone, and Robinson and Carey aren’t guaranteed a return for opening night. There’s only one healthy scholarship point guard on the roster in 6-1 freshman James West IV and walk-on Brandon Leftwich, a redshirt freshman, is around for stability.
Luckily for Christian and company, they have more time than ever to develop their incredibly young roster, and on the biggest of stages to do so with non-conference games at Marquette (Nov. 10), Notre Dame (Nov. 12) and Georgetown (Nov. 14) to start the season.
“The good thing is, when you’ve been apart of our program for four years, you have a real understanding of what it takes to win. The guys are living with a huge sense of purpose, which is great,” Christian said. “It all starts with your seniors, and we have a great group of seniors here who understand what it takes.
“We have a great medical staff here. We have a great program for getting guys back into our program. It’s a long season. We want to be as cautionary as we can at the beginning.”