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Overcoming the I-word
|Tufts lost Vincent Pace one minute into the NCAA tournament last season. Now the Jumbos have him back but are dealing with an injury to Preseason All-American Tom Palleschi
File photo by Evan Sayles, The Tufts Daily
It’s the bogeyman of any basketball season, the one thing that’s always looming.
They can strike without warning and throw a wrench into even the most well-made plans. Every team deals with it every season to some extent, but once in a while injury removes key players from the floor in big moments or for long stretches of time and forces teams – players and coaches – to adapt.
Last spring, Vincent Pace scored 33 points for Tufts in a NESCAC tournament loss to Amherst. In the next game, the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against Southern Vermont, the boxscore records one missed shot in not even a minute of play. “It was pretty tough,” says Pace, “But [my teammates] were winning games and making a run. Of course you want to be out there, but it was still exciting.”
It was also valuable experience for Pace and Tufts. This season, their senior center, Tom Palleschi, went down with injury on January 20 and, while he is working hard to get back for the post-season, the Jumbos had to adjust without one of their captains and a dominant inside presence. “Rehab is a grind,” says Pace, “We both had knee injuries, so I’ve been through the process and I know how tough it is, we’re keeping his head up, helping him keep at it.”
The Jumbos lost half of their first six games without Palleschi, but rebounded to beat Williams by 25 in the last regular season game and clinch top spot in the NESCAC playoffs. Responding to the loss of key players on the floor is difficult, but we rarely see how difficult it is to navigate the off-court consequences of injury.
“Tom is the heart and soul of our team,” says Pace, “There was a pretty big shock factor that he wasn’t going to be out there with us.”
Tufts isn't the only team trying to forge ahead without a Preseason All-American. North Central (Ill.) has played without Connor Raridon for much of the season, as has Chapman without Cam Haslam. North Park lost Juwan Henry for five games and he played sparingly in his return on Wednesday night.
UW-River Falls' women's coach Cindy Holbrook understands. She lost senior point guard Brynn Liljander just five games into the season.
“The most costly thing, that I didn’t even realize at the time, was how much we’d miss Brynn’s fire. She brings the focus and competitiveness to practice every day and not having that has really made it difficult this season.”
I asked coaches a lot about the tactical adjustments a team must make to compensate for players missing from the floor, but that sort of problem is what a coach does -- they understand how to coach. The more difficult thing seems to be the mental and relational adjustments. Similar to the way a team is different every year because of graduating seniors, the chemistry and teamwork often have to be re-negotiated after an injury to find the right balance.
“You win differently when guys are missing,” says Babson men’s coach Stephen Brennan, “Because everyone has a specific skill set, you have to understand you can do different things without them. We run the same offense, but when you don’t have someone like Joey [Flannery] taking all the defensive attention, it does change how you play quite a bit.”
Sometimes you don’t win at all. Holbrook admitted, “It’s just such a difficult balance, getting your team to focus forward, to recognize that we can still do this – and doing it in a way that’s helpful for both the kid that’s injured and the team is a really tough line to find.”
River Falls has struggled without Liljander. They are not going to have the season they expected in November. It seems a little strange to say the same thing about a 21-7 season, which the Salisbury men achieved last year without their senior big man, Wyatt Smith. Despite the success, the way they lost some important games makes it easy to wonder “what if?”
“Those tough losses were against teams with a lot of size and I really felt like I could’ve made an impact,” says Smith, “But at the same time you never know – you might have an off game that night, too. You have to be positive and optimistic and look forward.”
Smith’s absence put a lot more weight on the shoulders of underclassmen, like Gordon Jeter and Justin Witmer, who have been catalysts for Salisbury’s success this year, along with a rejuvenated Smith.
Head Coach Andy Sachs says, “Witmer has had such a great year for us. There is stuff you don’t even see that he’s done that he didn’t do the year before. He’s second in deflections. He leads the team in assists. He hits big shots. He’s had a great year."
You hope players will improve year to year without having to play extra minutes due to injury and there is often no way to really measure what effect it has, but there are plenty of examples where those extra minutes do translate to team success.
St. Thomas is the defending national champion, although they only returned one starter and two guys who saw significant minutes last season. The Tommies took three losses before Christmas and there were some real questions about their ability to extend an impressive streak of regular season conference titles. So it was bad news when senior point guard Grant Shaeffer missed three key conference road games to start January.
Coach John Tauer says, “We didn’t expect anybody to be Grant Shaeffer, but just be themselves or maybe just a little bit better version than normal.” That they did; junior guard John Veil stepped into the point against Bethel and scored 27 with 12 assists. Tauer called it “one of the more impressive stat lines we’ve ever had from a guard in a big game.”
Schaeffer added, “At the end of the season we’ll look back at that three game stretch as invaluable for our growth and development.” What’s for certain is just how key those games were. St. Thomas must win its final matchup with Concordia-Morehead Saturday to keep that conference title streak alive. With a deeper MIAC, the experience of those games will be key to getting back to the NCAA Tournament to defend their title.
Babson, our current No. 1 ranked men’s team, learned some of those same lessons last year.
Babson guard Joey Flannery has been one of the best players in the country from almost the moment he stepped on campus. The Beavers were a Final Four team in 2014-15 when Flannery was a sophomore and there was a good chance they’d be back the next year. Flannery injured his ankle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He gutted out that game, but ended up sitting for the second round game against host Susquehanna. Babson won and Flannery returned for the Sweet Sixteen loss to Amherst, but the injury certainly limited his range and ability.
Now a senior, Flannery says “When you’re so competitive it’s tough to admit that you’re injured. You just want to be on the court. You have to have faith in your teammates. We’re an extremely close group of guys and everybody works their ass off in practice. You just have to trust, even if the next guy up isn’t as good as the guy he’s replacing, he’s still going to give everything he’s got. We had different guys step up in big moments and that helps everyone’s confidence.”
That confidence has been evident this season as well. Flannery missed one game in December and fellow starters Charlie Rice and Sam Bohmiller have missed time as well, but Babson has had experience winning shorthanded and they’ve worked hard over many years of success to become the kind of team that overcomes adversity.
Head coach Brennan put it well, “You can’t ask anybody to be Joey Flannery, but we all need to do what we do. No one has to be special other than in their effort. Our team believes they can win no matter who’s on the floor.”
Any coach will tell you, this is the key to overcoming injury, but the real question is if and when and who and how a team might arrive there. That is what’s so great about the post-season: we get to find out those answers, on the court, often in the most spectacular ways. Stay tuned.
Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
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