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A.J. Jurko
A.J. Jurko, the 2016-17 conference defensive player of the year, has helped MIT stay afloat with the loss of its top player.
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By Ryan Scott

It was the Friday before the 2017-18 season tipped off. Two stops down the Red Line in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard University, Ian Hinkley had just hit two free throws to bring the MIT men’s basketball within four points of a Crimson squad that is currently the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League tournament. Momentum was on the side of the Engineers in a game that counted in Harvard’s regular season record.

Coach Larry Anderson, the men of MIT basketball, and probably their NEWMAC foes, knew what MIT had, but that moment was when the rest of Division III woke up to the tremendous potential this squad was bringing into the season.

They lost that Harvard exhibition, but the Engineers opened the year 10-1, with an average scoring margin of 22 points. They had made the NCAA Tournament the year before, losing in the first round, but lost just one player and returned Bradley Jomard, an All-NEWMAC first team selection and conference Rookie of the Year who missed half his sophomore season due to injury.

When the new year hit, there was some question whether this team would be named among the legendary MIT teams of recent past. There were a rash of injuries – nothing too serious, but only two players on the entire roster have appeared in every game this season.

Says captain AJ Jurko, “We deal with the adversity as it comes to us. It’s not something you want to happen, but it’s something we prepare for.”

Regardless of preparation, injuries, especially multiple injuries, are difficult to overcome for a team that doesn’t often go deep into the bench.

“If you recall,” says Anderson, “we went to the Final Four playing just six players. We may not have as much quality depth as other teams, but one thing that gives us an advantage, when you’re playing your student-athletes 20 minutes a game and then all of a sudden you have to ramp it up and shorten the bench, they’re not used to playing 38, 40 minutes a game. We’re used to that. We’ve learned to balance how many minutes we play guys in games and limit what they do in practice.”

In what could have been the final straw, Jomard went down again with a serious injury towards the end of an overtime loss against Babson at the end of January. MIT finished the season 3-2 and not looking much like the squad that took Harvard to the wire.

“We can’t replace [Jomard] while he’s out,” says Anderson, “But collectively we thought we’d be able to distribute the load between people, because our offense has always been an equal opportunity offense. You can see each game, different people stepping up. We don’t think the next man up can fill Bradley’s shoes, but collectively we can each improve.”

They did improve, rallying to win the NEWMAC tournament and the automatic bid, which found them playing in the first round against Brockport at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. They shut down a strong offensive team in Brockport and then threw the hosts out of rhythm to survive the weekend and reach the Sweet Sixteen.

“We’re a much better team with [Jomard],” Anderson said. “When he went down this year, we knew we could be in big trouble, but we reverted back to last year when we were successful without him.” Cameron Korb added, “The level of competition always steps up when you make the tournament. We got off to a slow start, but adjusted to the level of competition.”

With Jomard’s injury coming so late in the year, it was a challenge to retrofit the offense and find the best role for every player to achieve team success. In the end, it was MIT’s strength – its defense – that provided the foundation for returning to form.

“Playing defense is a team effort,” says Jurko, “So it really helps when you know you can trust the guys behind you to back you up. When shots go in we look good, but when they’re not going it, we have to defend.” Adds Anderson, “We want to keep it close and give us a chance at the end to have some success.”

MIT is well built for that success. With both the reigning (Jurko) and newly named (Nacho Nwana) NEWMAC Defensive Players of the Year on board, it is tough to score against MIT. They held Brockport to just 36 percent shooting in the first half and Johns Hopkins to 34 percent overall, including 54 total points, 17 below the Bluejays’ season average.

It will be an entirely different test this weekend against Middlebury, who boasts a big, strong front line and a reputation for dominating the boards. Anderson notes, “[Middlebury is] one of the top teams in the country – not just team, but program – they’ve been there for a long time. We’re going to have our hands full; there’s no question about that. We’ve been playing [against bigger teams] the entire year, so we hope we can make some adjustments to handle that size.”

There is an additional glimmer of hope on the horizon. In Baltimore this weekend, MIT’s athletic training staff noted that Jomard is way ahead of his rehab schedule and while nothing is determined just yet, there’s a possibility that what was considered a season-ending injury, might be resolved in time for this important game in Ramapo on Friday.

Says Anderson, “We miss him and we’d love to have him back on the court. He’s been doing a tremendous job in therapy and working out. We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible.”

Jomard is not getting his hopes up, but remains a vital part of the team as the face the next challenge in their quest for a championship. “On the sidelines there are always things you can see better than from in the game,” Jomard said. “I try to stay in people’s ears and keep them accountable.”

“It’s nice to have Bradley as an assistant coach,” Anderson replies, “but that’s not what we brought him here for; we prefer to have him on the basketball court.”

Whether Jomard plays this weekend or not, the Engineers will be ready to go, committed on defense and working together to find that early season form against Middlebury this weekend.

Regardless of the outcome, MIT is just getting warmed up. The entire roster returns next season, but for now, the only question is whether they’ll be defending a title or contending for their first.

And if you don’t believe it’s possible, just ask Harvard.