34 Previews in 34 Days: Mount St. Mary’s

Mount St. Mary’s

Outlook: Once considered the next dynasty in the NEC, Mount St. Mary’s must pick up the pieces after three of five starters were poached by college basketball’s elite. With turnover rampant across the league, however, a young roster still has the veteran presence to reasonably defend their NEC title.

Last Year: 20-16 overall, 14-4 (1st in NEC)

Who’s in: Johan Antonio (G); Bobby Planitus (G/F); James West IV (G); Donald Carey (G); Ace Stallings (G); Omar Habwe (F); Nana Opoku (F); Jack Vukelich (PF)

Who’s out: Elijah Long (G); Miles Wilson (G/F); Mawdo Sallah (PF); Randy Miller (G); Charles Glover (G); Will Miller (F); Khalid Nwandu (G)

Key Non-Conference games: at Ohio (11/24/17); vs. Loyola MD (12/02/17)

To the casual fan, everything went right for Mount St. Mary’s from late December onward during the 2016-17 season. The team stayed healthy. Several players broke out and became stars or key role players. The Mountaineers developed the necessary moxie to pull out numerous tight games, some of which in thrilling fashion thanks to the multifaceted Chris Wray.

In his fifth year, Jamion Christian had his finest NEC season thanks to a combination of sound recruiting, solid in-game coaching and, of course, good fortune. With the team’s top six scorers returning, the upside for an exciting Mount roster was enormous – one that could’ve conceivably pushed the conference off the dreaded 16-seed line in the NCAA tournament.

As it turned out, that was all a pipe dream. Long, Wilson and Sallah left the program for the brighter lights. Now, instead of reloading with veterans, Christian and his staff used the mass exodus as an opportunity to load up the program with intriguing freshmen – nine scholarship rookies to be exact.

Christian can spin the unprecedented influx of youth as a positive, but in reality the upcoming season presents the most challenging situation of the young coach’s career. Especially when you factor in the untimely preseason injuries, which Kyle McFadden recently reported on Maryland Sports Access. With Junior Robinson, Chris Wray and Greg Alexander on the mend – the latter two should make it to the season’s opener – and freshman point guard Donald Carey recovering from a torn meniscus, the Mount’s prospects coming into November are currently muddled at best.

As any NEC coach will attest to, it’s all about being healthy/ready for the conference season and surely Christian will follow this mindset. With Robinson and the 6-5 Carey, the Mount’s two expected primary ball handlers, unlikely to be ready for early November action, the Mount will turn to freshman James West IV to facilitate the point. The rookie has been described as a scoring guard (think Julian Norfleet) that is typically coveted to run a Mount Mayhem system. But clearly the plan wasn’t to throw him into the fire right away. 

Before digging deeper into the roster, allow me to predict the Mount’s depth chart. The players in italics are unfortunately working their way back to full health:

  • PG: West, Carey
  • G: Robinson, Antonio
  • G: Alexander, Planitus
  • F: Wray, Habwe
  • PF: Gomes, Vukelich
    Others: Stallings, Opoku, Inger (will be eligible second semester)

This offseason the Mount lost 55% of their scoring and 65% of their rebounding; therefore the preseason injuries aren’t coming at an ideal time. It has to be especially difficult when four of the supposed five starters all missed a significant chunk of the offseason at some point or another.

As one of the league’s best players, Robinson is most critical to this young roster. His wealth of experience – 98 career starts – is sorely needed in a backcourt that only has Alexander as the only other veteran. Given that the point guard suffered a setback and won’t be cleared to play until next week at the earliest, it’s nearly impossible to predict when the guard puts on the uniform. It’s conceivable, at least right at this moment, to not expect Robinson until December, or perhaps, once NEC play commences. Getting the diminutive guard to full strength has to be the utmost priority to Christian.

Alexander is an invaluable defensive swingman, who’ll camp out behind the 3-point line on the other side of the floor. As a junior, the 6-5 floor spacer took 201 of his 239 shot attempts from behind the arc, making a respectable 35.8% of them. It’s reasonable to expect an improvement, yet Alexander will likely need his point guard to put him in good positions to score. Last year, 93% of Alexander’s made 3s were assisted.

Elsewhere in the backcourt, 6-5 red-shirt freshman Johan Antonio has been described as “a player who could’ve started for the team last season.” That’s high praise considering the program’s deep backcourt, but nevertheless the year off likely helped the Australian’s development. He’ll be targeted as a 3-point shooter, but again, he’ll likely be reliant on having his teammates put him in favorable positions to score.

After Carey, West, Antonio and a few walk-on options at guard, the roster is ripe with plenty of sharpshooting wing types, albeit inexperienced wings, with freshman Bobby Planitus leading the group. The 6-8 forward has a guard’s mentality, and can dribble and shoot well enough to be considered one of the team’s better ball handlers. Adding strength will likely be a key for the rookie, as he’ll be tested against the physical rigors of Division I basketball.

Omar Habwe, a three/four type, has the unique skill to rebound prolifically and make outside shots. The 6-6 forward doesn’t have the size Christian typically covets from his power forwards on the recruiting trail, but a college ready body and seasoned shooting prowess could help the freshman find the court right away.

Vukelich, another red-shirt freshman, possesses similar skills as he has the ability to stretch the defense despite his 6-9 demeanor. He’ll likely back up Ryan Gomes, an intriguing sophomore who was blocked last year by the dynamic frontcourt of Wray and Sallah. Gomes is big and strong, and unconventional in that he’s a 6-10 center in a league that usually plays undersized bigs down low. Think Mike Aaman, but with a higher ceiling on the defensive end.

These are the underclassmen that are expected to fill a major void when the transfer epidemic infected the program last offseason. Can they step up? It’s anyone’s guess at this point, but to expect them to seamlessly pick up the pieces and emerge like Wilson did last season is, dare I say, very optimistic. For every Miles Wilson, there’s a Randy Miller.

More likely the roster will encounter a rough November full of guarentee games, have a couple of moments against similar mid-majors in December and try to be at full strength for January. Christian has never finished worse than fifth in the NEC regular season and with the trio of Robinson, Wray and Alexander, there’s certainly enough there to repeat that feat and get a home playoff game. But a return to the 14 conference wins is likely a top 5-10 percentile result and will require several freshmen to become household names and the team to maintain good health. Regarding the latter, the Mountaineers are already behind the eight ball.

For now, it’s safe to label the rebuilding on the fly Mountaineers as a second tier team within the conference. They have the upside of a top 4 finish, but also the downside of an inconsistent 2017-18 campaign with the program relying on so many freshmen. If Carey and Robinson aren’t back at full strength at some point, then sadly the downside may take hold in Christian’s sixth season.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote all ten NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s preview for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Reserve your copy of the college basketball “bible” here.