Photo by David Chamberlain / MTSU Sidelines
One of the more essential qualities that a team needs to have in order to withstand the grueling process of the college basketball season is depth. The most successful teams in the history of the sport have made late tournament runs in March because of their flexibility and luxury of being able to bring guys off the bench.
Teams need a bench that can provide valuable minutes and fill certain roles within the offensive and defensive system while the starters are resting.
Whether it be due to fatigue, foul trouble or even injuries, the starting unit for any college basketball team needs players who can step into the middle of the game without skipping a beat.
For the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, the window of opportunity for the second unit has opened early this season and a couple of players have certainly answered the call.
Through the first five games of the season, the Middle Tennessee reserves have outscored their opponent’s bench unit in all five of those contests. When it comes to the production that some of these players provide, back-up center Karl Gamble ranks third on the team in PER (player efficiency rating) with a 22.2 rating, while guard David Simmons ranks fourth with a rating of 21.
“Obviously, (Simmons) has been really good off the bench,” said head coach Kermit Davis. “In the games (Gamble) didn’t start, he’s given us a big lift (off the bench).”
Davis was especially impressed with the recent developments of Gamble and how he’s been able to provide increased production in rebounding.
“(Gamble) leads our team in rebounds per minute, getting a rebound every 3.18 minutes,” Davis said. “Sometimes you can be misled by stats, but his production per minutes played is really good and he shoots a great percentage from the field.”
Simmons has also earned praised, mainly for being a “jack of all trades.”
“He gets to the free throw line a lot, and he can guard (every position). He’s rebounding the ball at a high level and he can really drive the ball (to the goal),” Davis said. “He also leads our team in assist-to-turnover ratio (11 assists to two turnovers), so he’s really done well.”
Simmons, a junior college transfer from Tallahassee Community College, is getting his first glimpse of Division I college basketball and is certainly making the most of his opportunity.
He has provided an incredible spark off the bench with his defensive energy and intensity, as well as with his ability to take care of the ball and be efficient on the offensive end. He’s currently shooting at a clip of 57.9 percent and scoring seven points per game.
“I feel like I bring a lot of court awareness and energy to our team,” Simmons said.
The lack of experience has not held him back, rather he sees it as an opportunity to get better and provide even more help off the pine.
“I need to get more experienced with the game and become more well-acquainted with the system,” Simmons said. “I think I’ll be fine.”
The production of Gamble and Simmons has been a crucial boost in propelling the Blue Raiders to their 4-1 start, but arguably the most important bench player is also the most experienced member of the unit.
Junior guard Antwain Johnson played in all 36 games for Middle Tennessee last season, and logged 13.2 minutes per game off the bench. Johnson experienced growth as a player throughout the season and ended his 2016-17 campaign on a high note, as he scored 19 points and tallied six assists off the bench in the Blue Raiders’ second round loss to Butler in the NCAA Tournament.
As for this season, Johnson has logged the most minutes of all of the reserves at 19.2 minutes per game. He’s the leading scorer off the bench with 7.8 points per game and is nearly automatic from the free throw line. This is evidenced by an exceptional 92.9 percent clip from the charity stripe.
Along with scoring, Johnson sees his role as someone who contributes production to multiple facets of the game.
“My role is to come in and bring energy and scoring, as well as to guard and rebound at a high level,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, the big-game experience he had last season leaves him an added responsibility to be a leader to the rest of the reserves who lack that type of experience.
“Playing a lot last year helped me realize what coach Davis wants and looks for,” Johnson said. “That gives me a way to be an example for the other guys so they can see how to go out and play.”
Davis also understands the importance of Johnson’s role and what he can contribute, but he would like to see him step up and do more.
“(Johnson) hasn’t gotten himself going like we know he can,” Davis said. “He’s tried to rely too much on getting going from three-point range. He drives the ball just as athletically as anyone in college basketball and that’s really what he has to get back to.”
Johnson has certainly struggled from the three-point line this year, as he is shooting only 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. If he is able to get some of those three-point shots to fall and plays more to his strengths, he can set himself up as a solid candidate for the Conference-USA Sixth Man of the Year Award.
The production of Johnson, Gamble and Simmons has been the big boost that the Blue Raiders needed to help get them to a 4-1 start. Even though the trio has seen their roles expand, Davis would like to see other bench players expand their roles as well.
This could potentially make them a team that utilizes the unique talents and skill sets of five or six different reserves throughout the game.
“James Hawthorne is certainly capable … he’s got a high energy level and attention to detail, as well as great toughness,” Davis said. “(Hawthorne’s) starting to shoot the ball little bit better … Donovan Sims has come up and taken advantage of the minutes he’s played and has become a critical part of our team.”
The MTSU men’s basketball team has been known for their exceptional talent in the last few years and have been comparable to many great programs throughout college basketball when it comes to skill and preparation. The attention to detail and willingness to adequately prepare for every opponent is still there. What could separate this Blue Raider team from years past could be the ability to get big-time production from their reserves and create line-up flexibility that causes match-up nightmares for their opponents.
Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.
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