What was once a strength has suddenly turned into a weakness?
It certainly seems that way for Sacred Heart, whose once impressive frontcourt depth has worn dangerously thin in recent weeks.
“We’ve been banged up a little bit,” Latina said at NEC Social Media Day on Tuesday when accessing his team’s health this preseason.
The unforeseen erosion of frontcourt depth began with De’von Barnett, who underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder back in June. His return to the season remains highly unlikely – Latina is expected to redshirt the junior forward, preserving his remaining two years of eligibility.
One player expected to directly benefit from Barnett’s absence is Matej Buovac, a 6-7 New Mexico State transfer, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Unfortunately for Buovac, a fall in practice earlier this month left the stretch forward with a small fracture in his arm. Despite the fracture, Latina is hopeful Buovac will be healed and ready for the Pioneers’ season opener at the Connecticut 6 versus former in-state rival Quinnipiac.
Furthermore, two players expecting to fight for backup minutes at the five, Cole Walton and Filip Nowicki, haven’t practiced in a few weeks due to injuries.
Latina is optimistic that Nowicki, who’s currently hampered with a bad shoulder, will work his way back into practice by the end of the week, and eventually provide critical insurance behind seniors Tevin Falzon and Jordan Allen. The sophomore had an up-and-down rookie campaign, but did show promise in limited time, averaging 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game while shooting 55.1% from the floor.
“Filip will have a role,” Latina said of the 6-10, 260 pound center. “He’s a unique sized player in this league. With our perimeter play, which we think is a strength of ours, he’s a terrific screener.”
Walton, on the other hand, has struggled mightily with injuries throughout his Sacred Heart career. His return to the practice floor is at least a week away, possibly two. The junior only played in six games last season, due to ineffectiveness and poor health.
The rash of injuries has unexpectedly put the onus on freshman Jermaine Ukaegbu to step up.
“We’ve been real pleased with Jermaine,” Latina said of the 6-5 forward, who he called the most athletic player on the Pioneers’ roster. “He does athletic things that are special, now he has to do that a little more often. He’s going to get some opportunity in our first exhibition (versus Bridgeport), because of the injuries.”
The offensively raw Ukaegbu will need some time to adapt to the speed of Division I basketball, but given the current state of Sacred Heart’s frontcourt, there’s little time to bring him along slowly. Given his current skill set, Ukaegbu expects to see minutes at both the three and four in the early going.
The Pioneers were selected seventh in the NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll, after winning 15 games and finishing tied for fifth in the conference last season.