Over the last five years, no team in the country has been better at rebounding than the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Under the guidance of head coach Tom Moore, the Bobcats have finished among the top two teams in the country in rebounds per game every year this decade. Each of the last three years, they have led the nation in the category.
When sophomore forward Chaise Daniels went down with a right knee injury last weekend during Quinnipiac’s game against Niagara, the Bobcats’ hopes of four-peating in that category took a major hit. Despite his young age, Daniels has been leaned on as the primary presence in Quinnipiac’s frontcourt on both ends of the floor.
Through six games, Daniels averaged 10.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 3.0 blocks per game. The sophomore was poised for a breakout season, despite Moore’s admission that Daniels was being relied on more than he would like.
“If you go back, only Justin Rutty was really needed in the first game of his sophomore year,” Moore said after Daniels posted a career high 20 points and 12 rebounds against Holy Cross earlier this season. “Ousmane [Drame] and Ike [Azotam] never had that pressure first day sophomore year because they always had older guys over them. What we’re asking of Chaise right now is borderline unfair. It’s like what the high majors usually ask from guys.”
Early in the first half of Quinnipiac’s opening game of MAAC competition at Niagara, Daniels went down hard while attempting to draw a charge. He was helped off the court, finishing the game with four points in just five minutes of play. Results of an MRI showed no tear to his ACL, but recovery time was set at 4-6 weeks.
“I was hoping it was nothing serious,” freshman forward Abdulai Bundu said of Daniels’ injury. “Usually Chaise goes down like that and gets right back up because he’s a really tough dude, one of the toughest players we have on this team. Chaise was our energy spark. When he’s out, you can feel him missing on the court. He talks, he’s the voice, he’s got the passion and aggression, everything you look for in a player.”
“He was very excited when he found out he was coming back this season,” forward Donovan Smith said of Daniels’ reaction to his MRI. “I was excited for him. I wanted him to get back on the court so we could be the dynamic duo I know we can be.”
In Daniels’ absence, players like Bundu and Smith will be relied upon to eat up extra minutes. Bundu has shown tremendous raw physical ability in limited playing time, leading teammate Will Simonton to call him “a freak of nature.” Despite a short stat line (averaging 3.3 ppg and 3.8 rpg this year), Bundu has increased those numbers since Daniels’ injury. Over the last three games Bundu is averaging 4.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg, and pulled down a career high nine boards Sunday against Boston University.
“I’ve been trying to be more aggressive offensively,” Bundu said of his extra playing time. “As a freshman I just want to be able to take those minutes, learn every time I’m on the court, and be ready to get back on the floor better than last time.”
Perhaps no forward will be leaned upon more heavily over the next few weeks than Smith. The junior college transfer posted 14 points Sunday against BU and has averaged 10.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, and 2.6 bpg over the last three contests. Additionally, Smith posted a career high 18 points in the game at Niagara during which Daniels was injured.
“We’ve got this thing called the closed fist theory,” Smith said. “When we don’t have a closed fist, we’re not going to win games. When we come close together, have a closed fist, and we’re a tight family, we win games.”
Adding more worry to the Bobcats’ frontcourt situation is a potential injury to Samuel Dingba. The sophomore left Sunday’s game after just nine minutes following a potential head injury sustained while breaking up a pass under the basket. Dingba walked to the locker room under his own power, but was not cleared to return to the court.
Any potential injury to Dingba, who missed 12 games last season with a leg injury, would heap added pressure on Simonton, the final line of defense for the Bobcats. Simonton, a graduate transfer from Illinois-Chicago, joined Quinnipiac averaging just 1.8 ppg and 1.9 rpg.
“I know how physical the game is,” Simonton said. “I just try to come in and do some small things that can help us win. I’m capable, I’m a fifth year senior. It’s why they recruited me; to come in here for situations like this. Now that he [Chaise] is down, me and Donovan have to pull up the slack. There’s no other way around it. If we don’t, we’re not going to win games.”
“Right now it’s a little bit of a shock to Donovan and Will’s systems, the amount of minutes we have to play them,” Moore said. “I think they’ve done an admiral job stepping up the last three games.”
For now, the Bobcats’ frontcourt has held their own in the absence of Daniels, but tough tests sit right around the corner. Quinnipiac makes the cross country trip to play Oregon State next Monday. Although the Bobcats got the better of Oregon State in Hamden last year, the Beavers have started the season strong and dispatched MAAC favorite Iona by 20 points earlier this year.
Quinnipiac wraps up their non-conference schedule at Maine on December 29 before resuming MAAC play by hosting Iona on January 2. Daniels is projected for a mid-January return, and could suit up for the Bobcats’ January 17 game against Canisius.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.