Senior guard Jeremy Hazell quite possibly could have been playing the best basketball of his career.
He had been shooting 52.6 percent from the floor and averaging 24 points per game, all while taking just over 12 shots per game.
“He’s concentrating, he’s working hard,” Willard said to The Star-Ledger following the Alabama win. “He played really good defense at the end of the game, too. He came up with two big stops and played really well at the end there.”
Then the news no coach wants to hear, your top scorer and leader has a broken left wrist and will be out between four to six weeks.
During the Pirates opening round game in the Paradise Jam Tournament against Alabama, Hazell scored 27 points in a game where Willard thought he was “locked in.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever gone through it and I hope I never have to do it again,” Willard said following the Pirates’ game against St. Peter’s on Monday.
For most of Hazell’s teammates, it is the first time that they have been without their leader.
“I saw it in their faces during the first half against Xavier in the first half,” Willard said. “They were kind of like where is this guy going to come and bang a three for us.”
Hazell was there, just not in the same capacity.
Sporting navy blue warm-ups and a soft cast to protect the wrist during healing, Hazell was seen coaching his team during the course of the Pirates’ win over St. Peter’s.
“He’s still doing it,” Willard said. “Watching him during a time out he doesn’t shut up. He’s still our leader. He’s still with us. He’s at every practice. He’s as good a leader that I’ve seen in a while.”
Senior Keon Lawrence said the team feels Hazell’s presence even when he is not on the floor.
“He’s at practice. He’s clapping it out with us, giving us words of wisdom,” Lawrence said. “He still knows he is a pretty big part of this team. He’s telling us things he sees that we don’t see on the court.”
Hazell, who has already missed one week, saw his third specialist on Wednesday, and though results of that appointment were not available at press time, there is still a chance that he could undergo surgery on his left scaphoid bone.
“He might have to have surgery, he might not,” Willard said. “The bone is in perfect shape right now. It’s actually already healing. You can put a pin in it and it might accelerate. You can put a pin in and it might not do anything.”
While the team awaits the final judgment on Hazell, there is still basketball to be played.
Willard said that the team still has a lot of work to do on the offensive side of the ball, and that includes finding someone to fill in the offensive void that was created when Hazell was injured.
“We scrapped a lot of it (the offense) we put in five new sets in three days,” Willard said. “The tough thing about the Virgin Islands is you lose a guy who scores 24 points a game and don’t have time to adjust.”
Willard will look to senior Jeff Robinson and junior Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore to fill the scoring gap.
“I got to them to score points,” Willard said. “Those are going to be the guys we’re going to lean on a little bit.”
Robinson is averaging 12.8 points per game, Theodore has 9.8 per game and Pope 8.5 points per game.
Tim LeCras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.