King’s and Misericordia both opened league play at 0-2 back in December. A month from now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either team atop the standings heading into the conference tournament.
The Monarchs host the Cougars at 8 p.m. today to close out the first half of the Freedom Conference schedule. And it’s anyone’s guess how the race will finish.
“I think it’s as wide open as I’ve ever seen it,” said Misericordia coach Trevor Woodruff, who has led the Cougars in all six seasons that they’ve been in the league. “Because there’s a lot of decent teams, (but) there’s no Sweet 16 team like DeSales or King’s from a few years ago.
“Everybody can beat everybody.”
As it stands, Misericordia has won four straight and sits in a four-way tie for first place at 4-2. The Cougars have beaten the other three teams — Delaware Valley, DeSales and FDU-Florham — in their last three conference games.
King’s nearly made it a five-way tie on Saturday but a 20-point rally by host Manhattanville snapped the Monarchs’ big win streak, dropping them to 3-3 in the league.
Both King’s and Misericordia have played their best basketball of the season this month, setting up tonight’s matchup at Scandlon Gymnasium.
“I think it’s just kids believing in what we’re doing,” Woodruff said. “We tweaked the lineup a little bit. We’ve changed defenses over the last couple of weeks to play more zone, and that’s helped.
“We went to the zone and we haven’t lost since.”
Woodruff said that he’s not abandoning the man-to-man entirely and scouting reports will largely determine how much he switches it up. In wins last week against fellow contenders DeSales and Delaware Valley, Woodruff estimated that the Cougars played zone 70 percent and 90 percent of the time, respectively.
Indeed, Misericordia now boasts the conference’s top scoring defense, allowing just 66.1 points per game.
The Cougars’ stingy defense will be pitted against a King’s team that is first in scoring offense at 77.1 points per game.
Balance has been the key for the Monarchs. Aside from getting strong performances from their two senior captains, they have also gotten a spark from newcomers like freshman Dan Rutecki.
Rutecki, a 6-foot-5 forward, is averaging 9.6 points (third on the team) and 5.2 rebounds (second) while securing a regular spot in the starting five. He has also earned the trust of coach J.P. Andrejko and his staff, playing 26 minutes per game.
“He’s going to be a great high-post player,” Andrejko said. “He’s getting better all the time. … There’s no hesitation with him. He knows where he can score, he’s a smart kid.”
Dealing with injuries
The night begins at 6 p.m. when the King’s women host Misericordia in a matchup of teams battling key injuries.
King’s played last week’s games with nine healthy players in uniform. Misericordia has been without senior guard Lauren Smicherko since mid-December.
The Lady Monarchs had begun the season needing to replace five seniors from a group that went to the Sweet 16 in 2012 and the Freedom Conference finals a year ago.
So it didn’t help when guards Ashley Davies and Shae Grim went down during the season. Juniors Davies and Marissa Manning both played roles on that Sweet 16 squad, with Manning starting 29 games as a freshman.
Manning leads the team in scoring and rebounding this year.
“Ultimately with Ashley being out, Marissa has had a lot of that put on her shoulders,” King’s coach Brian Donoghue said earlier this month.
“We’ve got to be able to get a little bit more offensive production out of our older guys. We get it, but not consistently.”
For the Cougars, Smicherko has been out since suffering a torn ACL on Dec. 17 against Marywood.
Smicherko led the team in scoring as a junior and was an integral part of the team’s up-tempo offense.
“She was the emotional leader of the team, and she still is,” Misericordia coach Allison Kern said. “She’s right there fired up on the bench, giving pregame talks and I think people have really rallied around that.
“But it really changes the dynamic of where we have to put people on the floor now, so that took a little bit of time to get used to.”