It’s been awhile since junior forward Sergio Kerusch suited up in a Western uniform.
Long enough for Toppers fans to forget just how much he meant to the team. Also long enough for some initial roster non-factors to show their stuff.
Since Kerusch went down with a broken right foot a day before Western’s meeting with Louisville on Dec. 19, freshman guards Jamal Crook and Caden Dickerson have worked themselves into starting roles and major minutes.
Against Southern Illinois, Dickerson scored eight points in 33 minutes just days after pouring in a career-high 13 points against Middle Tennessee. Crook only played 11 minutes on Monday night, but the freshman has played more than 20 minutes in eight of the Toppers’ last 12 games.
Someone also had to step up under the basket without Kerusch available.
That role was solidly filled — eventually — by junior forward Cliff Dixon. The junior college transfer has reached double figures in four of Western’s last six games from the bench, filling part of the scoring void left by Kerusch.
So when Kerusch finally does return, expect coach Ken McDonald to shorten the bench.
But he won’t leave out Crook, Dickerson and Dixon, because those are the three that grew capable enough to play while battling over Kerusch’s minutes.
As those three found their legs, each in their first season at Western, the Toppers lost some games. Most losses were close, and with Louisville as an exception, all were decided by 10 points or less.
And it’s really hard to argue that Kerusch isn’t worth 10 points to the Toppers.
Kerusch will return to the lineup as Western’s second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, perhaps adding what the Toppers haven’t been getting while freshman guard Jameson Tipping and senior guard Anthony Sally logged extended minutes.
Perhaps providing the vocal presence and leadership Western has lacked on the court despite senior guard A.J. Slaughter’s best efforts. Slaughter just can’t do it all.
Perhaps what could make the difference between losing four in a row and winning four in a row — coincidentally the same amount of games it’s going to take the Toppers to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
Although Kerusch’s absence may have deflated Western’s regular-season record, his return — as McDonald put it — can only make the Toppers better.
The same as his time away made the Toppers deeper, turning Crook, Dickerson and Dixon into capable additions to the rotation.