New Albany’s basketball team runs offensive sets before breaking into free-throw groups on Wednesday afternoon. The defending Class 4A state champions are routinely concluding midweek practice.
Junior Sean East directs traffic for the Bulldogs, dishing to senior Isaac Hibbard at the top of the key. The experienced duo zips the ball around the perimeter and into the hands of several New Albany players, but one standout is absent. As they begin hoisting shots from the charity stripe, the familiar face looks on from the sideline.
Sidelined with a dislocated pinky finger on his right hand, junior Romeo Langford watched end-of-practice drills from a stackable chair with bags of ice wrapped around both knees. Hunched over with his chin in his hand, the five-star prospect looked anxious for a return to the court – and the Bulldogs wouldn’t mind it, either.
The 6-foot-5 guard averages 28.9 points per game for New Albany. After coach Jim Shannon announced Langford’s injury on Feb. 1, the Bulldogs ran away with an 84-55 win versus Jennings County the next day. On Saturday, though, then-No. 1 New Albany shot 38 percent and dropped a 52-46 decision at Columbus East, snapping a 13-game win streak.
New Albany’s star was re-evaluated and cleared in time for practice on Thursday, Shannon said. Langford is probable for the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (16-3) on Friday at home against Class 2A No. 1 Providence (16-1). The junior guard was originally slated to miss four games. His missed contributions, Shannon said, are unquestioned.
“For us, it’s all about going on to the next game,” Shannon said. “That’s been a little different for us. … We’re not used to having to play really intelligent with a small lead. We’re usually, pretty much, out in front, so now they’re finding each possession is a little more difficult.”
East and Hibbard have stepped up admirably in Langford’s absence. Both set career highs of 27 points against Jennings County before East re-set his mark with 28 in a losing effort Saturday.
“Without him, I have to score more,” East said. “That’s what my team needs, and I just do whatever we need. With him, I don’t really have to score much because it’s in his hands.”
East said New Albany’s system is, for good reason, built around its lethal scorer – but having to operate without that production isn’t a complete first for the Bulldogs. While Langford was strutting his stuff on the AAU circuit this past summer, the Bulldogs participated in practices, games and tournaments without him. Still, Hibbard said, the void left by Langford’s injury has been evident.
“We were trying to get better in the summer,” Hibbard said. “Now, it’s real serious. … We’re going to try our best without him and we’re still going to still play the same, but we miss him, yeah, he’s the best player in the state.”
The streaking Pioneers have won 11 consecutive games dating back to a loss at Floyd Central. The Bulldogs are 8-2 in their past 10 games against Providence dating back to 2006, with the most recent Pioneers win coming on Feb. 3, 2012. Last year’s contest, though, was decided by only 10 points.
Langford may return Friday night after all, but Shannon said even two games of added experience for East, Hibbard and the Bulldogs’ younger players could pay off in the long run.
“It does help them because everybody has to take another step on that ladder,” Shannon said. “ … It’s just a different role for everybody. Everybody moved up. That’s just the way it is. The minutes went up for some people. They have to be ready to play.”