OXFORD -- The Oxford College men's basketball team got some bad news in early January when sophomore guard Stephen Simmons, the Eagles' leading scorer, injured his left knee in the team's 97-79 loss at Pasco-Hernando Community College in Florida.
The good news is that in Simmons' absence, the Eagles have more than held their own, winning six of the eight games -- including a five-game winning streak -- he's missed in 2012. The better news is that Simmons should be back in the lineup in plenty of time for the GCAA Men's Regional Tournament, which begins March 1 at Oxford College's historic Williams Gymnasium.
"He's our leader and he was playing really well when he got injured," said Oxford coach Roderick Stubbs, whose team (15-8, 3-2) hosted conference foe Middle Georgia Tech on Tuesday night. "He was shooting the ball really well and he's averaging about 15 points a game. So it took us a little while to adjust.
"We're hoping to have him back by the conference tournament. He's been working really hard with his rehab and is getting better every day working with the trainer. We hope to get him in practice this week and hopefully two weeks after that he'll be ready for the tournament."
A GCAA preseason all-conference selection (along with teammate Evan Dunwoodie), Simmons was averaging around 13 points per game at the time of his injury. The 6-foot native of Chicago said watching from the bench has not been easy.
"It's been extremely difficult to sit and watch," he said. "All I do is school and basketball, so it's hard when you prepare for something -- and this is my last year at Oxford -- and you want to go out with a bang. It hasn't been quite how I expected it but it's been a good mental challenge to grow and take things in stride and keep things in perspective. It could have been a whole lot worse."
Simmons added that the black cloud of his absence may yet yield a silver lining.
"It's been a learning process," he said. "I've had a chance to sit on the sidelines and see the game from a different viewpoint because when you're in the game you can't see everything. It's also made me hungrier. I'm ready to get back and start contributing to the team and I'm not shying away or easing back into it. When I get back in there, I'll be ready to go hard and end the season on a good note."
Stubbs was adamant that he won't rush Simmons back into the lineup because he knows the team captain should have additional basketball opportunities when his Oxford tenure is up.
"We want to make sure he's 100 percent and totally healthy and prepared to play because he does have a future after Oxford College," Stubbs said. "We won't put him out there unless he's 100 percent and he feels comfortable playing."
The Eagles' determined play in his absence has proven to be a pleasant surprise, Simmons said.
"It's a little surprising because we've got a young team and some guys have had to step into positions they weren't quite ready for, but these guys can play," he said. "The coaches have done a great job of recruiting and everybody on this team can play college basketball -- they deserve to be here.
"My being out gave guys opportunities to shine and they stepped up. I'm happy they've been able to play great while I've been out and I think it will make us a better team. It will be like adding another weapon and I think it will help us in the long run."
Simmons credited Oxford assistant coach Timothy Terry with getting him interested in the program.
"There was an exposure camp at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and we drove up from Tampa," he said. "I was playing, and coach Terry came up and started talking to me. I'd heard of Emory, but I'd never heard of Oxford College and when I checked it out, I wasn't sure. But I thought and prayed about it, looked at the Oxford website and figured out what it was all about, I saw this as a great opportunity to play basketball, get a great education and go to Emory, if I choose that.
"I loved meeting Coach Terry. I met him before I met Coach Stubbs or Coach (Aaron) Snipes, and he was very energetic and encouraging and he brought a good attitude. He seemed like someone I'd really want to be around for two years."
After Tuesday's game with Middle Georgia Tech, the Eagles will return to the road for a 2 p.m. game on Saturday against Georgia Northwest Tech in Rossville and will play Monday, Feb. 13 against the Tennessee-Temple junior varsity in Chattanooga.
For more information on the Oxford College men's basketball team, visit www.oxford.emory.edu/athletics.