Michael Hardge doesn't start for Tarleton State. But neither the sophomore point guard himself or his veteran head coach look at him as a backup.
Hardge is part of unbeaten Tarleton's (17-0) highly-touted bench delegation that has been scoring points in droves. The Texans have outscored their six Lone Star Conference opponents 230-98 in points off the bench, and Tarleton reserves as a group have outscored or tied their teammates in the starting lineup eight times this season.
"Coach says we don't have a first team or a second team, we have groups," says the Georgetown product. "We come in and the pace of the game doesn't change. I don't have a problem coming off the bench; I don't think anybody on our team does. The guys who are starting have been here and earned their stripes, and when we take their place it's our job to go out there and compete just as hard as them."
Lonn Reisman, who has won 547 games at Tarleton and will lead the Texans against Texas A&M-Commerce at 7 p.m. Saturday inside Wisdom Gym, agrees.
"I call them groups. I don't call them first or second team, I call them group one and group two, and as coaches we demand the same level of execution at both ends of the floor regardless which group is in," Reisman said. "Each group has its own distinct ability to make this basketball team better when they're on the floor."
Reisman has boasted of his team's depth all season, saying "group two" is a big reason the Texans have an opportunity to set a school record with an 18th straight win Saturday. But his words are especially strong when he speaks of Hardge.
"He's an intelligent payer who conducts himself so well on and off the floor. He has high energy and a high basketball IQ. He's the kind of guy you love to coach," Reisman said. "I don't consider him a back up, I just consider him an outstanding player. I believe he is the future face of this program, and he may be the face of our team as soon as next year."
Hardge was clearly humbled when he heard those were Reisman's expectations.
"I'm honestly at a loss for words right now," was his immediate reaction. "I'm very thankful to hear that and blessed to be a part of this program and family," said the kinesiology major. "Those are big expectations. I just want to be first in everything I do and lead by example whether we're running, working out, whatever.
"Coach Reisman told me when he was recruiting me and when I signed here that I wasn't just joining a team, I was joining a family, and that's exactly what it is," Hardge said. "Every teammate pulls for each other, anybody coming off the bench brings the same momentum as the starters and we do everything together."
Hardge plays behind Chuck Guy, who is putting up All-American type numbers. But he's needed just 13 minutes per game to average 6.3 points and 1.5 assists. Like Guy, he also has a knack for taking care of the ball, committing less than one turnover per game.
And Hardge will be the first to tell you he isn't the only player coming off the bench who other teams better respect.
"Tay (Tashawn Mabry) opens up things coming off screens that help us be able to penetrate. And if his big man comes off on us, we can just kick it to him for the three," Hardge said. "Mo (Mohammad Lee) handles the ball so well and can get to the rim and finish through contact. E (Emmanuel Andrews) has a good one dribble pull-up that's almost unstoppable. (Damion) Clemons plays so hard. He's always going to try and get a rebound and dunk on you; he loves those tip dunks. He just plays his heart out every game, all our guys do."
But what about Hardge's own game?
"I'm just learning from the seniors, especially Coleman (Furst) and Chuck. I'm watching the captains close because I want to be a captain soon," he said. "Honestly, I think I have the ability to make my game a lot like Chuck's. We're two of the fastest guys on the team, and we both like to penetrate and find people. He finds people even better than me."
And Tarleton is finding people better than just about everyone in the country. That's why the Texans are eighth nationally in turnover margin, ninth in scoring and second in score margin entering this weekend's action.
In the LSC, Tarleton is first in 13 of 19 team statistic charts. Second behind the Texans in both scoring, free throw percentage and blocked shots is A&M-Commerce.
"We saw them early in the year when they were here for our tipoff classic, and we were impressed," Reisman said of the Lions (13-5), who won their first eight games and started the season 11-2 before dropping three straight by a total of 10 points then breaking that skid with last Saturday's 93-84 win over West Texas A&M. "I think it's their best team since we beat them in the regional final (in 2005)."
Tarleton scores 89.4 points per game and A&M-Commerce 82.9.
"They definitely have the ability to score the basketball," Reisman added. "We have to be at our best defensively."
On paper, at least, A&M-Commerce is the LSC team most likely to challenge Tarleton's depth. The Lions have 11 players averaging at least 11 minutes and seven averaging at least seven points.
"They play a lot of people, a lot of high-quality people," Reisman said. "It's not a team you can expect to wear out with fresh bodies, because they have them too."
The Lions are led by LaDon Carnegie at 14.3 points per game, but like the Texans feature balance. Tyrie Wooten scores 13 per game, Davondrick Walker 12.7, Kameron Price 9.7 and Christian Macauley 9.4.
But games are won on the hardwood, not on paper.
"We're not going to treat them differently than any other team. We're going to respect all opponents but fear no team at all," Hardge said. "They have a good team, and we're going to have to learn the game plan the best we can and play our style of ball. We have to be the ones to dictate the tempo."