While it may have been tempting for the Nittany Lions to ask themselves how much worse things could get, they didnt. Because sitting on the bench with them was a person whose recent real-life drama lends perspective to anything happening on the floor.
Sophomore guard Marlon Smith, who spent a week at Hershey Medical Center due to a blocked artery in his brain which caused him to collapse at practice Jan. 7, returned to campus Friday. He sat with his teammates Saturday, wearing a gray sweatsuit with white stripes down the side.
And a smile.
Though he will miss the remainder of the season because he must spend at least three months on blood-thinning medication, Smith was upbeat at a postgame press conference, too.
As of right now, Im feeling pretty good, Smith said. Im pretty happy and excited to be back with my team, and to be back here at Penn State. Im kind of blessed to be here right now. Its a great thing.
Up until Saturday, the Smith family had requested that the details of his illness be kept quiet. After the game, Smith made a statement, and then allowed team doctor Doug Aukerman, PSU director of athletic medicine Wayne Sebastianelli and Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis to explain what happened to him.
It began Jan. 7.
Marlon came down the floor as we started practice, and he lost his balance and fell, DeChellis said. At first we thought he tripped over his own feet. But then he had a hard time gaining his balance.
Trainer Jon Salazar examined Smith, and seeing the athlete was struggling to move his arms and legs, called Aukerman. Smith was taken to nearby Mount Nittany Medical Center and put on blood-thinners. He was transferred to Hershey later that night.
I appreciate, and I know Marlon does, their diagnosis and quick treatment, DeChellis said.
At Hershey, it became a matter of zeroing in on the problem.
You go on a search mission to find really bad things, Sebastianelli said. Fortunately, at this point we havent found any really bad things.
The doctors went on to explain that Smith suffered from a very small blockage or clot in an artery in the brain. It was in the area that controls motor functions of the arms and legs. The blood-thinners dissolved the clot, and when the rest of the tests came back clean, Smith was allowed to return to campus.
Marlon is 100 percent recovered, Sebastianelli said, adding that Smiths condition was never life-threatening but that there was a chance he could have permanently lost movement in his arms and/or legs. All of his strength is back.
So why not allow him to play immediately?
With the blood-thinner, any time he gets hit or struck, he can have a huge bruise or even bleed, Aukerman said. Basically, he cant make a normal clot, so he cant be in any contact sports.
That could be for three months. Or it could be forever. Smith wont know for certain if hell be able to resume his basketball career until he comes off the blood-thinner in 90 days and undergoes further testing.
In the meantime, he will likely assist the coaches during practice and sit on the bench for games. But without him on the floor, the struggling Nittany Lions figure to have a difficult time in the Big Ten. Smith was the teams second-leading scorer as a freshman and was the only guard on this years squad who could create his own shot.
Against Michigan, sophomore point man Ben Luber played well, scoring 13 points and helping to shut down Wolverine standout Daniel Horton in the second half. But rookie Danny Morrissey, who is replacing Smith as a starter, and classmate Mike Walker both had trouble with Michigans quickness. They combined to go 2 of 9 from the floor and 0 of 6 from the arc.
That helped offset strong showings by junior forward Travis Parker (a career-high 19 points), freshman forward Geary Claxton (13 points, eight rebounds, three blocks) and veteran post Aaron Johnson (11 points, 11 boards).
Michigan freshman forward Ronald Coleman had a little something to do with the outcome, too. After an awful first 34 minutes, in which an early air ball made him the target of PSUs student section, Coleman went 3 of 3 from the arc in the games final six minutes. His last triple, off a splendid pass from the driving Horton, gave the Wolverines (12-5, 0-3) a 62-57 lead with 33.7 seconds left.
At which point, the Nittany Lions needed a miracle to win. But they were fresh out.
On the floor, at least.
I told the guys the other day, we ought to be very, very grateful for our health, DeChellis said. When we dont have it, we realize how important it is. [They should] reflect a little bit on how lucky they really are.