If you believe the 2003-04 season has been a charmed one for Stanford Basketball, then you must still be living in January. That was the month that gave you a dominating destruction of Arizona in Tucson as well as an all-time great comeback against Oregon in Eugene.
But February is starting out in a most unlucky fashion, with two of Stanford's stellar frontcourt players being put on the "walking wounded" list. Last Thursday we all saw starting power forward Justin Davis injure his knee at Oregon State, as he was chasing a loose ball rebound under the basket. The injury to his left knee is a sprained MCL, and though it was described as a partially torn ligament, Davis told The Bootleg yesterday that he is not aware of any tear. Instead, he revealed that there is a very small fracture at the end of one of the bones connected to his knee. As the fifth-year senior explains, it was that fracture that caused blood to flow to the area, which resulted in the publicized swelling. He also notes bruising around the outside of his knee.
According to Davis (as well as a member of the Stanford staff), the knee injury will keep him out of action for four to six weeks.
"There is no tear in the MCL," the injured senior explains. "Just a small little fracture, almost so small you can't see it on the x-ray. When I came down on that play, I felt something jam. It was like bone on bone. This is not the same as last year."
"For me to return, the swelling needs to recede, the bone has to heal and the bruising has to heal," the athlete-turned-doctor opines.
Coaches and teammates alike have sounded out in unison how personally disappointed they are in Davis' injury. He went through an injury to the same knee last year in January, after which he was never the same on the floor that season. This is a senior who has worked so hard to improve himself the last few years, and to have his final year in college derailed like this is unjust. Your heart breaks for him, especially when you consider that this nebulous injury could conceivably keep him out the remainder of the season. Absolutely without a doubt, he is missing the key three-game stretch upcoming against the Arizona schools at Maples Pavilion and then at Cal.
"There is no question," head coach Mike Montgomery begins. "Justin was our most physical presence. Without a doubt, he's the best offensive rebounder in the conference. We will not be better without Justin. Guys just have to pick up the slack. We did it last year and we can do it again. And Matt Haryasz has improved tremendously."
Haryasz, the rapidly rising star sophomore forward who made his first career college start Saturday at Oregon, was set to make the next several starts in Davis' absence. But Tuesday afternoon in practice he sprained his ankle. The 6'10" PF/C has never had a sprained ankle before in his career, so he displayed an understandable amount of fear and pain when the injury occurred Tuesday, but quickly his confidence and optimism returned. He was soon telling people he expects to be back in game form by Thursday.
A sprained ankle like this is hard to read off the bat, but the tale should be mostly told by the next morning. We should know more about the severity of the sprain today as he wakes up and tries to move around on it. Even if he is faring a little better, he would not be likely to practice in the afternoon, which rules that out as an indication of Thursday's playing prospects.
But my best read is that Haryasz is not probable to play in either game this weekend. Officially you will see this injury described as "day-to-day," which means a playing decision could be held until game day or game time. A true answer may not be revealed until we see the team warm up shortly before Thursday's tip-off.
Those caveats all being said, it is prudent to forecast that Haryasz is out for both Arizona State and Arizona. Truthfully, his absence will hurt more on Thursday than Saturday. The Wildcats are a small team that has Channing Frye and no other real height, starting two "forwards" that average 6'5". The Sun Devils on the other hand have legit forwards averaging 6'8". Nick Robinson would get the start in Haryasz' absence, and the 6'6"/6'7" wing would appear to be fairly matched up against Arizona. But Stanford will be undersized against ASU.
The good news, of course, is that Robinson has been here before. He started the first 14 games this year when Josh Childress was injured, and last year he started 11 games for the injured Justin Davis. The redshirt sophomore has been undersized at the power forward position but delivered very well.
The greater concern is the nearly non-existent frontcourt depth left in the wake of these injuries. With Robinson starting, you now have just one game-tested big man to backup the two positions: Joe Kirchofer. And while he could play on the floor at the same time as Rob Little, it is fair to say that both are not mean to be on the floor together. Both are low post players who defend and score better than the high post or perimeter.
The options remaining for Stanford to backup the power forward position are primarily Josh Childress and Evan Moore. The former certainly has the length and spring to rebound as well as any PF in the conference, but there is a reason he has played at the small forward while Robinson has played "big." And now that you are in a world where Robinson is the starter at the "four" spot, you no longer have him to help you backup Childress at the "three." This means that Childress playing in the post moves you to either a three-guard lineup (e.g. PG + Matt Lottich + Dan Grunfeld) or Fred Washington at the small forward. Neither of those substitutions are very attractive, but Mike Montgomery has to look at them these next couple games.
Moreover, the starting placement of Robinson in the frontcourt precludes him from subbing into the shooting guard spot behind Matt Lottich, as we had seen more and more the last few weeks. That had been taking minutes away from Grunfeld, but now Grunfeld again becomes the reserve at the off-guard position.
In a simplistic analysis, Davis and Haryasz have combined for 40.6 minutes per game of playing time. That much playing time has now been opened up that will be shouldered by the entire rest of the roster.
"I suppose everybody will have to share the minutes," Montgomery comments. "Everybody has to pull their load, especially when you are down players. If they don't, that's when we're going to drop a game."
Returning to the frontcourt reserves question, we have to wonder if this is the situation that pushes Evan Moore onto the court. He has played all of two total minutes in Pac-10 play this year, and seven total minutes on the season. Though Montgomery has long been reputed for stinginess with minutes for his freshman, the two-sport athlete has truly been behind the curve relative to his basketball teammates.
"You're going from a fifth-year senior to a football player who came in late and then missed another month with an injury," the coach says plainly. "It's a question of whether Evan has figured out what we're doing. Physically he's closer, given that he's now able to practice. But everything we do defensively and on offense, he just doesn't know. Physically maybe he would help us in certain situations; that is what we have to figure out."
For the record, Montgomery gave this comments to me a few hours before the Haryasz injury. While the head coach may have looked at this footballer with some skepticism at that moment, I have to believe that necessity forces him today to give Moore a hard look now that there are fewer luxuries in this lineup.
This is all depressing, to be frank. The wondrous depth that has been lauded throughout this season is now quite a bit thinner. The concern over if and when Davis returns to action for Stanford is justifiable, but Cardinalmaniacs™ should put down the razor blades at this Haryasz news. A sprain can sometimes take longer to heal, but this appears to be a non-structural injury that will only temporarily keep him out of the lineup. I expect him back soon. The only concerns are in the very short term as we look to the ASU and UA games this weekend, but if one or both are lost, that will not derail the season. Try to keep that in perspective and segregate the one-week outlook from the season outlook.
If all you care about right now is remaining undefeated and want nothing more than to sweep Arizona on Saturday, then be worried. But if your focus is on March and how the Cardinal will be poised for an NCAA run, then this Haryasz setback is but a blip on the radar. Keep that perspective.
Oh, and don't forget the possibility that Stanford might surprise us all (again) by taking both games this weekend. Though you may have given up hope, the players and coaches are somehow seem to believe they can remain a pretty good team in the face of these injury setbacks. What a crazy thought. Almost as crazy as the 18-0 start and circumstances that have transpired to date in this season.
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