For the third straight year, back trouble has struck and sidelined Chris Hernandez. For the second straight year, the Cardinal's venerable point guard has been hit with back pain in January leading up the games against the Arizona schools. Last year it was spasms that struck on during the team shoot-around the very day of the Arizona State game, sending Hernandez to the bench and his team into a tailspin. Stanford lost in ugly fashion at home that evening to a Sun Devil squad that finished the year in the Pac-10 basement.
This go-around, the ailment comes earlier for Hernandez and Stanford. Early during Monday's practice, Hernandez "tweaked" his back during a defensive drill and sat out the remainder of the practice. He was held out of today's practice as well.
"For precautionary reasons we are going to hold him out," explains head coach Trent Johnson. "When you strain your back or your tweak it, you want to make sure it gets as healthy as possible - especially when you consider the type of pressure we are about to face Thursday."
The spasms that struck Hernandez last January came on a Thursday, which sat him in street clothes on the bench that night. But 48 hours later, he was not only playing, but enjoying a career performance as he scored 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting in an upset of Arizona on Saturday. Yesterday's injury hit more than 72 hours before Stanford and Hernandez play their next game, at the McKale Center in Tucson.
"I think he'll be ready for the game," Johnson forecasts hopefully. "That's why we're holding him out."
Back troubles are nothing new to Hernandez, who has endured a variety of difficulties dating back to his high school days. But the 22-year old says that his accumulated experiences have him attuned to his back - when and how much he can and should push himself when feeling a certain level of pain. Like an experienced track runner who monitors his hamstring, Hernandez felt when to alert the coaching and training staffs yesterday during practice.
"We were doing a one-on-one drill, and I felt something weird in my back," he recounts. "I thought I would just play a little longer, and then take it easy so that nothing bad happens."
"It was just sore. I'm getting a little wiser as I get older about what to do and what not to do. When to try to take it easy and when to push it," Hernandez explains. "I'm just trying to be preventative, rather than be stupid about it."
Hernandez' experience and composure will be critical for the Cardinal on Thursday, not only as a scoring threat on the heels of his perfect 6-of-6 shooting day against California, but also to help protect the ball for Stanford. Arizona has looked lost at times on offense this year, but their defense is sizzling. The Wildcats are quick and aggressive, gambling for steals and manufacturing fast-break scores. Arizona leads the Pac-10 by a wide margin with 10.81 steals per game, which currently ranks sixth in the nation among 326 Division I teams. The 'Cats are also leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the conference in turnover margin at +8.19 per game - nearly the combined total of the next best three teams behind them.
"They are probably the best defensive team in the league, in terms of their ability to get up in the passing lanes, be active, steal the basketball and go on 10-0 or 15-2 runs," Johnson says of Arizona.
The Cardinal faced other maladies on Monday beyond Hernandez' back. Sophomore center Peter Prowitt was unable to practice, still suffering from his strained lower back suffered on Monday of last week. The 6'10" big man was only able to participate in a subset of a light workout on Thursday that week leading up to Friday's game against the Bears. Prowitt played just four minutes that night, and after two days of rest, he was unable to practice on Monday. Back injuries and big men do not do well with each other, and the persistence of this problem has the Cardinal duly concerned about Prowitt's status.
"I think anytime you have a problem with your back, it can linger, especially when you're playing basketball. Lower back pains, lower back problems - they are what they are," Johnson offers.
Even if his sophomore center is improved come Thursday, the Cardinal head coach does not see the likelihood of Prowitt being able to give many minutes.
"It's hard because he hasn't practiced. He hasn't been up and down the floor in what seems like forever. His conditioning is going to be a problem if he's able to play Thursday," Johnson explains. "Hopefully he'll be able to spell Matt Haryasz and guard Ivan Radenovic. That's my expectation for Peter. I don't fully expect Peter to be able to go and contribute at a high level. He hasn't been able to practice in like two weeks, now."
Walk-on guard Kenny Brown additionally sprained his ankle on Monday. The redshirt freshman has appeared in only one game this year, but his loss is felt in practices where Stanford is operating undermanned below the NCAA scholarship limit and trying to simulate Arizona's team quickness and defensive aggression.
On the mend is senior forward/center Matt Haryasz, who suffered an ankle sprain of his own during the first week of conference play at USC. He missed the second half of that game and then the following Thursday tilt with Oregon State before returning in a visibly limited capacity against Oregon. Haryasz was closer to his old self last week against California than we have seen since the injury, but he was in bad shape after the 36-minute performance. After the rest of the team was showered, dressed and headed home, Haryasz was still behind at Maples Pavilion receiving treatment on the left ankle.
"After the game, it was very, very tired. It was really tired. It didn't hurt really, but it was really tired," he details. "I just felt that it needed a rest, but during the game there was so much going on that I didn't really think about it."
Haryasz called his ankle "70%" last week and this week reports an improvement.
"It's not quite completely healthy, but it's getting there. I'd say it's probably about 90% right now," he reports. "There is still a little bit of a twinge of something where it's still not 100% as far as the strength goes. If I were to do toe raises on that ankle by itself, I wouldn't be able to do nearly as much as on my right ankle. But it's definitely getting better, and we're continuing to treat it. We're continuing to work on it. It's continuing to improve."
The Friday game last week provided a wrinkle in the schedule that gave the team an extra day off over the weekend. For Haryasz, the break was welcome.
"I really needed those two days off. I think if we would have went Sunday, it would have been difficult for my ankle to recover. I think those two days off were really beneficial for me."
While Stanford is battling more than its fair share of injuries, including the loss of Fred Washington for the year, they are hardly alone in the conference battling the Walk of the Wounded. UCLA's injury woes have been well documented. Cal took a hit yesterday with a knee injury to Rod Benson, his second major injury this year, while Martin Smith has been out with a groin injury. Washington State is missing point guard Derrick Low with a broken foot, while forward Daven Harmeling is out for the year. Oregon has been so decimated by injuries that they were able to play only seven players on Saturday. And it goes on and on.
"I am surprised at how many teams have such key players that are so injured. You just look from top to bottom, whether it's UCLA or Oregon or Washington. So many guys are banged up with injury," Johnson observes on the conference.
With two weeks still remaining before the Pac-10 hits the halfway mark in conference play, every team has already been saddled with at least two losses. Currently, the ninth place team in the Pac-10 trails the first place team by only one and a half games.
"Whoever is going to be the healthiest down the stretch, I've got to figure they're going to be the team to beat," Johnson forecasts.
Something to keep in mind as you peer into your Cardinal crystal ball for the fateful next two months of Stanford Basketball.
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