As of Tuesday, the prognosis for Stanford's star power forward Justin Davis was grimmer than grim. Mike Montgomery was dishing out every fire and brimstone comment he could about the progression (or lack thereof) for the redshirt junior's return to action. And this is not a coach who plays coy - he truly wears his pessimism on his sleeve, regarding his injuries, talent and chances in any game.
"Justin is not cleared to play," he said Tuesday. "Unless something changes in the next few days, we are not going to have him on Thursday. It's disappointing, but we'll have to attack UCLA with the crew we've got. The knee is just not closed and can't give enough support right now. It's not something that's sore, and Justin has been able to do some workouts on the side with shootarounds and even dunking. The trainers are surprised the healing hasn't happened by now. This is a quick-healing ligament, but it's not happening. It's still looser than they like."
If you were hoping and praying to see Davis back in uniform for this UCLA game, I don't think you could imagine any more doom and gloom from the Stanford head man.
But the talented forward badly wants to get back on the floor, and had the Stanford team doctors check him out Wednesday midday. Examining the knee, they concluded, in surprising fashion, for the first time that he could be cleared for what Davis termed a "test day."
That test was for Davis to wear the custom-made knee brace he has worn while shooting on the sidelines in practices, and now give a run at some live drills and 5-on-5 work in practice. The 6'9" forward from Berkeley proceeded to conduct about half of the work of Wednesday's practice, first running with the "white" team and then switching to the "cardinal" team. He did not leave action at any time for reasons of pain or discomfort, and followed through to the end of the day's practice.
"Everything I wanted to do, I could do today," he told The Bootleg afterward. "The only thing that bothers me right now is getting used to the brace. It's fitted perfectly, but when your foot hits the floor and you get all sweaty, it's bound to slip down a little and you're always mindful of that. So I have to readjust it from time to time. That's unavoidable - it happens to everybody."
One thing I noted watching Davis closely in the practice is that in transition, he ran up and down the floor much more cautiously and gingerly than he normally would. His actions and movement away from the ball have a hesitancy in them that stands out. But he notes that there are times he forgets his knee:
"Once you get the ball in your hands, you forget all about it," he says of the knee and brace. "Your basketball instincts take over, and you just play."
Indeed, rebounding and offensive maneuvers looked just like the incredible Justin Davis that Stanford fans saw emerge before his injury in the Cal game. He went up with the ball hard and strong near the basket in several instances.
But do not take all this to mean that Davis will play in this UCLA game for sure. The other half of this test is checking today on the degree of swelling as well as the degree of maneuverability of the knee. If it meets the specs of the doctors, he would be cleared to see some action in tonight's game. If not, then he will have to try practicing again Friday and check back with the doctors Saturday morning.
Davis notes that he is not frustrated by the length of time for recovery from this knee sprain, closing in on three weeks now. "I expected this thing to take three or even four weeks," Davis says. "My frustration is just not being able to play." And how about the fear of coming back too soon, only to be reinjured and lost for the season like sophomore point guard teammate Chris Hernandez? "My teammates are more worried about this than I am. This is my body and I know my body," Davis charges.
Another dimension to a possible return in tonight's game is that the opponent, UCLA, has played a helter skelter pace and style of defense against the Card in their recent appearances at Maples. The Bruins have athletes who have underachieved horribly this year, but when they can reduce the game into a manic affair, their abilities can outpace their slack coaching and preparation. "Manic" is not what Davis needs to see for his first action back.
"Playing against UCLA my first game back is risky," he explains. "They probably aren't as suitable an opponent for my return, but if we can keep things in a halfcourt game, it could be just fine."
One additional injury note is that the forward who has played in Davis' stead these past four games, 6'6" Nick Robinson, is battling his own knee problems. Montgomery says that Robinson has been playing with a swollen knee, just that nobody has much heard about it because the redshirt sophomore does not complain. "Let's just keep our fingers crossed that it doesn't get any worse," said a despondent Montgomery Tuesday, faced with the possibility of being truly decimated at the four spot on the floor.