No Excuses: Injuries Have Taken Toll On WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Early Thursday morning, in preparation for the weekly Big 12 coaches conference call, we were drawn to the conference’s standings.
While aware of what has been going on, we have been so absorbed in West Virginia’s own problems that it still gave us a jolt when we looked and saw that the Kansas team atop the league was Kansas State, not Kansas.
Now Kansas has won or shared the regular season crown for 14 consecutive years, which is an incredible run not even matched by the UCLA team of John Wooden, which won 10 national championships in 12 years but saw its string of conference championships end at 13.
But there they sat after Kansas State, on Monday, beat them, 74-67, in Manhattan, tied for fourth place with a 6-4 league record.
As they say, misery loves company and certainly West Virginia has suffered its own brand of misery this season, so much so that it surely welcomes Kansas back to the real world it is currently experiencing as the Big 12’s cellar dweller with 2-8 record and 10-13 overall mark.
Certainly, much criticism has rained down upon WVU, its Hall of Fame bound coach Bob Huggins and the players who have floundered helplessly through this season, but being slapped in the face with Kansas’ predicament did something to bring a taste of reality into the assessment we had been making about WVU.
While no one would want to taint Kansas by comparing its year to WVU’s — for it is having a season that would be quite acceptable to anyone but college basktball royalty at 17-6 — there is one similarity.
Kansas’ main big man, Udoka Azubuike, is out for the season. Azubuike played only nine of their 23 games. He first was injured in game No. 7 against Wofford.
He played injured until being forced to undergo surgery on Jan. 9. When he played his last game Kansas was 12-1 and owned victories over Michigan State, Tennessee, which went on to become No. 1 in the nation, and defending national champion Villanova.
So, from that point on KU has split 10 games.
Make of that what you want, but when you take a look at what WVU was expecting this season and what it has become without its prime big man, Sagaba Konate, and often without Beetle Bolden playing or trying to play injured, which hurt not only his body but his pride for he could not reach anywhere near his potential, you might just want to put an asterisk on this season.
Coaches try to downplay injury. They know they are part of the game and they don’t want their team to use them as an excuse . . . but anyone want to argue that two years ago the Mountaineers don’t go so flat as they did after quarterback Will Grier was injured, or that the New England Patriots would still be Super Bowl champions if Tom Brady had suffered an injury before the playoffs?
This lesson about injuries was driven home to me early in my baseball writing career, back in the early days of the Big Red Machine. In 1970 they had earned that nickname, rolled to 70 wins in the first 100 games and seemed invincible.
But they lost pitcher Wayne Simpson around the All-Star break when he was 13-1, had two other starting pitchers suffer arm problems, limped into the World Series without any pitching and lost to Baltimore in five games.
The next year a key player, Bobby Tolan, suffered an Achilles injury and missed the season. Simpson was still out, Jim Merritt, a 20-game winner in 1971, had arm problems and they struggled through a 1-11 season and they were barely a .500 teams.
That is the point. No one will argue that this year’s WVU team isn’t killing itself with its awful passing and maybe worse defense, but how bad would that defense be if Konate were there to cut off those straight-line drives to the basket and keep them from ending up in layups?
Would WVU be winning the league?
No, not the way they handle the ball, but they certainly would be far better than they are and, who knows what a few wins would do for the attitude of the likes of Esa Ahmad and Lamont West to draw the best they have to offer out of them.
But let us accept that Bob Huggins knows what he is doing and that going from one year to the next without Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., Sagaba Konate and often Beetle Bolden is just too much to overcome.