Injuries go along with college basketball about as naturally as wins and losses. Every year, an unlucky few elite players tear knee ligaments, break bones, suffer concussions or are forced off the court by other physical ailments.
But this season, it’s been closer to the rule than the exception for Big Ten teams. More than any year in recent memory, big-name players have gone down all across the league, in part leading to the conference’s unpredictable season.
“I think it affects it. I think without a doubt it does because everybody is changing,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “Anytime you’re taking a key, key guy out, everybody else has got to step up. … The margin for error in this league is so slim because of the closeness of teams right now.”
Crean has been through a major injury of his own this year, losing junior forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea for nearly three weeks because of a knee injury. The Hoosiers beat Maryland without him but also lost big games to Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.
Welcome to the club. Just about every Big Ten team — although the Gophers are not one of them — has lost a key player for an extended period.
Michigan’s Caris LeVert, a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection, is out for the season after reinjuring the foot he had had surgery on in the offseason last month against Northwestern. Now the Wolverines, who were ranked No. 24 in the preseason poll, also have been without point guard Derrick Walton for the past six games, including five losses in a row.
Illinois has been without senior point guard Tracy Abrams, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in preseason drills, and leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who missed nine games because of both a broken hand and a suspension. Rice is back, and the Illini are only now resembling the up-and-coming team hinted at in October.
Nebraska played big chunks without Leslee Smith and Moses Abraham, and without them the Cornhuskers have taken a step backward this year.
“It’s easy to lose momentum, it’s hard to get back,” Huskers coach Tim Miles said. “Injuries have hurt us this year.”
Michigan State was predicted to challenge Wisconsin and Ohio State for the Big Ten title, but the Spartans have been banged up all year, and a shell of their usual selves.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo sees it not just as a conference issue, but nationwide. Young players are getting a lot of experience early, he said, noting their intense high school and AAU experiences could lead to more injuries later.
“I just worry that it’s too much pounding at too young of an age,” he said. “I think we’ve got to watch that we’re not overdoing it.”
Even Big Ten leader Wisconsin has been affected, still waiting for senior point guard Traevon Jackson to return. The night he injured his right foot during the Badgers’ only conference loss at Rutgers, All-America center Frank Kaminsky also sat out because of a concussion.
Maryland was without senior Dez Wells (broken wrist) for seven games while also dealing with center Evan Smotrycz’s foot injury, but the Terrapins plowed forward. Coach Mark Turgeon said after the fact that the losses helped his team grow depth and leadership.
He, like other coaches that have found success despite the injuries, had the personnel to fill in. Therein lies the difference, some coaches say.
“If you obsess about who’s not there, you’re not going to win,” Iowa’s Fran McCaffery said. “Somebody else has to step up.”
Big Ten power poll
Wisconsin (24-2, 12-1): Hard to believe, but the Badgers have hardly missed senior point guard Traevon Jackson.
Purdue (18-9, 10-4): Who are these guys? The second-hottest team in the Big Ten, that’s who.
Illinois (17-9, 7-6): Rayvonte Rice is back and the Illini are cruising.
Michigan State (18-8, 9-4): Three consecutive victories have the Spartans cruising going into a tough final stretch.
Maryland (22-5, 10-4): Melo Trimble seems to be over his back and leg pain; he is averaging 21 ppg in the Terrapins’ past four.
Ohio State (19-7, 8-5): The Buckeyes’ three victories away from home — at Minnesota, Northwestern and Rutgers — look less than impressive.
Indiana (18-9, 8-6): The Hoosiers are either brilliant or horribly exposed, depending on whether the three-ball is falling.
Iowa (16-10, 7-6): The key for the Hawkeyes might be their interior game. When they get the ball inside, they thrive.
Gophers (16-11, 5-9): They have given up 33 three-pointers in their past two games.
Michigan (13-13, 6-8): On a five-game slide with Derrick Walton joining Caris LeVert on the sidelines.
Nebraska (13-13, 5-9): A victory over Northwestern is the Cornhuskers’ only bright spot over their past seven games.
Northwestern (12-14, 3-10): The Wildcats are on their first Big Ten winning streak, with an overtime victory vs. Iowa followed by overpowering the Gophers at Williams Arena.
Penn State (15-12, 3-11): It’s been a tough run with Ohio State, Maryland and Wisconsin over the past three games.
Rutgers (10-17, 2-12): The Scarlett Knights’ losing streak rages on, now at 10 games.
College basketball short takes
Make it three? After notching victories over Iowa and on the road against the Gophers, Northwestern is in the midst of its best stretch of the season heading into another winnable game Saturday vs. Penn State (2 p.m., ESPNU).
The Wildcats have hit 24 three-pointers in the past two games. Can the hot shooting continue vs. the defensive-minded Nittany Lions?
Wake up Russell: In the past two games, Ohio State freshman phenomenon D’Angelo Russell has shot only 30.7 percent from the floor, getting away from his usual efficiency (46.6 percent on the season). The Buckeyes are hoping that he picks up the pace as they visit Michigan (noon Sunday, Ch. 4) trying to rebound from last weekend’s loss at Michigan State.
Mean and green: Michigan State is looking more and more like its usual threatening self, but finishing strong won’t be easy.
A bout at Illinois (6:30 p.m. Sunday, BTN) kicks off a stretch of three tough road games (along with Wisconsin and Indiana) to close, and the Spartans will want to win at least one to strengthen their 18th consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
'Big Three' watch
A weekly update on Minnesotans Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Duke), Reid Travis (DeLaSalle, Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (Cooper, UNLV):
With Jahlil Okafor hobbled by a left ankle injury, Jones picked up the slack for his best friend, scoring Duke’s final nine points in regulation Wednesday, when the Blue Devils plowed back from a 10-point deficit and topped rival North Carolina 92-90 in overtime. Jones finished with 22 points, which he has done three times. … Travis has scored only 11 points in five games since returning from a leg injury, including none over 34 minutes in his past two. … Vaughn (left knee injury) is out indefinitely.