How do you go from Final Four contender to dropping out of the top 25 and NCAA tournament contention?
When one of your top players suffers an injury so severe that a team statement is released breaking the news that he’s “out for the season.”
That seems to be happening more often this season than recent years. The latest casualty was Florida’s starting center and leading rebounder John Egbunu, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament Tuesday against Auburn.
The 6-11 junior from Nigeria was averaging 7.7 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds this season, but now will face a 10-to-12 month recovery process. The Gators are ranked No. 13 in the coaches poll and tied with Kentucky for the Southeastern Conference’s top spot.
Their seven-game winning streak is highlighted by a 22-point victory over the Wildcats. But Florida has a grueling final SEC stretch that includes playing South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.
“We’re all disappointed for John,” Florida coach Mike White said in a statement Wednesday. “He’s been playing really well of late, so it’s a tough blow to him and our team.”
Time will tell if it’s a blow the Gators (21-5, 11-2 SEC) can withstand to win the conference title or advance far during March Madness.
Sadly, other top programs have even worse injury issues. Indiana, Creighton and Xavier lost arguably their most important players to season-ending knee injuries.
The Hoosiers nearly ended a slide without forward OG Anunoby but fell 75-74 at the Gophers on Wednesday. Anunoby, a 6-8 sophomore, was a projected NBA lottery pick who averaged 11.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 16 games. Indiana has lost six of the past seven games since he was sidelined.
Two of the best point guards in the nation went down last month. Creighton was 18-1 and ranked No. 7 in the country when Maurice Watson Jr. tore one of his ACLs.
Watson was leading the nation with 8.5 assists per game when he was hurt.
The Blue Jays, who lost their first two games without Watson to Marquette and Georgetown, have dropped four of their past seven.
Xavier’s Edmond Sumner was the second leading scorer (15.1 points per game) and assists leader (5.0) through the first 21 games.
The Musketeers won their first three games without Sumner, but they’ve lost two in a row — taking them out of the Big East regular-season title race with Villanova.
Former Lakeville North star and Xavier guard JP Macura tweeted support for his fallen teammate on Jan. 30: “Praying for my brother [Sumner] to have a fast and healthy recovery.”
It will be interesting to see if Macura’s team and other programs eventually overcome losing stars as they approach conference tournaments.
As far as how far they will go in the NCAA tournament, you can probably already think about scratching some of them off early in your bracket — if they even make the field.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Melo Trimble, guard, Maryland
The 6-3 junior is coming off a career-high 32 points in an important 74-64 road win over Northwestern on Wednesday. Trimble has put together his best season since earning All-Big Ten first team honors as a freshman. He’s averaging 17.2 points and 3.5 assists per game. But what Trimble does Sunday with Big Ten title implications at Wisconsin will be his measuring stick.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
No. 3 Kansas at No. 4 Baylor, noon Saturday (Ch. 4): This matchup has a little less significance since Baylor (22-4, 9-4 Big 12) lost at Texas Tech 84-78 on Monday, but these are still the two top teams in the Big 12. The Jayhawks (23-3, 11-2) can take a big step toward clinching their record 13th consecutive conference championship. In the first meeting this season, Kansas won 73-68 at home behind 23 points from freshman sensation Josh Jackson.
Gonzaga is still undefeated at 27-0 after another week of rolling through West Coast Conference competition. The Zags have beaten every league opponent by double digits, including fellow perennial midmajor power St. Mary’s twice. Mark Few’s team won’t lose until the NCAA tournament, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. At that point, Gonzaga’s season will be over with the Zags wondering if they should have faced some adversity earlier.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Purdue (21-5, 10-3)
Seed watch: The Boilermakers currently have the best shot at being one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament if they win the league title. They beat Notre Dame and played Villanova tough in nonconference play, but the selection committee has little respect for the Big Ten.
2. Maryland (22-4, 10-3)
3. Wisconsin (21-5, 10-3)
Key injury: The Badgers really couldn’t afford to lose senior guard Bronson Koenig, who is their best ballhandler and clutch performer. The result was a second consecutive loss Thursday against Michigan. Koenig’s return is critical for Sunday’s home game against Maryland.
4. Minnesota (19-7, 7-6)
5. Northwestern (19-7, 8-5)
Locking up: Some NCAA tournament projectors say the Wildcats have their first ever bid locked up after upsetting Wisconsin this week in Madison. But Chris Collins’ team still has work to do, getting at least to nine Big Ten wins.
6. Michigan (17-9, 7-6)
Be like Dirk: Wolverines 610 German forward Moritz Wagner met his idol, Dirk Nowitzki, when the Dallas Mavericks played Wednesday at Detroit. Then Wagner had a Dirk-like performance with 21 points in the upset Thursday over Wisconsin.
7. Michigan State (16-10, 8-5)
8. Iowa (14-12, 6-7)
9. Ohio State (15-12, 5-9)
10. Indiana (15-12, 5-9)
Hot-seat talk: Indiana coach Tom Crean won his second Big Ten regular-season title last season, but five losses in the past six games has fans angry. Rumors about Crean’s job being in jeopardy grow by the day.
11. Penn State (14-13, 6-8)
12. Nebraska (11-14, 5-8)
13. Illinois (14-12, 4-9)
14. Rutgers (13-14, 2-12)
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org