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The Most Impactful Injuries in College Basketball So Far This Season

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2016

The Most Impactful Injuries in College Basketball So Far This Season

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Coaches like to say injuries are a part of basketball, but injuries can ruin a team's season.

    Some injuries have a bigger impact than others, and the effect of a player's absence cannot be determined until the team plays a number of games without him. In a few cases, a team unexpectedly plays better after the loss of a key player.

    Our rankings of the most impactful injuries were based on the degree to which the player's absence negatively affected the team's season. The length of time a player was sidelined and the status of the team influenced the injured player's position in our rankings.

    We present a list of 12 injuries that seem to have had the biggest impact on college basketball this season. They are listed in ascending order of their impact, with the most impactful player injury presented last.  However, our first slide is dedicated to four player injuries that were expected to have a major negative impact on their teams but did not.

Injuries Expected to Have a Major Impact but Did Not

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Four injuries that seemed like doomsday sentences for their respective teams ended up not being major setbacks. In retrospect, you might even claim the teams benefited from these players' absences.

     

    Alex Poythress, Kentucky

    Losing its best low-post scoring threat figured to be a problem for Kentucky, but in the five games Alex Poythress missed with a leg injury, the Wildcats went 4-1, winning the four games by an average margin of 22.5 points and losing only to Texas A&M on the road by two points in overtime. The Wildcats already owned sole possession of first place in the SEC when Poythress returned for the most recent game.

     

    Cedric Hankerson, Boston University

    Cedric Hankerson, the Terriers' only preseason all-conference pick, was lost for the season when he suffered a knee injury on Dec. 6. But Boston University is in third place in the Patriot League, the spot that was predicted for the Terriers in the preseason poll.

     

    Dylan Ennis, Oregon

    Dylan Ennis was expected to do the same thing for Oregon that he did last season as a starter for the Villanova team that finished the regular season ranked No. 2. But Ennis played in just two games this season before having his season end because of a reaggravated foot injury. Nonetheless, the Ducks, who were unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll and picked to finish fourth in the conference, are ranked No. 12 this week and are alone atop the Pac-12 standings.

     

    James Blackmon Jr., Indiana

    The Hoosiers were unranked after 13 games when James Blackmon, a preseason all-Big Ten selection who was averaging 15.8 points, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered on Dec. 28. Now Indiana is ranked No. 18 and in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

12. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Denzel Valentine's injury was nearly omitted from this article because Michigan State has recovered from the slump caused largely by Valentine's four-game absence nearly two months ago. However, it was included because of the profound, albeit brief, impact Valentine's injury had on one of the best teams in the country.

    In many ways, the impact of Valentine's injury was similar to the effect Quincy Ford's four-game absence had on Northeastern's chances of winning the Colonial Athletic Association title. The difference is that Northeastern was already 12-8 overall and 4-3 in the conference when Ford was injured, while the Spartans were undefeated and ranked No. 1 when it lost a player performing like a national player of the year.

    When Valentine injured his knee during a Dec. 20 practice, the Spartans were 12-0, with wins over Kansas, Louisville and Providence, and were No. 1 for the third consecutive week. Valentine had already put up two triple-doubles and played his best against the best opponents, scoring 29 and 25 points against Kansas and Louisville, respectively.

    The team felt the effect of Valentine's absence immediately. The Spartans were forced to overtime to beat Oakland in their first game without Valentine. They then lost their Big Ten opener to Iowa by 13 points. Michigan State got by the two worst teams in the Big Ten, Illinois and Minnesota, in its final two games without Valentine, but that stretch without its star seemed to knock the Spartans sideways.

    Having lost their momentum, the Spartans lost three of their first four games after Valentine's return, including a home loss to Nebraska. At that point, the Spartans were 3-4 in the conference, had lost three games in a row, had dropped out of the Top 10 and seemed destined for disappointment.

    Michigan State righted itself with a win against Maryland, avoiding its first four-game losing streak since 2007. Before that win, the Spartans were starting to “feel like we didn’t know what winning felt like,” Valentine said regarding the three-game skid, according to the Detroit Free Press.

    The Spartans regained the winning feeling and have now won seven of their last eight games to put themselves back in the Big Ten race and improve their national ranking to No. 6. But for a while it seemed the absence of Valentine might send the Spartans on an irreversible slide.

11. Connar Tava, Western Michigan

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last season, Western Michigan won 20 games, finished third in its division of the Mid-American Conference and played a postseason game. The Broncos figured to do at least as well this season with four of their top six scorers returning, including Connar Tava, unquestionably their best player.

    The 6'6" Tava was the Broncos' top returning scorer at 12.3 points per game and was the team leader last season in rebounding (6.2 per game), assists (3.3) and field-goal percentage (52.1). He was Western Michigan's only preseason all-conference selection and the chief reason the Broncos were picked to finish third in the MAC West in the conference preseason poll and finish second by both NBCSports.com and SportsNetwork.com (via FoxNews.com).

    That lofty thinking died before the season began, as Tava suffered a broken left foot in October that required surgery, sidelining him indefinitely. In mid-December, it was determined that Tava also needed surgery on his right foot, and it was decided at that point that Tava would redshirt the season.

    The Broncos' season went south without Tava. They are 10-17 overall and 5-10 in the MAC, putting them in last place in their division, two games behind the team immediately in front of them. They have lost five of their last seven games, leaving little reason to believe things will improve.

10. Kamau Stokes, Kansas State

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Two games after freshman point guard Kamau Stokes injured his knee, probably ending his season, Kansas State beat Oklahoma. The Wildcats' RPI rose to 38, and their record was 14-9. An NCAA tournament berth seemed within reach, even without their prime playmaker.

    That one unexpected win now looks like a fluke. Kansas State is 2-5 since Stokes' injury, with the only other victory in that span coming against last-place TCU. The Wildcats are 15-13 overall and 4-11 in the Big 12, and they have an RPI of 80, according to NCAA.com.

    There is a chance Stokes will return this season. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported on Feb. 4 that the surgery went well and that the injury was not as serious as initially believed. However, no timetable for a possible return has been reported.

    Stokes' numbers are not particularly impressive, averaging 9.4 points and 2.7 assists, but losing a starting point guard is never helpful. The Wildcats committed 23 turnovers against Kansas in their first game without Stokes.

    Stokes also provides a perimeter threat. Although he is making just 34 percent of his three-point shots, he is the best long-range weapon on a team that is one of the worst three-point shooting squads in the country, at 29.2 percent. And he seemed to be getting better, averaging 12.0 points while making 14 of 29 three-point shots (48.3 percent) in the five games before he got injured early in the game against Mississippi.

    The Wildcats were barely clinging to NCAA tournament hopes before Stokes got hurt. Losing Stokes seems to have been enough to extinguish that hope.

9. Kendall Pollard, Dayton

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Kendall Pollard has missed six games this season, and that includes being sidelined the last four games in a row because of a bone bruise to his knee. He could get limited playing time in any game now, according to the Dayton Daily News, but the Flyers are trying to manage his court time, hoping to prevent a long-term absence that would endanger their postseason performance.

    His importance to the team has been reflected in the results. Although Pollard is averaging just 11.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, the Flyers are 19-2 when he is in the lineup and 3-3 when he isn't.  

    They lost to last-place La Salle when Pollard was sidelined with an Achilles injury earlier this season. The only two games Dayton won during Pollard's current four-game absence were a two-point win over Rhode Island, which is 7-8 in the Atlantic 10, and an overtime victory over St. Louis, which is 5-10 in the conference.

    The Flyers scored just 14 first-half points against St. Louis, which was the second-lowest total in school history. That win ended Dayton's first two-game losing streak in more than two years and moved the Flyers back into a tie for first place. But the fact that Dayton nearly lost to the Billikens has to be troubling, because Dayton beat St. Louis, 73-37, in January—a game in which Pollard had 18 points and eight rebounds.

    Asked earlier this week when he expects Pollard to return, coach Archie Miller said, according to the Dayton Daily News, "I have no idea, to be honest with you."

    Dayton seems assured of an NCAA tournament berth, but if the Flyers don't have Pollard available to play significant minutes, their postseason prospects are not good.

8. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga

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    William Mancebo/Getty Images

    Gonzaga's disappointing season has been blamed primarily on inconsistent play from its backcourt following the departure of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. from last season's squad. But the loss of center Przemek Karnowski after just six games with a back injury that required surgery had a significant impact as well.

    Karnowski was one of two returning starters and was the team's second-leading returning scorer after averaging 10.9 points on 62.2 percent shooting while grabbing 5.8 rebounds last season. The 7'1", 287-pound Karnowski provided size in the middle and gave the Bulldogs a nice three-man rotation in their two frontcourt spots, offering coach Mark Few some flexibility.

    With Karnowski out, Domantas Sabonis moved into the startling lineup, which has helped Sabonis' numbers but limited Few's options. Kyle Wiltjer plays the other frontcourt spot, but he is more effective facing the basket on the perimeter, leaving Sabonis as the Zags' lone post-up threat. When Karnowski and Sabonis were on the floor together, Gonzaga had a productive attack on the block.

    The Zags may have been overrated with their No. 9 preseason Associated Press ranking, given the questions surrounding their backcourt. But they did fine in the six games Karnowski played, going 5-1 with a win over Connecticut and losing only to Texas A&M by a point in the Bahamas. 

    Things have not gone well since. Gonzaga has already lost four games at home, where the Zags were almost invincible in the past, and it lost both regular-season games to St. Mary's. The Zags are still tied for first in the West Coast Conference with a 13-3 record, but they have an RPI of 66, according to NCAA.com. Worse is the fact that they have just one win over a top-50 RPI team and none against a top-25 RPI squad, per ESPN.com RPI.

    The 21-7 Bulldogs are in serious danger of having their streak of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances halted this season. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com does not have Gonzaga in his projected NCAA tournament field, while Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com barely includes the Zags in his field as one of the last four teams in. Karnowski's absence is at least part of the reason.

7. Terry Henderson, North Carolina State

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    North Carolina State was picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Coast preseason poll, not far behind Miami, Louisville and Florida State and well ahead of Syracuse and Pittsburgh based on their point totals in the poll.

    Part of the reason the Wolfpack seemed a decent bet to reach the NCAA tournament was the addition of guard Terry Henderson. He had averaged 11.7 points in 27.0 minutes per game for West Virginia in 2013-14. After sitting out a season following his transfer to North Carolina State, Henderson figured to provide a productive backcourt partner for point guard Cat Barber this season. Henderson could also give the Wolfpack the perimeter threat they need.

    The hope provided by Henderson's presence ended seven minutes into the season-opening game against William & Mary. That is when Henderson suffered an ankle injury that has kept him on the sidelines all season.

    Even with Barber putting up big numbers, the Wolfpack are 4-11 in the ACC, sitting in 13th place in a 15-team conference. They have no chance at an NCAA tournament berth unless they win the ACC tournament, and no one expects that to happen. 

    North Carolina State could have used the outside shooting of Henderson, whose 37.6 percent three-point shooting for West Virginia two years ago would have been the best on this season's Wolfpack squad among those with a significant number of attempts.

    The initial prognosis on Henderson's injury, according to an Associated Press story, was that he would be out six to eight weeks. It has taken longer. He is doing some work in practice, and it is possible Henderson will play again before the season is over. But on Monday, Joe Giglio of the Raleigh News & Observer said, "It looks like Henderson won't play again" this season.

6. Cameron Ridley, Texas

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    It is difficult to gauge how much impact Cam Ridley's absence has had on Texas' season.

    When Ridley suffered a broken foot on Dec. 27, sidelining him indefinitely, the Longhorns were riding a six-game winning streak, including a victory over North Carolina that seemed to get the team going. The 6'9" Ridley was a major component of that surge, as he was second on the team in scoring at 12.7 points a game and first on the team in both rebounding (10.0  per contest) and blocked shots (3.4 per game).

    Initially, Ridley's injury looked like it would doom the Longhorns, who dropped three of their first four games without him, including a loss to last-place TCU. However, Texas eventually adjusted to Ridley's absence and began its best run of the season. The Longhorns won seven of their next eight games, including wins over Iowa State, West Virginia (on the road) and Baylor. The only loss in that stretch was a close defeat against Kansas in Lawrence. 

    Texas then lost a three-point road game against Oklahoma but still seemed to be playing the best basketball of any team in the conference. The issue at that point was whether Texas might be better off without Ridley.

    The Longhorns' rise has slowed since, as Texas has lost three of its last five games, including a blowout loss at home against Baylor. The Longhorns are 9-6 in the conference, tied for fourth place in the Big 12, which is where they were expected to be. But now it seems the Longhorns could use the services of their big man, although it remains unclear if and when he will return this season.

    Coach Shaka Smart said on Feb. 15 that he hopes to get Ridley back sometime in March, perhaps for the Big 12 tournament, according to 247Sports' Chris Hummer. You would think any team would benefit from having someone who is averaging a double-double while blocking more than three shots a game.

5. Phil Forte, Oklahoma State

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    Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Any chance Oklahoma State had of finishing high in the Big 12 standings died on Dec. 4, when Phil Forte dived for a loose ball against Towson and suffered a hyperextended elbow. He has not played since, and the Cowboys have not been a factor since.

    The Cowboys, who were 3-0 following that victory over Towson, are 9-16 since. More significantly, they are 3-12 in the Big 12, just a game out of last place. With their final three regular-season games being against teams that are currently ranked, the Cowboys seem destined to enter the Big 12 tournament on a six-game losing streak and lugging a 3-15 conference record with them.

    Coach Travis Ford's job was reportedly in jeopardy after last season's 18-14 finish, when Oklahoma State made the NCAA tournament, according to the Associated Press (via USA Today). The Cowboys have no chance of reaching the NCAA tournament this year, unless they win the conference tournament, and that seems almost impossible. The question of Ford's job security will certainly come up again.

    Would Forte's presence have changed all that? A few things to consider: Forte was one of two returning starters from last season's team and was the top returning scorer after averaging 15.0 points a game in 2014-15. A senior, Forte averaged double-figure scoring in each of his first three seasons and led the team in three-pointers made in each of those seasons. Forte was the only Oklahoma State player who received preseason recognition, being given honorable mention on the Big 12 preseason all-conference team.

    Without Forte's shooting, experience and scrappiness, Oklahoma State was left without many weapons. Now, with the Tulsa World reporting that freshman guard Jawun Evans is likely out for the rest of the season after suffering a shoulder injury on Feb. 3, the Cowboys are in even worse straits.

    The Cowboys were only picked to finish seventh in the 10-team conference in the preseason poll, but now they are in ninth place and might finish last.

4. Caris LeVert, Michigan

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Senior Caris LeVert is Michigan's best player. He was the Wolverines' only preseason all-conference selection, and this season he leads the team in scoring (16.5 points per game) and assists (4.9) and is second in rebounding (5.3). LeVert was one of the main reasons Michigan was ranked 25th in the preseason Associated Press poll.

    In the 14 games LeVert played before his leg injury, the Wolverines lost only to SMU, Connecticut and Xavier. Those are not embarrassing losses, although the margin by which the Wolverines lost those games was a bit disheartening. More disheartening was news that LeVert had injured his lower leg in the conference-opening win against Illinois and would be sidelined for an undetermined period.

    Since then, LeVert has made a cameo appearance in just one game, a Feb. 13 victory over Purdue, and it appears now he might be finished for the season, according to a Feb. 19 report by MLive.com's Brendan F. Quinn.

    At first it appeared the Wolverines might succeed without LeVert, as they won six of their first eight games following LeVert's injury, including an upset of Maryland. But it soon became apparent that Michigan's 7-2 Big Ten record had been built primarily against weak opposition, as Penn State (twice), Rutgers, Nebraska and Minnesota had been the other five victims.

    Michigan has lost four of seven games in February, and with a 20-9 overall record, including 10-6 in the Big Ten, its NCAA tournament chances are hanging by a thread. Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com both still have Wolverines in their projected tournament fields, but they are seeded No. 10 in both, leaving them on the bubble.

    This team needs a star to pull it through, and he is not available yet.

3. E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Rhode Island was picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 behind Dayton in the preseason poll, and the vote was close. Dayton received 12 first-place votes and 352 total points from the panel of head coaches and media members, and the Rams got eight first-place votes and 347 points.

    It is easy to see why hopes were high for Rhode Island. The Rams returned two stars from a team that went 23-10 last season and finished tied for second in the Atlantic 10. 

    Rhode Island was the only team with two players on the five-man preseason all-conference team: E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin.

    But Rhode Island's bid for an Atlantic 10 title and a berth in the NCAA tournament ended almost before it started. In the first half of the Rams' season-opening game against American, Matthews suffered a season-ending knee injury. Superstitious people will note that the injury occurred on Friday the 13th, but it did not take a fortune teller to know this was a serious setback.

    Matthews was the team's leading scorer last season as a sophomore, averaging 16.9 points a game, and he had averaged 19.1 points over the final seven games of that season. He was also the Rams' second-leading rebounder at 4.6 boards per game and had been a starter his first two years at Rhode Island.

    Instead of challenging for the conference championship, the Rams reside in seventh place at 7-8. They are 15-13 overall with three regular-season games remaining and have done nothing to suggest they deserve a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Rams can only wonder what might have been if Matthews had been healthy.

2. Jalan West, Northwestern State

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    Gareth Patterson/Associated Press

    You may not have heard of Jalan West, and you may find it difficult to believe that the absence of a player in the Southland Conference could have a significant impact on college basketball. But the injury to West changed the landscape in the conference and, to some extent, in the country.

    Northwestern State was picked to finish second in the Southland Conference in its preseason poll, behind only Stephen F. Austin, which returned three starters from a team that stunned No. 5-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in last season's NCAA tournament.

    Northwestern State had knocked off No. 3-seeded Iowa in the 2006 NCAA tournament, and the Demons seemed to have the material to challenge Stephen F. Austin and create some postseason havoc this season. 

    Northwestern State counted heavily on point guard West, the Demons' only first-team all-conference pick last season. The 5'10" West had averaged 20.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 2014-15 while hitting 42.2 percent of his three-point shots. He led the nation in assists last season, and his numbers compared favorably with any point guard in the country.

    After finishing 12-5 in the conference last season, Northwestern State had every reason to believe it could win the Southland title. 

    West indicated in the season-opening game against Mississippi that he was primed for another big year. He had 25 points and six assists and hit six of 10 three-point shots against the Rebels. But in the final minute of that game, he suffered a torn anterior-cruciate ligament.

    His season was over, and so were the Demons' hopes of making an impact nationally. Northwestern State's only victory in its first eight games was a six-point home win against Louisiana College, a Division III school. Northwestern State's record is 8-17 overall and 5-10 in the conference, leaving it in 10th place in the Southland Conference. That is not what the Demons envisioned in October when West was healthy.

1. Amile Jefferson, Duke

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Duke seems to have finally found its footing without Amile Jefferson, and the Blue Devils might be a factor in the postseason with or without him. However, there was a period when Jefferson's absence made the Blue Devils look lost, putting them in danger of not making the NCAA tournament. Even now Duke is not the imposing team it would be if Jefferson were back in the lineup.

    The question of if and when Jefferson will return this season continues to linger. Jefferson broke his foot on Dec. 12, and it seems he is still far from returning. The Raleigh News & Observer's Laura Keeley reported on Feb. 14 that Duke is not yet considering redshirting Jefferson, but the pain is still significant enough to limit his rehabilitation.

    His loss robs Duke of a number of important ingredients.

    First of all, Jefferson is a senior in his third year as a starter, and he is the only returning starter from last year's national championship team. That kind of experience is invaluable.

    Second, he is averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in his nine games. He is by far the team's top rebounder, and he provides some inside muscle and scoring in the paint that the Blue Devils are lacking otherwise.

    Finally, he gives the Blue Devils a bit of depth. They are basically playing just six players without him and were down to five against Louisville on Saturday when Matt Jones was out with ankle injury. The Duke players were clearly tired at the end of the Louisville game, as they let a 13-point, second-half lead slip away in a 71-64 loss.

    With Jefferson in the lineup, Duke was ranked No. 7 with an 8-1 record, losing only to Kentucky and beating Indiana by 20 points. Following Jefferson's injury, the Blue Devils lost five of their next 12 games, including a stretch of four losses in five games that dropped them completely out of the top 25. At 15-6 and 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Duke was in trouble, and omission from the NCAA tournament seemed possible.

    Since then, the Blue Devils have rebounded nicely, thanks to the consistent scoring of Grayson Allen, the improvement of freshman Brandon Ingram, an occasional boost from freshman Luke Kennard and a few subtle adjustments on defense. They have won five of their past six games, including wins over Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina, and losing only that game at Louisville. 

    However, without Jefferson, this team still has noticeable shortcomings in the interior and may wear down in the final weeks. Its postseason hopes are limited unless Jefferson returns and can play effectively.

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