Utah State basketball: Aggies one of the nation’s most injury-stricken teams
By Kyle Goon
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 06 2013 08:15PM
Logan • Watching Spencer Butterfield shoot after practice on Wednesday, Marvin Jean felt a little relieved.
Last week in Ruston, La., the Utah State junior had been overcome by that all-too-familiar wave of alarm and anguish as he watched Butterfield writhe on the court after a fall. He feared far worse when his teammate told him he couldn’t feel his leg.
"I thought he was done," Jean said, a wide-eyed look crossing his face as he remembered the moment. "He couldn’t move his leg, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t do anything at all. I could only think, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ "
Forgive the Aggies if they wonder that question aloud — it’s been clear that Utah State has suffered more than its fair share of crippling injuries this season.
The Aggies had to count out Sean Harris and Brady Jardine before they even started the season. Then, from Danny Berger’s heart episode, to Preston Medlin’s and Kyisean Reed’s simultaneous long-term ailments, to Butterfield’s fall, the season has been defined by the team’s series of injuries and how they’ve tried to reinvent themselves.
This year, there have been 77 games missed by five of the Aggies’ top players — and 105 if you count Jardine, who would’ve played this season if not for a career-ending foot surgery. It’s hard to imagine a team in the country more beset by physical afflictions.
"It’s been a strange one," said coach Stew Morrill, now in his 27th year as a head coach. "I’ve never seen anything like it in all the years I’ve been in coaching, that’s for sure."
A perusal of a USA Today list of injuries across the Division I landscape reveals that Utah State is in a rather exclusive category of teams ravaged by health issues. Putting aside programs with suspended or ineligible players, there are really only two that compare.
North Texas coach Tony Benford, for example, might have a legitimate claim for most injury-prone team in America. His Mean Green Eagles have lost 78 games and five players this year.
It’s hard to forget the ill omen that kicked off the year, when his 3-point sharpshooter Brandan Walton broke his foot on an early possession against Creighton. Since then, it’s unfolded into a 12-19 season for a program that was expected to win its division in the Sun Belt Conference.
It’s tried Benford like no other season he can remember: He has a potential NBA lottery pick in Tony Mitchell, but a surrounding cast that has been dropping like flies.
"It’s almost like coaching three or four different teams," he said. "You find yourself making all kinds of adjustments that you wouldn’t have considered before, mixing up defenses and just trying to keep guys focused."
It’s a comparable story at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where the Jaguars have struggled to a 6-25 year after losing four of their top four players for the season. When it appeared the team might have one of its stars back from an injury, he broke his foot in his return.
That’s the way the cookie has crumbled for coach Todd Howard, who has tried to remember that his situation mostly boils down to luck — or lack thereof.
"You just have to cross your fingers and hope it doesn’t come your way," he said. "You can only get through the best you can. Hopefully, when you look back on it when it’s all said and done, your players got better."
That’s what Utah State has aimed for, even though it’s been burdened as much as any team in the nation by getting banged up. Despite the odds, the Aggies find themselves one victory away from the program’s 14th consecutive 20-win season.
In a season of unparalleled adversity — aside from maybe two other Division I programs in the country — it’s something to fight for.
"We’re kind of used to everybody being out," Jean said. "We know what we have to go out and do. It’s just us."