USU basketball: Injury bug as bad as USU has seen under Stew Morrill
In the years Stew Morrill has been a head coach, Don Verlin's spent much of that time by his side. For 15 years, he was Morrill's assistant, and the two labored over some great seasons and some challenging years.
On Thursday, Utah State visits the Verlin-coached Vandals in Moscow, Idaho. And even Verlin never saw an Aggies squad as banged up as this one.
"It's definitely an unfortunate situation," Verlin said. "Eight scholarship players? We never had that when I was with coach at Colorado State or Utah State. It's tough."
That doesn't mean Verlin is expecting a cupcake contest against his old mentor.
"I will say this coach hasn't won 500 games by sitting around feeling sorry for himself," he said. "He's going to have them ready to play."
Morrill has said himself this injury-prone season is among the "weirdest" he's encountered. He's had trouble comparing this year, in which he's lost four players to serious injuries and two others who departed by choice, to any other in his 27-year tenure as a head coach.
Preston Medlin, Kyisean Reed, Danny Berger and Sean Harris have all gone down in the past few months. Counting Brady Jardine, who was injured last year and couldn't return this season, Morrill joked last week that he could have a solid starting lineup made of injured players.
Part of the challenge for Morrill and the Aggies has been to simply keep their heads up, to ignore the burden brought on by the strange machinations of fate.
"I think we've all thought at one point or another, 'Why did this have to happen to those guys?' " sophomore Ben Clifford said. "Preston and Kyisean are great guys, great leaders on this team. And Danny, well, he could've died. But we don't think, 'Why poor us?' "
Everyday activities are a chore with only eight scholarship players and a crew of three more walk-ons or redshirts. Practices have been shortened and slowed down to reduce the risk of more injuries, but the concern is that less practice means less preparation.
If your head isn't in it, Clifford said, you don't get much out of it.
"It's not so much the physical as the mental," he said. "You need to be focused."
Still, even when the Aggies do a lot right, they are learning that they're not always going to get the result they want. After a loss to UT Arlington, Morrill asked for more intensity and effort, especially on the defensive end. When Utah State held WAC-leading Louisiana Tech to a season-low 51 points, it still got a loss.
Morrill has said since Reed's and Medlin's injuries that as long as the team plays hard, "we'll live with the result." But Aggies fans would probably still appreciate that for the team, the bar is still higher, and the losses still sting.
"We could've beaten those guys," junior Marvin Jean said of the three-point loss to the Bulldogs. "We came in hard last game and almost beat them. We have enough guys to win. We just have to keep faith."
Utah State hopes that the fan base will also keep its faith in them. At 5-4 in the WAC, the Aggies have fallen from the top of the standings to hovering in a muddled middle.
They still believe they can get back there with casts, bandages and whatever other misfortunes they might pick up along the way.
"We have a little fatigue, but we're going to keep going hard," Jean said. "We'll have more chances to win. We'll find a way to win."
Utah State at Idaho
O At Cowan Spectrum (Moscow, Idaho)
Tipoff • Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV • Altitude 2. Radio • 97.5 FM
Records • Utah State 14-5, 5-4; Idaho 8-11, 4-5
Series history • Utah State leads 36-14
Last meeting • USU 82, Idaho 75 (OT), Jan. 5
About the Aggies • Utah State is on a four-game losing streak, the longest of coach Stew Morrill's tenure. ... Junior guard Spencer Butterfield is one of the WAC's top scorers since conference play started, averaging 12.9 points per game. ... Junior center Jarred Shaw is in the top 10 in the WAC in both scoring (12.7 ppg) and rebounds (8.4 rpg).
About the Vandals • Senior center Kyle Barone is third in WAC scoring (16.7 ppg) and leads rebounding (9.7 rpg). ... The Vandals convert their shots better than any other WAC team, shooting 49.5 percent from the floor in conference play. ... Sophomore Connor Hill has 51 3-pointers this year, only nine away from the program's sophomore season record.