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Comparing Utah State to nation's other injury-afflicted programs

Published March 7, 2013 7:44 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Let's face it: There's only so much room in print.

I wrote a piece comparing Utah State to some of the most banged-up programs in Division I basketball for Thursday's paper ahead of the Aggies' game against Texas State. I thought as an addendum, I'd post some extra items from my interviews with North Texas' Tony Benford and IUPUI's Todd Howard as a way of comparing what each program has gone through, more to compare the ways they are similar.

At 19-9, Utah State has the best record of the the three programs I examined for this story. But look at the elements and struggles they share:

• One common thread: Slow the game down. Utah State is ranked No. 320 in Kenpom.com's adjusted tempo, a measurement that reflects the team's deliberate pacing. The hope is that by stretching the game out and limiting possessions, it keeps players fresh and keeps high-scoring offenses grounded.

Benford said he has a philosophy that's he's adopted: Score early or score late. "We want to either get those easy baskets in transition, or if that doesn't work, we want to draw out the clock. It gives us a better look and doesn't wear out our guys."

Howard said it's pretty much the only way the Jaguars can stay in a game. "We've played well in stretches. We try to make those stretches last longer. At Maryland, we played a great first half but kind of lost momentum in the second half."

• Mixing defenses is the best way to keep opponents on their toes. Utah State has done this with a little man, a little zone and occasionally adding some pressure, often being forced to revert to zone when foul trouble creeps up. When Stew Morrill played a triangle and two this season, he said it was the first time in a long time he's dusted it off. It's not altogether unusual for other injured programs to try to gain an edge with odd looks.

Benford: "That's probably the most difficult thing. We lost most of our guards, so we have 6-8 guys trying to guard the perimeter. You find yourself making all kinds of adjustments, mixing defenses, mixing in zone."

• The little moments seem that much bigger. Think of Utah State's heart-breaking losses to Louisiana Tech, Denver and BYU. Done in by a shot. Maybe a missed rebound. Maybe a free throw. That haunts you that much more, because a victory seems to mean so much more when the bench thins out.

Howard: "It all just seems magnified, each play. You look at all the different things that didn't go your way. We had a game where a kid caught his own missed free throw. Things like that are tough."

• The staffs are all befuddled by the injuries they're seeing. Morrill and his assistants haven't seen an injury bug like this one ever. Morrill said he found it hard to imagine that any other program could be so adversely affected. So did the North Texas and IUPUI staffs - they thought they were by far the worst, and they're each the most-afflicted teams they've encountered this year.

Morrill has been a head coach for 27 seasons. Howard has been at IUPUI for 17 seasons as an assistant and a head coach. Benford has two assistants who have been head coaches - Rob Evans and Bart Lundy - and neither has ever seen a situation quite like the one the Mean Green Eagles are in.

And even being the most injured team doesn't exactly inspire respect from other teams. "No one you play is going to feel sorry for you, I tell my guys that all the time." Benford said.

• It's hard not to look ahead. Howard said he's excited to see what going through adversity can do for his team next year, but there's still a challenge of winning games right ahead of him. Still, every coach mentioned there's been a lot of time for skill work and individual work. Benford said he's had a chance to get more development from freshmen and other newcomers who were barely expected to play.

This is also true for Utah State. All but one player on the team is slotted to come back next year when the program enters the Mountain West. Looking at players such as Jordan Stone, Marvin Jean, Spencer Butterfield and TeNale Roland, all have had a chance to develop and grow.

Of course, this has come at a terrible price. Marvin Jean said it best: "Coming in here, I wanted to play some minutes. But with everybody going down, I'm like, 'Man, I didn't want it like this.'"

— Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon




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