Like UConn, SMU can’t “Shake” the injury bug
Updated 5:32 pm, Wednesday, March 7, 2018
ORLANDO — It’s been well documented that UConn has been snakebitten by injuries the last couple of years.
The Huskies lost three players (Alterique Gilbert, Terry Larrier and Mamadou Diarra) to season-ending injuries a year ago. And Gilbert, a high school McDonald’s All-American point guard, has missed all but the first four games this season as well with recurring shoulder issues.
Pardon Tim Jankovich if he doesn’t have much sympathy for the Huskies.
“The last five, six weeks have been about as tough of a stretch as I’ve ever been through,” the second-year SMU head coach said. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen — ever — in all the years I’ve coached, in terms of injuries. Truth be told, they all aren’t even told yet.”
No. 8 seed UConn (14-17) faces No. 9 seed SMU in an AAC tournament opening game on Thursday at the Amway Center (noon, ESPNU). The Mustangs (16-15), who won the league title last season, have been pretty much down to a rotation of seven scholarship players the past month or so.
Jarrey Foster, a defensive stalwart who started SMU’s first 19 games and averaged 13.2 points, and Everett Ray, a freshman off the bench, suffered season-ending injuries in early January.
But the biggest blow of all came when leading scorer Shake Milton broke a bone in his right hand against ECU on Jan. 28. Milton, the preseason AAC Player of the Year who averages 18 points, has missed SMU’s last nine games. The Mustangs are 1-8 in those games.
“We’ve always prided ourselves, for years, that you’re playing your best in February and March,” said Jankovich. “That’s almost always been the case. But this year, you can’t possibly say that, for all the things that have hit our team. It’s been a rough period.”
Jankovich told reporters that Milton’s chances of returning to play against UConn on Thursday are “not good.”
“It’s gonna be a great matchup,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “They’ve got some players that have been stepping in for Shake’s injury, Foster’s injury. They’re probably more invested in their time and understanding what coach wants them to do on a day-to-day basis. I know they’re gonna have a renewed energy coming into the tournament, so we’ve got to play our best basketball.”
Though the record may indicate otherwise, the Huskies have been playing a little better lately. Led by a resurgent Jalen Adams, UConn has scored wins over ECU and Temple, got edged by Memphis, crushed at Cincinnati and played No. 25 Houston tough in its regular-season finale before bowing by 10.
UConn also beat SMU in the teams’ lone meeting this season, 63-52 on Jan. 25 at Gampel Pavilion. That was, of course, with Milton, who scored 18 point on 5-for-16 shooting.
There’s also the possibility that this is Ollie’s final game as UConn’s head coach. Barring an unlikely run a conference tourney title, this will be the second straight season the Huskies finish under .500 — something that never happened in Jim Calhoun’s 26 years at the helm.
No question, injuries haven’t helped.
“I know we would have been better with Al here,” he said, referring to Gilbert. “Al is one of our emotional leaders. He’s a great point guard, but a great person. I think we’d have definitely been a better team with him. But by that same token, some other guys have had the opportunity to step up. Hopefully, that gives us some great experience going into next year when we get Al back. And we’ve got a great point guard from Oakland (James Akinjo) coming in that’s really gonna help us with ballhandling. I think it’s gonna be a great opportunity to get back to our winning ways. But that’s next season.”
Or will it be for Ollie? That very much remains to be seen.