A lineup initially altered to address off the court issues now faces serious on the court concerns, as the Spartans wait to learn of the fate of guards Gary Harris and Travis Trice.
Both players headed to the locker room early and failed to return Thursday night, as the MSU men’s basketball team (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten) rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Illinois (15-7, 2-6) 80-75 at Breslin Center.
MSU head coach Tom Izzo said Trice’s injury occurred when the sophomore took an inadvertent knee to the head and added Harris’ injury to his back occurred when he was hit in the air on a fastbreak dunk attempt.
Trice already has missed time this season with a concussion and broken nose suffered in the season opener against Connecticut, and Harris also has been out of the lineup with a shoulder injury earlier in the season.
After the game, Izzo said he had “no idea” about the extent of either injury, but did indicate Trice could be out for an extended period of time.
“That ain’t good,” Izzo said of the severity of Trice’s injury. “I‘ve got a feeling one of them’s going to be out for a while, if what we think happened, happened. It was a pretty severe knee to the head and if that happened, I don’t know. I’m going to go back, but the first checking I did there was nothing good to report.”
Although he hadn’t yet spoken to him about his condition, sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson, said he first began to worry about his roommate when he noticed Trice didn’t return to the bench during the game.
Dawson said he felt especially bad, since the two were laughing about Trice’s injury prone nature before the game.
“We were just joking around in the locker room earlier,” Dawson said. “I call him ‘Can’t Get Right’ because something is always wrong with him. He’s sick, got migranes, he’s this, he had a concussion, so I think I brought some bad luck on him a little bit and I hope he gets well.”
The injury woes continued with Harris, who scored 14 points and helped lead a 14-0 surge to open the second half, giving the Spartans a lead they would never relinquish.
But after being sent to the ground on what Izzo termed “a clean foul,” Harris appeared to aggravate his back, received treatment in the locker room, but wasn’t able to return to the sidelines.
“He went down pretty good,” Izzo said of Harris. “I think (his back) spasmed up bad. He couldn’t even walk, so we couldn’t even put him back in. They tried to work on him. And that hurt us. I’ll be very blunt and honest about it. We’re just not deep enough at the guard position.”
Seeking a guard to help pick up the slack, the Spartans turned to Harris’ roommate and best friend
on the team, and Denzel Valentine delivered his best game in more than a month, scoring a career-high 14 points, including a number of clutch free throws down the stretch.
Although he didn’t know about Harris’ status, Valentine summed it up simply.
“Gary’s going to be all right,” Valentine said. “He’s a tough guy.”
Yet the issue that started all the lineup changes and caused what Izzo described as a “distraction,” was senior center Derrick Nix being replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore forward Alex Gauna as punishment for missing a Friday class and an appointment with a tutor on Monday.
Nix said he was simply being “lazy,” and there was no excuse for his absence, and although it might not have as great a long term impact on his team’s title chances as the other news that came out of Thursday night’s game, Izzo made it clear he wasn’t taking it lightly.
“Derrick Nix is 13 hours from graduating — 13 hours,” Izzo said. “He’ll be the first human being in his family that has graduated. And it’ll be a cold day in hell before I do anything but get him graduated. And if he has to sit the rest of the games, he’ll sit them. He knows it. … Did that hurt my team tonight? You’re damn right it did.”