On a Thursday afternoon in Memphis, Kenyon Martin was standing near the foul line with his back facing the basket, then turned to set a screen and got his legs tangled with a Saint Louis defender. It didn’t look like anything that would change the course of the 1999-2000 college basketball season. But that was the last play Martin would run as a collegian, and one of the last the Cincinnati Bearcats would play that year.
He had broken his leg in that moment, so the best college player that season on what had established itself as the best team became ancillary to the NCAA Tournament. There’d rarely been anything like it in college basketball history.
This year there may be more Kenyon Martins than ever before.
It’s unlikely anyone has a statistical record of this, but across the years there are anecdotal incidents of players whose late-season injuries impacted the NCAAs: Arizona center Loren Woods along with Martin in 2000, Purdue forward Robbie Hummel and Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku in 2010, Kentucky center Nerlens Noel in 2013, Kansas center Joel Embiid in 2014, VCU guard Briante Weber in 2015. No doubt there’ve been a few more.
In 2017, it’s an avalanche. There are at least nine teams in the field that lost key players for the season after Jan. 15. That’s 13 percent of the field. The oddity of all this is that for all the talk of player injuries affecting work of the selection committee — and remembering how 2000 Cincinnati got knocked off the No. 1 seed line because of Martin’s injury – there appears to have been almost no impact from this rash of injuries on selections or seeding.
Teams got what they earned with their full bodies of work.
But those injuries are still gonna leave a mark, as this list will show you:
10. Alec Peters, forward, Valparaiso
Record with him: 23-6
Record without: 1-3
Peters only ranks 10th because we can’t be 100 percent certain Valpo would have made the field with Peters playing. But the injury that ended his season with Peters averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds — and still winning the Horizon League player of the year award —cost the Crusaders any opportunity to make it back and Northern Kentucky wound up winning the conference’s automatic bid.
9. Kenny Williams, guard, North Carolina
Record with him: 21-4
Record without: 6-2
Williams averaged only 6.2 points and 3.3 rebounds, and he might have been crowded out of the rotation by the return of defensive specialist Theo Pinson and the arrival of tournament time. But he was averaging 24 minutes a game. Williams was trusted to defend and make smart plays even though he was not a potent part of the offense.
8. Michal Cekovsky, center, Maryland
Record with him: 13-4
Record without him: 11-4
Cekovsky had three separate absences as the season advanced, missing games at the start and middle of the season, along with the end. He deepened Maryland inside and provided an athletic, above-the-rim presence the Terps’ other two centers don’t deliver. Down the stretch, after he was lost for the year with a torn knee ligament, Maryland was only 3-2 against Big Ten competition, with two of the losses at home and another with a home-crowd advantage at the league tournament in Washington.
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7. Chris Clarke, wing, Virginia Tech
Record with him: 17-7
Record without: 5-3
The Hokies’ three losses following Clarke’s injury came by a combined 14 points. Think they couldn’t have used his 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game? He averaged double-figure scoring while taking only seven shots per game. That kind of low-maintenance reliability is difficult to replace. Already one of the league’s poorer rebounding teams, the Hokies were beaten on the boards in six of the eight games Clarke missed.
6. Eron Harris, guard, Michigan State
Record with him: 16-11
Record without: 3-3
The Spartans weren’t a perfect team with Harris, but his absence has made the Spartan thin in the backcourt as well as up front. They did have veteran Alvin Ellis to take some of the minutes, and gifted freshman Josh Langford has had to become a fulltime player rather than someone coach Tom Izzo used when Langford was having a good day. But Ellis has excelled only once since Harris went out (15 points against Illinois, and the Spartans lost) and Langford produced two double-figure games, against Nebraska and Penn State. They were non-tournament teams; there are no non-tournament teams in the tournament.
5. Akeem Springs, guard, Minnesota
Record with him: 24-8
Record without: 0-1
It’s hard to be certain how much the Gophers will miss Springs because they only played one time without him after he injured his Achilles in a Big Ten quarterfinal victory over Michigan State. On a team that was not overpowering from 3-point range, Springs was the most active 3-point shooter (67 makes) and one of the most accurate (38.3 percent). Dupree McBrayer had been backing up both Springs and point guard Nate Mason, but with Springs out of the Big Ten semis the Mason/McBrayer combo played a combined 80 minutes.
4. Edmund Sumner, guard, Xavier
Record with him: 15-6
Record without: 6-7
As the numbers indicate, the Musketeers were not overpowering with Sumner. But five of their losses with him the lineup were to teams seeded No. 6 or better in the NCAAs. Most important, they lost their opportunity to improve and spent the majority of February merely attempting to survive. That became even more of a challenge when top scorer Trevon Bluiett picked up a short-term injury. Bluiett returned by the end of the season and Xavier defeated Butler in the Big East Tournament and played well against Creighton. But this isn’t the same team, and it hasn’t the same potential.
3. John Egbunu, center, Florida
Record with him: 19-5
Record without: 5-3
Perhaps the Gators would have struggled to solve the riddle of Vanderbilt even with Egbunu healthy. He did play 31 minutes in the their two-point home loss to the Commodores in late January. But since Egbunu was lost for the season with a knee injury Florida lost twice more to Vandy and is only a .500 team. (Two of the five wins without Egbunu occurred in December against mid-major opponents). It’s hard to be confident in a team that wins with defense first when it lacks someone who averaged 1.5 blocks.
2. Chris Boucher, center, Oregon
Record with him: 28-5
Record without: 0-1
It’s hard to win a championship after losing an essential regular. Does Oregon have a Cameron Dollar handy? It’s mostly Boucher’s defense inside the Ducks will miss as a result of his injury from the conference semis. He averaged 2.5 blocks, and power forward Jordan Bell is good for 2.0 per game; it’s hard to replicate the destruction that tandem could wreak with only one of the players available. Boucher also was an uncommon threat from the perimeter for a 6-10 center. He had 36 3-pointers and averaged 11.8 points. Even if 6-11 Kavel Bigby-Williams accounts for some of the blocks (he had two in the Pac-12 title game against Arizona) he’s not going makeup for what Boucher added to the attack.
1. Maurice Watson, guard, Creighton
Record with him: 18-1
Record without: 7-8
Creighton was believed to be a Final Four threat before the knee injury that knocked Watson out for the season back on Martin Luther King Day. It was impressive that the Bluejays managed still to reach the Big East Tournament championship game but they lost seven of their 10 games against NCAA Tournament-bound opponents following the Watson injury. Before? They were 5-1. Creighton will never know what would have been possible had Watson stayed healthy. They have that in common with Cincinnati’s 2000 team, and too many others.