Louisville and Vanderbilt are both safely ensconced in the warmth of the Associated Press poll's preseason top 25. Both teams have high expectations -- it's fair to say the Final Four is the goal for both -- in 2011-12. And both teams, by varying degrees, will now have to deal with important injuries suffered late last week.
For Louisville, the news was downright devastating: Freshman Wayne Blackshear, a McDonald's All-American ranked No. 27 overall in the class of 2011, suffered a torn labrum in a practice Friday afternoon. The injury will require surgery and at least four months of recovery time, meaning Blackshear will almost certainly miss the entire 2011-12 season. At Big East media day, Louisville coach Rick Pitino described Blackshear's importance as such:
"With him, we are an extremely good team," Pitino said. "Without him, we are very good."
Some good news and some bad news for Louisville fans, then. The good news? Your coach still thinks your team is very good. The bad news? There may have been some shot at excellence there this season. Without Blackshear in the fold, that level may be just out of reach.
Vanderbilt's injury was less drastic, fortunately, but still serious all the same: Forward Festus Ezeli sprained ligaments in his knee in practice this week. (Ezeli was injured Tuesday, but Vanderbilt waited to receive the diagnosis before announcing the injury Friday.) The injury will take six to eight weeks of recovery time. The ironic part, if qualifies as irony, is that Ezeli was already set to miss some of that time -- the Commodores' first six games -- thanks to a suspension for secondary NCAA violations levied earlier this month. The length of Ezeli's injury will keep him out even longer, and the injury presents a new set of challenges, according to coach Kevin Stallings:
“I’m not proud of the fact we’ve had somebody suspended — albeit what he did, I think, was very unknowing and unaware,” Stallings said. “But it was a lot better when he was just suspended than when he’s injured because he was able to practice. There’s a huge difference from that standpoint. Now you have six to eight weeks of losing conditioning and timing and things like that.”
Another problem is timing. With the suspension alone, Ezeli would have returned just in time for Xavier's Nov. 28 visit to Nashville. That's as important a non-conference game as the Commodores have, and Ezeli is now sure to miss it. He's also likely to miss a massive road trip to Louisville on Dec. 2 and a Dec. 9 game at Davidson. Stallings said his already perimeter-oriented team will have to construct odd lineups and unusual rotations to keep up with opponents, and it's difficult to understate how much that transition -- the process of getting Ezeli in tune with his teammates after eight weeks of downtime -- can make a season's developmental curve sag.
At least Ezeli isn't out for the season. Louisville feels that pain. But neither team can be feeling particularly good.