More than ever in this unpredictable COVID-19 basketball season, college teams are tapping into their bench play more than they imagined.
Because coaches don’t know who will be quarantined when, including themselves
And when you include the tangible, regular basketball injuries like sprained ankle or bruised thighs or pulled muscles, suddenly the 8th, 9th and even 10th guys in a playing rotation become important.
That’s what coaches Will Wade of LSU and Eric Musselman of Arkansas are facing Wednesday night when the Tigers (8-2, 3-1) and the Razorbacks (10-2, 2-2) at 6 p.m. in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU is still without reserve junior forward Shareef O’Neal, who has yet to play in an SEC game because of an ankle injury. The Tigers also may be without freshman guard Cam Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, who sprained an ankle on his first shot attempt of the game in LSU’s 75-61 win at Ole Miss on Saturday.
Some of the Tigers’ reserves who played well against the Rebels, such as freshman guards Eric Gaines and Jalen Cook and sophomore guard Aundre Hyatt, will need to deliver some key minutes.
Those guys have shown they can do it at different points of the season, we’ve got to have guys step up,” Wade said. “But give Arkansas a ton of credit. They’ve been losing some guys and had some bodies down, but they’ve had different guys step up all the time.
“They’ve had some different guys step up and so you’ve got to have guys step up, you’ve got to have guys ready to go. Next man up, we’ll figure it out.”
The Razorbacks will have just nine healthy scholarship players available. Arkansas is down four scholarship players because of injuries and a transfer sitting out.
Like Wade, Arkansas coach Eric Musselmen is approaching the game with a “we’ll go with who’ve we’ve got” attitude.
“As long as we’ve got seven players, we’re good,” said Musselman, a former one-year LSU assistant. “It’s no big deal.”
The Hogs certainly could use Justin Smith, a 6-7 senior graduate transfer who started the first nine games and is averaging 11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds. He’s recovering from right ankle surgery he underwent on Jan. 1.
Also, Arkansas sophomore point guard Khalen “KK” Robinson will miss the rest of the season. He underwent surgery on his right foot Sunday to repair a bone fracture.
Despite the Razorbacks’ injuries, Wade expects a tight, physical between two teams that have made a living at the free throw line this year.
LSU averages 18.6 made free throws per game and Arkansas averages 16. The Tigers’ inflated number is largely due to Thomas, who scores 6.2 of his 22.3 points per game from the free throw line.
“When you can get to the free throw line, that’s a huge advantage,” Wade said. “Getting to the free throw line is a staple of having a good offense.”