Auburn’s Ward adapts game after injury at Texas

Auburn’s Varez Ward can’t take to the air quite like he used

to.

The onetime Texas starter is still trying to regain strength and

explosiveness more than two years after rupturing his right

quadriceps tendon while dunking during pregame warmups.

Ward said he had lost 9 inches off a 38-inch vertical leap as of

last summer. Still, he has become a key player for the struggling

Tigers and shown flashes of his old abilities with a recent hot

streak.

”I’ve been working hard on my game, so I don’t really rely on

being able to jump over defenders like I used to,” said Ward, who

figures he’s regained some of his hops the past few months. ”It

made me sick a little bit. It’ll help me in the long run because it

won’t let me rely so much on my athletic ability.”

Ward still drives to the basket, but now he aims at drawing

fouls, hitting layups or passing back out to teammates more often

than dunking.

He was going up for a windmill dunk in the layup line on Nov.

24, 2009, for the third-ranked Longhorns when he felt a pop in his

right leg.

”Honestly I don’t even know how I came down,” said Ward, who

had started the first three games for Texas. ”It was just a freak

accident.”

The injury required surgery and forced him to watch as the

Longhorns rose to their first No. 1 ranking less than two months

later.

The Big 12 granted him a medical hardship waiver and the

Montgomery native decided to transfer closer to home to be near his

ailing mother Sharon – who he said has had two heart operations but

is now doing well – after Auburn hired former UTEP coach Tony

Barbee.

Ward sat out last season and has two years of eligibility

remaining.

”He’s a fantastic player,” said Barbee, who recruited him out

of high school. ”His game has always been based around his ability

to beat people. He was always athletic enough that he could finish

when he beat people.

”Now, he’s struggling to do that because he’s lost some of his

explosiveness in terms of vertically getting up on top of the rim.

But he’s still smart enough to know how to get in there,” Barbee

said. ”What he’s been doing has been getting fouled, creating

angles to get fouled, and then he’s really been shooting his free

throws well.”

Ward struggled to convert drives in Tuesday night’s loss to

Alabama, scoring just three points. It ended a three-game run when

he made 27 of 32 free throws and averaged 17.7 points, nearly

double his season average (9.3).

Ward capped that hot streak by scoring a career-high 24 points

and dishing out five assists in 29 minutes at Mississippi

State.

”It’s what we were looking for all year long,” Barbee said,

”and I guess better late than never.”

The turnaround came after Ward took a knee to his injured leg in

the opening minute of the game against Arkansas. He didn’t play

again, and Barbee gave him a few days off to recuperate, a rarity

during the heart of the Southeastern Conference schedule but

apparently beneficial.

”It’s definitely strange that it’s brought some life to me,”

Ward said. ”Those couple of days have helped me rejuvenate my

body.”

Ward, who leads the Tigers (13-11) in assists, splits time at

point guard with Josh Wallace and has come off the bench the last

six games.

He said his leg doesn’t hurt these days, but the pain flared up

at times early in the season. He has spent 2 or 3 hours daily in

the training room getting treatment, a big improvement from lengthy

sessions that started at 6 a.m. during a medical redshirt year last

season.

He showed flashes early in his Texas career. Ward scored 16

points on 7 of 8 shooting against Duke in the second round of the

NCAA tournament as a freshman.

He was averaging 6.7 points, 2.3 steals and 2.3 assists in the

first three games the following season when he was injured.

Barbee said doctors believe the strength will eventually return

to Ward’s right leg.

In the meantime, he has learned to adapt to his new

limitations.

”Early in the year, I was thinking drive and shoot a floater,

shoot pullups,” he said. ”Now, I’m trying to play back above the

rim, trying to get fouled, draw contact. Early in the year, I was

thinking about my leg a lot because I didn’t want to get hurt

again. That was always on my mind.

”Now, it’s past me and it’s not mental any more. I just go out

there and play.”