No. 12 Murray State keeps rolling without Aska
Murray State may have already survived the biggest threat to an undefeated run to the NCAA tournament: losing its leading rebounder to a broken hand.
So with 6-foot-7 senior forward Ivan Aska out since breaking his right hand in a win Dec. 30 against Eastern Illinois, the Racers have improvised without missing a step.
''I'm not the team,'' Aska said after the injury. ''I have other teammates.''
That he does. They are the reason the Racers (18-0, 6-0 Ohio Valley Conference) remain one of only two undefeated Division I men's basketball teams along with No. 1 Syracuse heading into their game Wednesday at Morehead State.
The 12th-ranked Racers have managed without the forward who had played 113 games for Murray State before his injury. Coach Steve Prohm installed a four-guard set and implored his shooters to battle for rebounds.
''Ivan's presence out there on both ends of the floor, being able to rebound the basketball, being able to score around the basket, we miss that,'' Prohm said. ''But everyone that follows our team knew we were going to miss that to some degree.''
Aska continues doing what he can to encourage his teammates while he heals.
''A lot of guys that get hurt get down on themselves and they just break down, they won't cheer, they really wouldn't be anything to the team because they aren't on the floor,'' Racers guard Donte Poole said. ''Of course he didn't like it, but in practice he'll be talking. In the games he'll be talking. In the timeouts he'll be talking. In the course of the game he'll be yelling.
''It's just good knowing that even though he's not in the game, it's good he's still that leader and he's still being there vocal for us.''
And Aska's kept social media updated, too, despite a bulky splint with two of his fingers wrapped up. Aska tweeted during a game that he'd lost his voice while on the bench without Prohm's knowledge.
''He's a senior over there trying to will his team on ... This is fun right now and we want to keep going,'' Prohm said after learning about the tweet. ''When you win, sometimes you handle things a little different than when you lose.''
So far, the Racers keeping doing just that, four more times without Aska. The 6-foot-3 Poole and fellow 6-foot-1 guard Jewuan Long have combined to average 7.8 rebounds in the games Aska has missed.
He was averaging 12.6 points and six rebounds per game before being sidelined.
''It's different, but the way our offense is, it's not predicated on just stay in the post or just stay outside the paint,'' said Poole, who matched a career high with eight rebounds in an 82-74 victory over Tennessee Tech on Saturday. ''When I moved down to the four, sometimes I go out to the 3-point line or sometimes I'll pick and pop. So I'm doing things on the floor. It's actually pretty comfortable. It's just the fact about being more conscious about certain things - making sure I rebound more or making sure I box out or kick the ball out.
''It's not too much of an adjustment, but I think having a four-guard lineup actually helps us out.''
There's still no timetable for Aska's return, though he has another doctor's visit on Monday and is expected back soon. Murray State isn't dominating the glass since Aska's injury with more pressure on its three main post players - Ed Daniel, Latreze Mushatt and Brandon Garrett - to stay out of foul trouble.
The Racers have been outrebounded three times in four games, but have managed a higher shooting percentage in every game but one using additional shooters on the floor.
''It can be challenging at times just knowing that we've all got to go rebound,'' point guard Isaiah Canaan said.
Canaan is averaging 21.3 points per game in Aska's absence and Murray State's scoring average is up as the Racers continue to try to push the tempo.
''We're so much quicker when we get out in transition,'' Poole said. ''We always like to run and when we get out in transition and push the ball, we have a few secondary threats with four guards. That makes it easier to get out.''
While the Racers keep winning, Poole feels for his former roommate now he can no longer rough around with like they did before the injury in wrestling matches that knocked over furniture and left them both exhausted.
''Sometimes I'll try to grab him and choke him, but he always uses that hand as an excuse,'' Poole said. ''It's his little emergency 911 call out of it.''
Poole said when Aska comes back, it'll be a big boost for the Racers. But, they've already proven they're more than just one player deep.
''Our coaches do a great job of trying to keep our focus and to continue to get us to remember what we did to get to this point and how hard it is to try to get to this point,'' Canaan said. ''Because we know that it can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye.''