PROVO — All eyes in the West Coast Conference are focused on BYU's upcoming Battle at Gonzaga.
But first, the Cougars are dealing with their Battle of Wounded Knees.
Starters Matt Carlino and Noah Hartsock suffered MCL injuries in two road victories last weekend. Both players underwent MRIs on Monday, and though the tests revealed no structural damage to their knees, Carlino and Hartsock are dealing with pain.
Coach Dave Rose said that Hartsock is listed as "day-to-day" going into Thursday night's showdown against the Bulldogs in Spokane.
"He's got some real soreness in that knee, but there's no structural damage," Rose said of Hartsock. "We'll go from there. Hopefully, he improves every day. He didn't practice (Tuesday). Not a lot of swelling in there. But I think we dodged a bullet as far as the MRI is concerned. Hopefully we get him back as soon as possible. … My hope is that we can get him on the floor this weekend sometime."
Hartsock will be re-evaluated Wednesday, and if he can't practice, Rose said, the medical staff will see how he performs in shootaround on Thursday, then make a decision about his availability for the game.
Hartsock injured his left knee in the second half of Saturday's win at Santa Clara when Bronco forward Yannick Atanga landed on him as the two jousted for a rebound under the basket. Hartsock lay on the floor for several minutes before he walked off the court on his own power. The senior forward ended up returning, and helped the Cougars put the game away.
"I was so scared," Carlino remembered about the play that resulted in Hartsock's injury. "Then I saw Noah's reaction. Afterwards, I was really mad at him. I was like, 'Don't ever react like that again. You scared the daylights out of me.' I really thought he was hurt. But he seems to be good. I'm happy about that."
On Tuesday, Hartsock wore a brace on his left knee and did some shooting on his own. Mostly, he just watched practice.
As for Carlino, the freshman guard said his right knee, which was injured during the Cougars' triumph at San Francisco, "feels good." He poured in a career-high 30 points against the Dons, then scored two points and dished out seven assists against Santa Clara while wearing a brace for most of the game.
"He's in pain, but he's not near as sore as Noah," Rose said of Carlino. "He made it through the whole practice (Tuesday), so that's a good sign."
Carlino said he's ready to play against Gonzaga, and he believes Hartsock will play, too. "I think he's going to be fine," Carlino said. "I think he'll be good to go."
Rose is making contingency plans in the event that Hartsock can't play, with Nate Austin and Josh Sharp expected to take on bigger roles. "Our game plan will be adjusted depending on if he can play or not," Rose said.
The coach added that forward Stephen Rogers, who has been sidelined for weeks with a knee injury, could return to the court on Thursday. "There's a possibility that we'll have Stephen back," Rose said.
Hartsock leads the team in scoring and blocked shots. Just how valuable is he to this team?
"He's unbelievable," Carlino said. "I feel like he never misses, first off. Those tough plays at the end of a game, he's always in there, getting the ball, getting a rebound, getting a block. All the little things you need him to do. People don't realize how much little things he does. … Against Santa Clara, you don't expect a guy to come back after (the knee injury) … I thought he was dead. He's so valuable to us, it's amazing."
Said Rose: "Noah's value to this group has been so consistent. He's had a remarkable season, as far as his ability to step up and perform every night from whatever we need — a defensive stop, an offensive score late in the game or a big free throw. He's been able to do that for us. We need him. We need him in there."
Cougars on the air
BYU (23-6, 11-3) at Gonzaga (21-5, 11-3)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FMHeady goes here