CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - Northern Iowa's chances of repeating as the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball champion took a serious hit Thursday with the news that Lucas O'Rear's season is almost assuredly over.
O'Rear, UNI's leading rebounder, endured a fractured right ankle with 1 minute, 54 seconds remaining in Wednesday's win over Illinois State after battling Redbird big man Jackie Carmichael for a rebound.
"He's got a small fracture in one of the bones in his ankle, and the recovery time is two-to-three months," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said Thursday morning.
"It's sad to hear," said teammate Jake Koch. "Lucas, everyone knows his role - he's real important to the team."
O'Rear, a senior, was a two-time MVC sixth man of the year and is ninth on UNI's all-time list in games played with 119. This winter, he had averaged 6.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds.
Yet, the 6-foot-6 center's play often transcended his stats. His leadership and grittiness often energized his teammates and fans.
O'Rear was scheduled to have surgery late Thursday, with team physician Dr. Jeffrey Clark inserting two screws into his ankle. X-rays showed the senior had a fracture on the outside portion of his right ankle.
"He's extremely disappointed," Jacobson explained of O'Rear. "You know, any time you're in the middle of something - especially something as special as we've got going, that kind of news is hard.
"He's obviously put everything he's got into the program over the last three years. So it's tough."
O'Rear is one of just 22 Panthers to have ever recorded 500 points and 500 rebounds during their careers. His passing and hard-nosed defense will, undoubtedly, be tough to replace.
The Panthers (18-6, 9-3 MVC), however, did beat Bradley, 83-77, on Jan. 9, while O'Rear served a one-game suspension. Koch, a 6-9 sophomore, had a career-high 34 points that night.
"Lucas brought a lot of toughness to the table," said Koch. "But (his injury) will give other players an opportunity to step up. Chip (Rank), Austin (Pehl), Kerwin (Dunham) and I will get extra minutes.
"Everyone's going to need to improve a little bit."
UNI will often utilize four-guard lineups in O'Rear's absence, while its main post players - such as Koch or the 6-6 Rank - will often be undersized. The Panthers have had six games this season in which they've fired up 25 or more 3-pointers, and they figure to become even more perimeter-oriented now.
"We're going to miss (O'Rear's) leadership," said Jacobson. "But we've got a lot of guys that have played a lot of games. When something like this happens, it isn't on one person to do a lot more.
"All 10 guys that dress," Jacobson added, "have a little more responsibility now."
Some basketball players with injuries similar to O'Rear's have recovered as quickly as six weeks. However, accelerating O'Rear's timetable for recovery might be an unfair request, considering he has a professional baseball career to consider as a pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds' organization.
Fortunately for the college senior, he's expected to make a full recovery in time to participate in most of the upcoming baseball season.
"That, I think, is the best news that comes out of this situation," said Jacobson.