A toe injury. It sounds as innocuous as a hangnail, like something that would not slow a good man down. But here it has slowed a good man, the 'Cat guard Alex Marcotullio, who has been dealing with just that injury for over two months now. "It's really frustrating. I'm doing most of what I do off of my toe, whether it's planting, cutting, shooting, jumping," he explains. "So it's one of those things that I have to block out and try to deal with the best I can. I think I've done a pretty good job so far, and my teammates and the coaching staff have really supported me throughout the entire process. And it has been a long process and it's going to continue to be throughout the year. But it's nothing I can't tolerate."
He incurred the injury during a scrimmage way back on October 30. "I went up for a layup and got taken out a little bit," he remembers. "It was one of those weird things. I fell over, then I got landed on and it kind of jammed in. It's pretty hard on film to tell what actually happened. But I finished playing that day and then went over to the trainer and was, 'My toe is really, really hurting me.' So we checked it out, got an X-Ray and MRI. My first X-Ray it looked negative, but then the MRI showed some fluid build up around my toe."
There was no way to rush this recovery and here his practice time was limited, but he still managed to play significant minutes in seven of his team's first eight games. "Then," he picks up, "one day over winter break it jumped back on me randomly. I was at home and woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. It was really a flukey thing. So I've been trying to monitor it. I got it reevaluated by a couple doctors. One thought it was maybe was a little hairline fracture they missed before. I think that might have been it the first time and it's been slowly healing. But there's really no set answer about what I have. (It's officially labeled a bone contusion in the left big toe.) It's just one of those nagging injuries that has plagued me throughout the year so far. But the other night really helped my confidence. My toe felt good, so I was more energized, and the output on the court to help the team (he hit half of his four three-point attempts) helped me mentally and physically as well."
Sunday night, in their game with Penn State, the 'Cats opened sluggishly. Only the freshman point, Dave Sobolewski, had pop from the start, but then he picked up a peppy partner when Marcotullio joined the fray. "I thought he made a big difference the other night," his coach, Bill Carmody, will say Tuesday afternoon. "Energy level. It was tangible, the difference between him and the other guys."
"I do think I bring a fiery attitude and passion to the game," says Marcotullio himself. "I think that's important for a team, especially the way we struggled in the first half the other night. We needed some energy...(and) that's my role on the team. It's not necessarily scoring points, but doing things that help the team win and I think that's a big thing."
It is most certainly a big thing, as big as the depth he provides and his ability to drain a three-point shot. That is why he and his health are a central 'Cat issue as they prepare for their Wednesday night date with Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena. But now, he says, the toe no longer limits him physically. "It did early on when it first happened and had the setback," he then concludes. "But now that I've gotten into a rhythm and kind of blocked it out of my mind, I think I've done a lot better job with that.
"Now I just go with whatever I can tolerate."
Scatter shots: The 'Cats, of course, roused themselves in the second half last Sunday and grabbed off a 12-point win over the Nittany Lions. When asked Tuesday how he would guard against another slow start, Carmody chuckled and said, "I have to give the halftime speech before the game." Now he paused and continued, "I don't know. I don't know what to say. You have to know you can't come out like that against Illinois and expect to win the game. If you want to win, you have to come out differently. You have to be focused from the get go." ... 'Cat forward John Shurna, for one, doesn't think lethargy will be a problem come Wednesday. "I think everyone gets up for these game. I think it's just fun," he said." A lot of guys (on the Illini) you've played against before, and around the Chicagoland area everyone's big U of I fans. So it'll be a fun environment tomorrow." Does he take it personally that there will be a lot of Illinois fans in the stands? "Naa. Naa. It's just fun. It's good to have people cheering for you or against you. It's just a fun atmosphere. It's fun either way." ... Drew Crawford, the other 'Cat forward and star, not only played against some of the current Illini in high school. He was once also a teammate of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, a pair of their guards, on an AAU team called the Illinois Warriors. Have they exchanged greetings in advance of their reunion? "Nah," Crawford said with a laugh. "But we'll probably exchange some texts after the game."
Carmody, when asked what has surprised him about Sobolewski, the young point
whose assist-to-turnover ratio is a most-impressive 4.5-to-1: "I knew he'd be
pretty good. But his demeanor, there's a little more calmness to him than I
thought there would be getting into some pretty tough games. I knew he could
make an open shot, that he's a good ball handler, that he could run the team.
But he doesn't seem to get flustered that easily, which is really nice for a
coach. There's a calmness about the way he goes about his business."