COLUMBIA – Justin Safford looked more like he had just been at a funeral, not a basketball game.
Dressed entirely in black – shoes, dress pants and button-up shirt – the junior forward on the Missouri men’s basketball team discussed his injured left knee for the first time Saturday since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Feb. 24.
His tone was somber, and it was clear it has been painful to abandon his jersey for regular clothes at the most important point of the season. Especially as much as the Tigers missed Safford on Saturday. Missouri was outrebounded by 17 in a 77-56 loss against No. 2 Kansas at Mizzou Arena.
But Safford is holding out hope that the season isn't over for him.
“There’s still a slight chance, and we’re going to take that slight chance,” Safford said about the possibility of him returning this year.
He doesn’t have time on his side. Missouri plays in the Big 12 Tournament next week and would play its first-round NCAA Tournament game in less than two weeks if selected for the tournament.
In addition to the torn ACL, Safford has a bone bruise in the knee that is more worrisome in the short term.
“It’s a pretty deep bone bruise,” he said. “The doctor’s pretty concerned about it, so that’s why I’ve been on the crutches the first week to try and help that heal a little better.”
Safford said he will continue his rehabilitation, which so far has been limited to frequent icing and exercises to test his range of motion, and wait for the swelling in his knee to subside. If it does, he might be able to return, though he and coach Mike Anderson both know it’s a longshot.
It’s been even more difficult for Safford to watch games from the bench because he isn’t feeling a lot of pain in his knee.
“That’s probably the most frustrating part is it’s really not bothering me at all,” he said. “That’s the tough part.”
Right before tip-off of Missouri’s first game following his injury, Safford sat at the end of the visitor’s bench at Kansas State with his hands in his lap slowly chewing a piece of gum, a blank look on his face. He looked completely out of place.
“I tell my family, I understand how it is to be a fan now,” he said. “Can’t do anything about it, just got to watch it.”
The suffering could be just as bad for Missouri, an undersized team that lacked depth at the forward position before Safford’s injury. He wasn’t Missouri’s most noticeable player, but even Kansas coach Bill Self brought up Safford’s injury after the game.
“Losing Safford’s a big loss because it does require their bigs to play an awful lot of minutes, and the way they play it does take a lot of energy when you’re trapping and running every possession,” he said.
Starting forwards Keith Ramsey and Laurence Bowers combined for 65 minutes Saturday. After saying fatigue was a factor, Anderson was asked how Missouri will deal its shortage of big men in next week’s conference tournament.
“Oh we’ll be fine,” he said immediately, in one breath. “We’ll be ready. We’ll be ready.”
It remains to be seen if Safford will be ready this season, and it's hard to believe Anderson is as confident as he sounds.