'Harder, better, faster, smart-er': Basketball player recovers from injury

Ikenna Smart looks to come back strong after offseason back surgery


Sometimes injuries occur in a split-second. A nasty collision with a defender. A player goes up for the ball and comes down on their knee wrong.

But sometimes injuries are built up over time. Players start with something that feels like a sore muscle, but continued exertion and the pride of wanting to be on the floor with their teammates eventually causes the problem to grow.

Ikenna Smart suffered from the latter. The junior forward had soreness in his back that nagged him last season. Six feet 10 inches and 241 pounds is a lot of body to support with a bad back. Smart had surgery on his back during the offseason and is expected to return to the court for the Bulls by the end of December. He plans on being better than he was a season ago now that he’s healthy.

“I actually feel like I’m getting a lot stronger because I’ve been gaining a lot more strength in rehab,” Smart said. “I’m working on my legs, my back and my core so I’m getting a total body workout at the same time I’m rehabbing my back. So me taking this time and rehabbing my body with [men’s basketball athletic trainer] Andy [Bliz] and doing all this was good for me and it should pay off and impact the way I play when I come back.”

Bliz has been with the Bulls since 2013 and was the trainer for men’s MAC championship squads. He oversees Smart’s rehab process.

Bliz developed the plan to get Smart back in basketball shape and make sure his back is as strong as possible when he makes his return to the court.

“It’s something that you start small,” Bliz said. “Fresh out of surgery you start with range of motion, pain management and muscle activation. Then just as it progresses you get into harder and more taxing exercises to really stress his back and get him stronger. Once the [doctor] clears him to start to get back into basketball, we start working with the coaches on planning different drills he can do to keep himself in shape and try to simulate as much as we can.”

Smart had the surgery in late August. Bliz said Smart is on track with the timeline they initially planned for him. He’s been able to get back on the court recently and is running solo shooting and post-up drills. His movement in the drills is smooth and he hasn’t lost his touch from down low.

Smart is currently entering the final phase of the rehab process. Barring any setbacks, Bliz and Smart will have their final meeting with the doctor in about three weeks.

If all three feel confidently about his back, he will be cleared to fully return to action and start participating in practices with other members of the team. He will eventually return to game action.

Smart said working with Bliz has been great and feels Bliz really helped his recovery process.

“He’s a great guy, he pushes me and I think in this situation that’s what you need,” Smart said. “You don’t need someone who’s going to baby you all the time. You need someone trying to get the best out of you. … He pushes me to get better and I like his strategy, he puts time in it, he invests a lot of time in it and that makes me feel like I’m somebody.”

Head coach Nate Oats is excited to have the team back at full strength in time for the game against Syracuse.

“I think it will give us a big boost,” Oats said. “Hopefully [he’ll] be back by the Syracuse game and then we’ll our full 1 guys and really have some depth and can withstand some foul trouble.”

Despite the injury, Smart still played an important role for the Bulls last year. He played just under 13 minutes a game but still averaged 3.6 rebounds and shot a team-high 66 percent from the floor. He also had 30 starts for the 2016 MAC championship squad.

Smart is excited to get back on the floor. He will have to trust the work he did with Bliz when he gets back into game action. The post can be one of the most physical areas on the basketball court, but Smart knows Bliz will make sure he’s ready to handle it before he gets put back on the court.

“I’m looking forward to it; I’ve been waiting for so long,” Smart said. “It’s been a long process but I’m happy everything has been working out fine. I’m just going to trust the work that Andy and I have done through this whole process. I believe in the system and we have done a lot of stuff to get me stronger so I’m just going to have confidence and go out there and play.”

Daniel Petruccelli is the sports editor and can be reached at daniel.petruccelli@ubspectrum.com