Auburn's Ward adapts game after injury at Texas

JOHN ZENOR AP Sports Writer Published:

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- Auburn's Varez Ward can't take to the air quite like he used to.

The onetime Texas starter is still trying to regain strength and explosiveness more than two years after rupturing his right quadriceps tendon while dunking during pregame warmups.

Ward said he had lost 9 inches off a 38-inch vertical leap as of last summer. Still, he has become a key player for the struggling Tigers and shown flashes of his old abilities with a recent hot streak.

"I've been working hard on my game, so I don't really rely on being able to jump over defenders like I used to," said Ward, who figures he's regained some of his hops the past few months. "It made me sick a little bit. It'll help me in the long run because it won't let me rely so much on my athletic ability."

Ward still drives to the basket, but now he aims at drawing fouls, hitting layups or passing back out to teammates more often than dunking.

He was going up for a windmill dunk in the layup line on Nov. 24, 2009, for the third-ranked Longhorns when he felt a pop in his right leg.

"Honestly I don't even know how I came down," said Ward, who had started the first three games for Texas. "It was just a freak accident."

The injury required surgery and forced him to watch as the Longhorns rose to their first No. 1 ranking less than two months later.

The Big 12 granted him a medical hardship waiver and the Montgomery native decided to transfer closer to home to be near his ailing mother Sharon -- who he said has had two heart operations but is now doing well -- after Auburn hired former UTEP coach Tony Barbee.

Ward sat out last season and has two years of eligibility remaining.

"He's a fantastic player," said Barbee, who recruited him out of high school. "His game has always been based around his ability to beat people. He was always athletic enough that he could finish when he beat people.

"Now, he's struggling to do that because he's lost some of his explosiveness in terms of vertically getting up on top of the rim. But he's still smart enough to know how to get in there," Barbee said. "What he's been doing has been getting fouled, creating angles to get fouled, and then he's really been shooting his free throws well."

Ward struggled to convert drives in Tuesday night's loss to Alabama, scoring just three points. It ended a three-game run when he made 27 of 32 free throws and averaged 17.7 points, nearly double his season average (9.3).

Ward capped that hot streak by scoring a career-high 24 points and dishing out five assists in 29 minutes at Mississippi State.

"It's what we were looking for all year long," Barbee said, "and I guess better late than never."

The turnaround came after Ward took a knee to his injured leg in the opening minute of the game against Arkansas. He didn't play again, and Barbee gave him a few days off to recuperate, a rarity during the heart of the Southeastern Conference schedule but apparently beneficial.

"It's definitely strange that it's brought some life to me," Ward said. "Those couple of days have helped me rejuvenate my body."

Ward, who leads the Tigers (13-11) in assists, splits time at point guard with Josh Wallace and has come off the bench the last six games.

He said his leg doesn't hurt these days, but the pain flared up at times early in the season. He has spent 2 or 3 hours daily in the training room getting treatment, a big improvement from lengthy sessions that started at 6 a.m. during a medical redshirt year last season.

He showed flashes early in his Texas career. Ward scored 16 points on 7 of 8 shooting against Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a freshman.

He was averaging 6.7 points, 2.3 steals and 2.3 assists in the first three games the following season when he was injured.

Barbee said doctors believe the strength will eventually return to Ward's right leg.

In the meantime, he has learned to adapt to his new limitations.

"Early in the year, I was thinking drive and shoot a floater, shoot pullups," he said. "Now, I'm trying to play back above the rim, trying to get fouled, draw contact. Early in the year, I was thinking about my leg a lot because I didn't want to get hurt again. That was always on my mind.

"Now, it's past me and it's not mental any more. I just go out there and play."