Colorado is currently a Top 25 team and has been considered an NCAA Sweet 16 contender or better by most pundits. However, those expectations changed dramatically this past weekend. CU's best player, and arguably the most important player in the Pac-12, junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie (6'6" 200 lbs.), went down with a season-ending injury to his knee. That torn ACL spins Thursday night's confrontation on its head.
Any expectations for either UCLA or Colorado have to be thrown out the window, and the game's importance has changed. For Colorado, the game represents an opportunity to show themselves and the nation that losing Dinwiddie is not a season-killer. For UCLA, this game, and really, this whole road trip, offers the Bruins an opportunity to solidify the idea that they are one of the top two teams in an improved Pac-12 Conference.
It can't be overstated how important Dinwiddie's loss is to the Buffs both for Thursday and for the remainder of the season. Bruin fans know full well the loss of a primary catalyst, having seen Jordan Adams go down with a season-ending injury last March. Dinwiddie's loss, at least for the balance of the season, should be devastating for the Buffs, and here's why: Dinwiddie led the team in scoring, assists, three-point shots attempted, three-point shots made, three-point shooting percentage, steals, free throw shooting percentage and free throw attempts. There is no team in the country that can lose that kind of production in all facets of the game and expect to play at the same high level. On top of all of the statistical importance Dinwiddie brings to the team, for those who have seen the Buffs play, they know that Dinwiddie is also the glue that holds the team together. He is just as apt to dive on the floor for a loose ball, take a charge or commit a hard foul as he is to hit a game-changing outside shot. It's going to be incredibly difficult for Boyle to replace that production, even on a committee-basis.
However, that doesn't mean that all is lost for Colorado, and, quite frankly, in the short term, this kind of injury has been known to ignite and inspire a team to an improbable victory as much as it has led to humiliating defeats (see the Adams injury last season and the subsequent game against Minnesota for an example of the latter). With that in mind, the outcome on Thursday from is, quite frankly, a crapshoot…and so is the prediction.
The Dinwiddie loss is compounded because Colorado Coach Tad Boyle simply cannot play a like-for-like replacement. There will be some shifting of roles and positions that will occur and that may not have the desired effect of galvanizing the team, in the short term or even in the long term. The key player that will be affected by this will be senior guard Askia Booker (6'2" 170 lbs.). Booker, who is averaging 13.1 PPG, will more than likely be thrust into the point guard role. This will not be a positive development for the Buffs. Booker is a scoring guard who would more often rather shoot than set up his teammates. He can certainly hit big shots, just ask Kansas, but he does not have the vision or timing of Dinwiddie. He has also been known to shoot his team out of games as much as getting hot and getting the Buffs back into seemingly lost contests. Further, the size difference is massive. Dinwiddie's 6'6" frame caused match-up headaches for opposing coaches and players. Booker's four-inch difference in height means he is much easier to guard with a Norman Powell or Zach LaVine than Dinwiddie. It also means that Booker can't see over the defense as well or at all, depending on the match-ups. With Booker potentially struggling with decision-making and not being able to often adequately survey the floor, the possibilities for increased turnovers and decreased assists as well as poorer overall team shot selection will be much greater.
Here's a telling stat: Dinwiddie led the team in assists by a wide margin; Booker leads the team in turnovers.
Boyle could decide to leave Booker at the shooting guard slot and insert back-up point guard Xavier Talton (6'2" 180 lbs.) into the starting line-up. Only a sophomore with limited game experience, Talton can run the point for the Buffs and does have pretty good vision for the position, however, he sometimes plays nervous and he is nowhere near the defender that Booker is, let alone Dinwiddie. The one commonality between Booker and Talton is that both have been less than mediocre shooters this season.
If Boyle does decide to go with Booker at the point then expect true freshman Jaron Hopkins (6'5" 190 lbs.) to start at the two-guard. Hopkins has some upside and has started four games this season. He is a decent outside shooter but a terrible free throw shooter (less than 41%). Still, he offers a similar body to Dinwiddie and because he has started before, may offer a less painful transition to life without Dinwiddie.
If there are issues in the Buff backcourt, no such issues exist up front. Sophomore Josh Scott (6'10" 245 lbs.), a talented pure low post scorer, is averaging 13.6 PPG and 9.2 RPG. UCLA's recent game against Arizona State and its big man, Jordan Bachynski, really didn't prepare the Bruin forwards for Scott. The Colorado big man is much more athletic than the Sun Devil senior. Chances are that Boyle has spent the days of practice before Thursday's game instilling in his team that Scott needs to be option #1 on offense. UCLA's Tony Parker fouled out against Bachynski in less than 20 minutes of action. That doesn't bode well for the UCLA posts as both Travis Wear and David Wear haven't been able to provide the kind of physical presence Parker can over the past few games.
If Scott's presence wasn't enough size, Boyle has been starting freshman post Wesley Gordon (6'9" 225 lbs.) all season. Gordon doesn't provide a great deal of scoring, averaging only 7 PPG, but he does bring rebounding (6.5 RPG) and leads the team in blocked shots with 22. It is important to note that he is much less physical than Scott and much less polished on the offensive end.
The final Colorado starter and perhaps the most dangerous is sophomore swingman Xavier Johnson (6'7" 220 lbs.). He is a genuine inside and outside threat. He is only averaging 10.1 PPG but also is pulling down 5.9 RPG and has been playing solid defense. Most importantly, the Bruins really don't have anyone to guard him. He is, quite simply, a match-up problem for the Bruins. Kyle Anderson will probably start on him (depending on who Boyle starts in place of Dinwiddie) and Johnson is considerably quicker than Anderson. Further, Johnson is a good enough athlete to mostly offset Anderson's height advantage. All the other Bruin wings are shorter than Johnson (although LaVine's wingspan could bother him).
The Buffs took another blow when it lost Tre'Shaun Fletcher (6'7", 190) the freshman small forward, who will also require knee surgery. He was playing just 10 minutes per game off the bench, but they had become a significant 10 minutes.
It was crazy; Dinwiddie and Fletcher sustained the knee injuries within less than two minutes of each other in the game against Washington.
Boyle will play a few more guys for some minutes, but they have been getting less and less as the season has progressed. He will now have to trust at least one of those low-minute players or he will be using a six-man rotation, and there's virtually no way that Colorado can make it through the remainder of the season successfully with such a short bench.
When Dinwiddie went down this past weekend against Washington, the Buffs were in a close battle with the Huskies. After Dinwiddie left the game, the Buffs were run out of the gym. Much of that can probably be attributed to the shock of seeing their fallen teammate. They have had five days to deal with that shock and move on. However, five days may not be enough. That's why the Bruins need to come out with intensity and focus and try to smack the Buffs in the mouth right away. For all of Boyle's talents, most teams that take a hit like this would suffer a case of mental fragility for a time after the injury. Those few teams that don't (think Louisville last March) generally have relied on upperclassmen or a floor leader to get the team balanced again. The problem for Boyle and the Buffs is that Dinwiddie was that leader.
The key for Colorado this season has been defense and rebounding. Colorado is not a strong defensive team, but they are solid. They are allowing opponents to shoot almost 39% from behind the arc, but only 43% overall. It's a bit ironic considering the presence of both Scott and Gordon, but Boyle's man defense is a bit like Mike Montgomery's was when he was at Stanford; they are terribly good at defending out to the three-point line, but they give up a lot of open looks from deep. Colorado's bread and butter is rebounding, specifically offensive rebounding. CU averages 9 more rebounds per game than its opposition. Fully 33% of Colorado's total rebounds are on the offensive glass. That's quite a total. If UCLA can limit Colorado to one shot for much of the night then UCLA will win, period.
Bruin Coach Steve Alford probably faces a conundrum as to what to focus on defensively. The Buffs are horrible from behind the arc, shooting under 31% as a team from distance, and that was before Dinwiddie's injury. Dinwiddie was CU's best outside shooter, averaging 41% from three. Removing him from the equation, the Buffs are shooting under 28% from the three-point line as a team. That number alone screams to Alford that he should play zone to limit the inside touches of Scott. However, the Bruins are a very poor rebounding team in the zone and have been showing they are a better man defensive team of late. If the Bruins go man then that will, though, afford more opportunities for the Buffs to take their respective man one-on-one . Still, the Bruins rebound much better out of a man defense and much of Colorado's offense comes from offensive boards. Perhaps Alford will go back to playing a bit of the sagging man defense, inviting the Buffs to shoot from deep but being able to get a body on people and properly rebound.
However this game is broken down, though, the reality is that the outcome will more than likely be dictated by the mental state of the Buffs both individually and as a team. They may be hell-bent for a victory to honor their fallen floor leader. They may be a bit timid because, after all, Dinwiddie was a dynamic talent, and they really can't replace him at many, if any, levels.
As I wrote in the opening, trying to predict the outcome of this game, not to mention what will be its deciding factors, is a crapshoot. Nothing would surprise me. However, I believe it is more likely that the game will play out this way: the Buffs will have an early lead that they may even carry to the half. However, the loss of their floor leader will show up in the turnover totals, where Colorado wasn't very good to begin with, and UCLA will slowly pull away.
Quite frankly, for the season, Colorado will probably find some equilibrium and still get to the Big Dance. However, for the Buffs it probably would have been better if they were able to play USC on Thursday -- to get over the initial shock of Dinwiddie-lessness -- and get the Bruins over the weekend.