BOULDER, Colo. — Brandon Ashley and Spencer Dinwiddie are two entirely different players for different teams that have faced different expectations.
But their absences have had a similarly major impact on the Arizona and Colorado teams that will meet tonight in an ESPN GameDay showcase at Coors Events Center.
Dinwiddie, the Buffs’ standout point guard, suffered an ACL tear Jan. 12.
Ashley went down with a complex foot injury Feb. 1.
“Anytime you lose a key player or starter who’s as talented as both of those guys are individually, you don’t replace it,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “You try to reshuffle and mold your team to the best it can become.”
Here’s how it’s gone for both teams so far:
It’s not happening overnight
The loss of Dinwiddie hurt Colorado in several ways, not only because of his scoring and passing ability, but also his leadership and swagger. The Buffs lost the game at Washington when Dinwiddie was hurt, and three of their next four.
They were all but written off for the postseason, before their key trio of guard Askia Booker, forward Xavier Johnson and center Josh Scott began carrying the team more than ever.
“We’ve definitely made adjustments,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “It took us a little bit longer than I would have liked. Sean had to go through this with losing Brandon, but the difference between the Colorado injury and the Arizona injury is there were a fair amount of people counting us out, and not a lot with Arizona. They’re still a heck of a team.”
Maybe so, but the Wildcats lost their first game of the season when Ashley was hurt, lost at ASU last week and needed overtime to beat Utah, while they struggled to adjust.
The Wildcats’ process isn’t finished, either.
Colorado “is a little further along because it happened a long time ago for them,” Miller said. “But every day you move forward, different players are more accustomed to roles and as a staff we become more aware of the things we need to be better at. We have in a sense a new team.”
Some key roles changed
Boyle said the two players whose roles changed the most without Dinwiddie were Booker and Johnson. Xavier Talton has taken over the starting point guard spot, but Booker has a more expanded playmaking role on top of his scoring.
Johnson, meanwhile, has become an improved defender and a more aggressive scorer.
“He’s much more confident defensively in taking on challenges,” Boyle said. “We didn’t have that stopper or defensive specialist without Spencer. Xavier had to step up in that realm and he’s been a more consistent scorer for us.”
For Arizona, the biggest change is probably to forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is averaging 34 minutes in the past five games. But there are also subtle changes in the way T.J. McConnell has taken more shots (28 over the past two games), and in how the Wildcats are now starting shooting guard Gabe York, while defenses focus less on UA’s outside shooting.
They developed confidence
After the Buffaloes lost 69-57 at Arizona just 11 days after Dinwiddie was hurt, Johnson said Colorado would deliver a “20-point blowout” over the Wildcats in the return game today.
That was good news for the Buffs — that maybe somebody was replacing Dinwiddie’s notable swagger — and maybe bad news for them in that he offered the Wildcats some extra motivation today.
“Sometimes kids say things that come right out of their mouth … and we’re all guilty of this to some degree,” Boyle said. “But with Xavier, I’d rather rein him in than have to get him going. … He enjoys challenges, enjoys big games and I’d like him to feel like that every time he steps on the floor, not just for UCLA or Arizona.”
For Arizona, confidence is also more subtle, in the willingness of McConnell to take more shots, the aggressiveness inside of Kaleb Tarczewski and the emerging confidence of York, who responded with 15 points Wednesday after being inserted in the starting lineup in what Miller called a “fresh opportunity.”
Miller said Friday that York will probably start tonight, making defenses pay more attention to UA’s outside shooting.
“With Gabe, even if he doesn’t shoot the ball, you have to be aware of where he’s at,” Miller said.
They’re leaning on big guys
Without Dinwiddie, Miller said, the Buffaloes have shifted their offense slightly more often inside, and why not? Center Josh Scott is not only averaging 17.8 points over his last four games, and he also had 13 points and 13 rebounds on Wednesday against ASU — while limiting previously red-hot ASU big man Jordan Bachynski to four points and three rebounds.
Miller says Scott is one of the 10 best players in the Pac-12.
“If you watch him closely, and put his statistics up against other players, I don’t think he takes a back seat to anyone,” Miller said. “He’s so skilled, gets 10 rebounds a game, shoots a high percentage from the line (80.4 percent) and can score a lot of ways.”
Scott said he has to be “a little more aggressive” but that his role otherwise hasn’t changed much. Boyle said he’s basically been a lot like Tarczewski — steady all season, with more production in recent weeks.
Tarczewski nearly saved UA at Cal, with 18 points and six rebounds in that game, and had double-figure rebounding totals in the past two games. Scott, meanwhile, has averaged 15.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in eight total games against 7-footers such as Tarczewski, Bachynski and Kansas’ Joel Embiid.
“Josh Scott has been a rock in the middle, similar to Kaleb for Arizona,” Boyle said. “The job (Scott) did on Bachynski — we didn’t double-team him the whole time — that shows you what kind of post defender he is.”