Buffs Reeling Believers Back In; No. 4 Wildcats Next
BOULDER - The wheels are in motion once again. The seeds of doubt and the aura of vulnerability have given way to a renewed sense of confidence and a pinch of good old fashioned grit.
The Buffs are back. No, they may not be as pleasing to the eye as they were prior to that cold day in Seattle when their best player's knee gave out. It's more in the sense that they have found a way to adapt to life post-Spencer Dinwiddie.
Colorado coach Tad Boyle has found new ways to maximize the talents of what remains a very talented roster even without Dinwiddie's all-around brilliance. They've mustered a kind of toughness, a fortitude that some thought they never had. And they have found a way to put themselves right back in the thick of things in the competitive Pac-12 Conference. A 61-52 win over Arizona State on Wednesday was the Buffs' fifth in their last six games and elevated them to sole possession of third place in the conference (9-5, 20-7 overall).
"This team is believing in each other right now," said Boyle. "A month ago when Spencer and Tre'Shaun (Fletcher) went down there was some worry and some non-belief, but our guys have gotten it back and I'm awful proud."
The injuries to Dinwiddie and Fletcher on Jan. 12 left some outside the program expecting the worst. Those beliefs were compounded even further when the team proceeded to lose four of its next five games.
The time since has been a demonstration of adaptability at its very best. The wins have been hard-fought and ugly at times - four of the five have come by single digits - but if there has been one constant in the Buffs' play over the last three weeks it has been their knack for resourcefully finding new ways to put away their opponents.
Wednesday night was the furthest thing from aesthetically pleasing as one might imagine. But once again Boyle's team got it done: 37 percent shooting from the field, 14 turnovers and just four fast-break points hardly seems like the ideal recipe to beat an Arizona State team that came into Boulder red-hot and winners of six of the previous seven.
None of that mattered to the Buffs. Winning to them comes in the most unorthodox fashion and when playing a brand of basketball in which resolve and tenacity outweigh finesse and flair, that lack of conventionalism often becomes a tremendous asset.
"We didn't play our best, but we played good enough to win," said Boyle. "It wasn't a pretty win but it was a gutsy win. The defense was good, our ball screen defense was good. Again, you're not going to play perfect."
For a team that ranks 92nd nationally in scoring, 204th in assists, 210th in turnover margin and 308th in three-point defense, things never come easy. More often than not, CU has had to rely on outhustling its opponents. Getting to the loose ball, making the extra pass and boxing out on rebounds were all qualities that took center stage on Wednesday. Qualities that have turned them from the worrisome bunch that Boyle saw in mid-January to a force to be reckoned with as the regular season nears its finish line.
"Those are our principles and we live by them and we die by them," said junior guard Askia Booker. "Tonight I think we did a wonderful job, especially with the (foul trouble) in the first half. Xavier Talton took on the job of guarding (Arizona State leading scorer) Jahii Carson, and so did Eli Stalzer and Jaron Hopkins. Those guys did a wonderful job on him. Josh (Scott) did a great job on (ASU center, Jordan) Bachynski. I think the only thing we have to do better is run those guys up the three-point line and we will be just fine."
Despite the erratic stigma that seems to plague them at times - they went more than six minutes without a field goal at one point late in the second half - Boyle's unit has always been able to rely on its rebounding. Wednesday was no exception. If the Buffs had to put a finger on a single strength that has helped them transition without Dinwiddie it would be that ability to dominate on the boards. And against the Sun Devils they once again enjoyed a healthy advantage on the glass (48-27).
"(Boyle) recruits the right guys and preaches the right things like defensive rebounding," said Booker. "It proves that it wins games."
Next up for the upstart Buffs is the only team in the conference that is statistically better on the boards. The Arizona Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and rebounding margin, but CU is a close second in all three categories.
The No. 4 Wildcats (24-2, 11-2) have succeeded all season by taking advantage of all of the same little things that the Buffs have also made their own calling card. The two teams have seemed to operate with the same modus operandi over the last few years and that alone may be the biggest reason why the genesis of a rivalry has bloomed from almost the moment the Buffs began play in the conference in 2011.
The two teams split the first six meetings, which included two hard-fought battles in the Pac-12 tournament, over the last two years. The Wildcats did dominate the Buffs last month in Tucson, 69-57, but that came just 10 days after CU lost Dinwiddie and was still in the midst of a transition. A national television audience will get a chance to view what might be two of the scrappiest teams in the country as ESPN's College GameDay come to Boulder to broadcast Saturday's hugely important Pac-12 matchup (7 p.m., Coors Events Center, ESPN).
"Coach Boyle is going to prepare us the best he can," said Booker. "We're going to rest our legs (Thursday) and make sure we're ready for Saturday. We lost there, so I know we can win here for a fact. This is one of the hardest places to play in the Pac-12 and they're going to be in for a rude awakening."