Buffs’ Success Minus Dinwiddie Impresses ‘Digger’
BOULDER – Digger Phelps coached Notre Dame basketball for 20 years, taking the program to 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Final Four in 1978. Point being: the man knows a thing or two about basketball and the fact that he likes Colorado’s chances to not only make the NCAA Tournament this year, but also make a run deep into March Madness should have Buffs fans excited.
On Jan. 12 in Seattle, Colorado fans didn’t know whether they could feel excited about the remainder of the schedule after star point guard Spencer Dinwiddie went down a season-ending knee injury. CU lost that game at Washington and three of its next four. Since then, however, the Buffs have won five of six.
If that success is going to continue against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coors Events Center, it will be because the Buffs play together as a team. CU demonstrated it could do that last weekend in a win at Southern California when five players – Askia Booker, Jaron Hopkins, Xavier Johnson, Josh Scott and Xavier Talton – scored at least 10 points.
“It’s up to the other guys,” said Phelps, part of the ESPN College GameDay crew that will broadcast from the CEC Saturday at 7 a.m. then again an hour before the 7:05 p.m. CU-Arizona tip. “I thought the balance (CU showed) at Southern Cal meant a lot. They’ve learned now that that one extra pass really matters. Now, it’s like, ‘Ok we have to rely more on each other,’ and it’s that one extra pass to get the extra shot and get five guys in double figures.”
Phelps said the effort was even more impressive coming on the heels of a tough loss at UCLA two nights before and that he believes Booker and Johnson have “reinvented themselves” after losing Dinwiddie.
Booker has increased his points and assists average, while Johnson has become more aggressive offensively. Before Dinwiddie went down, Johnson’s season scoring high was 14; since then he has tallied over 20 points in four different games.
“Askia, he’s just a go-to person, he makes some big shots,” Phelps said. “He’s got a lot of confidence, and that’s important because as good as Dinwiddie was, somebody else has to step up and he’s got the other guys believing. I think that is the important part about what they have and why they are doing it.”
Arizona found itself in a similar position after losing forward Brandon Ashley to injury on Feb. 1 in a game at California. The Wildcats would lose their first game of the season that day, then lost again at Arizona State last week.
Yet Arizona is still ranked as the No. 4 team in the country and a favorite to reach the Final Four in Dallas this April. A big reason why: the depth the Wildcats exhibit. But in the loss to ASU, that wasn’t the case as point guard Nick Johnson took 20 of the team’s 64 field goal attempts and only made five of them.
Colorado will be looking to limit the number of players that get involved in Arizona’s attack on Saturday night, while trying to get as many of its owns players into the game plan as possible.
Phelps believes another reason the Buffs have had players step up is because the challenging schedule they have faced has prepared them for bigger moments.
“Getting those tough games in November and December, before getting into conference play, not only does that make you a better team in your conference, but it makes you a better tournament team in the NCAA,” he said.
“Both these teams, even though they have lost key players, there is enough balance and enough depth on these teams now that they’ve adjusted to make a run at the Sweet 16, and I really believe that.”