Buffs may be missing their star, but not their grit

Last weekend’s heartbreaking ACL injury to Spencer Dinwiddie, who was leading the surging Colorado Buffaloes in scoring, assists and steals, felt like a death knell for the team’€™s promising season.

A team that many had looked past in the preseason — after Andre Roberson, one of the nation’s top rebounders, left early for the NBA — was overshooting expectations in the Pac-12. 

Roberson’s rebounding had been replaced by a team-focused rebounding approach, and Boyle was pleased to report his team actually was a statistically better rebounding team than the season before. Dinwiddie, a 6-foot-6, all-around scoring guard who was averaging 14.7 and 3.8 assists, was catching NBA scouts’ attention as a possible late first-round pick.

The 21st-ranked Buffaloes looked like a second-weekend type of team, which would have been the first Sweet 16  for Colorado in 51 years.

Then, late in the first half of a loss at Washington a week ago, it all seemed to come crashing down. Dinwiddie fell to the court on a fast break. His left knee buckled awkwardly, and as he lay on the court for several minutes, you sensed the Buffaloes’ season had crumpled alongside him.

I asked that of Colorado coach Tad Boyle before his team played a struggling USC team at home Saturday, what ended up being a 83-62 Colorado blowout win that made the Buffaloes 15-4 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12.

What did he think of the popular perception that his team, once considered one of the most surprising stories in college hoops this year, now was considered a fringe NCAA Tournament team?

Guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s recent injury makes Colorado a different team entering the heart of its Pac-12 schedule.

"I take offense, and our players take offense to people saying that now that Spencer is down, we’re a fringe NCAA team," Boyle said.

"It’s disrespecting what we’€™ve done to this point, and to what other players are contributing. It’s telling them they’re not good enough. Guess what? That’s what people have been saying about Colorado basketball for 75 years. Guess what? Nothing changes. Nothing changes about the chip on our shoulder we bring on the floor every single night."

This is a program that revels in its underdog status, he explained.

"The only way we can do something about it is to prove people wrong and win some games," Boyle said. "If that can’t motivate us, I don’t know what will."

What Boyle has done in his four seasons at Boulder is remarkable. The Flatirons had been an avalanche of hoops mediocrity for decades. Coming to Boulder during basketball season had meant rappelling to a place where college hoops took a back seat to pretty much every other thing you can do during Colorado winters, whether that’s skiing or snowboarding or beer drinking or the National Western Stock Show, which happened to be going on down the road in Denver while the Buffaloes were facing USC on Saturday.

This program had made the NCAA Tournament exactly twice between 1969 and Boyle’€™s arrival from the University of Northern Colorado in 2010, including the two years when one of the best players in the country played in Boulder, a Colorado kid named Chauncey Billups.

In a short time, Boyle has obliterated everyone’s expectations of Colorado basketball. Recruiting nationally, Boyle has brought some big-time talent to Boulder, such as Dinwiddie, point guard Askia Booker and highly rated sophomores Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson.

In Boyle’s first season, Colorado went deep into the NIT, then made the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. This year’s team is young, long, athletic, tough in the post and extraordinarily well-coached, ranked 34th in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.

The real question isn’t whether the Buffaloes can make it into the NCAA Tournament; this team will make the tournament, Dinwiddie or not. This is one of the toughest Pac-12 seasons in years, with the conference ranked fourth in conference RPI. But aside from top-ranked Arizona, whom the Buffaloes play in Tucson this week, Colorado can compete with every single team in this conference.

The real question is whether this still is a team with the potential to make the second weekend of the tournament. I fear the answer is no, not without the dynamic Dinwiddie.

"We’re moving on,"€ Tad Boyle said. "Our identity is not going to shift."

Please don’€™t tell Boyle I said that.

"Don’t count this team out," Boyle said Saturday after the Buffaloes’ first win without Dinwiddie. "These guys have toughness, they got grit, and we can win some games in this league. It’s not going to be easy. Obviously going into Tucson next week, it’€™s not going to be easy for anybody.

"But you know what? All you can ask for in life is an opportunity, and we’ve got a great one in front of us."

Beating USC by 21 points at home isn’t exactly impressive in its own right. Andy Enfield is less than a year into his rebuilding job for a USC program that won only 14 games last season, and it showed on Saturday. But the bigger point is how Colorado won: with the sort of team-oriented, win-by-committee approach that Boyle told me would be the only way they could survive Pac-12 play.

Four players scored in double figures, led by big man Josh Scott, who had 20 points and who’ll have to take on more of the scoring burden without Dinwiddie. Ten players played 11 or more minutes. The team outrebounded a tall USC team by 20. The Buffaloes had 10 blocked shots. Freshman guard Jaron Hopkins played well in Dinwiddie’s stead, playing an efficient and mature 20 minutes.

"Everybody’s growing up," said point guard Booker, who scored 13 points on five shots and added six assists. "The young guys are growing up. Jaron, right here, he’s in the starting lineup as a freshman, so he has to grow up. (Saturday) was just a sign of maturity. Everybody has to grow up."

They’€™ll have to grow up quickly, because they’re heading to Tucson on Thursday to face the No. 1 team in the country. How they play against Arizona will be more telling than Saturday’€™s win. They won’€™t beat the Wildcats — I’m not sure anyone in the Pac-12 can — but staying right there with the Wildcats will be a confidence-builder for this team post-Dinwiddie.

I asked Boyle after Saturday’s game how this team’s identity will shift without having that blue-chip talent. His answer? Not much.

"We’re moving on,"€ he said. "Our identity is not going to shift. Our identity is going to be, we’re going to guard you, we’re going to rebound the ball, we’re going to take care of it on offense and going to get a good shot every time. Our identity is not going to change.

"I was planning on playing next year without Spencer Dinwiddie anyway. It just came a little bit earlier. You’re getting a pretty good peek into next year’€™s team."

Which ought to be a team that, as it continues to grow, will continue to prove us all wrong.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.