BOULDER – You’ve heard coaches talk about “the next man up,” but in the Colorado men’s basketball program the talk nowadays is about the next two men up. Shrinkage has set in on Tad Boyle’s bench, and we’re not borrowing any Seinfeld lines here.
I’m stating the obvious, but this has not been a good week for knees in CU hoops, and very shortly we’ll begin to find out just how much it has weakened the Buffs. Can we call UCLA’s trip to the Coors Events Center on Thursday night CU’s version of Wounded Knee?
But as Boyle reminded the other day, the Bruins and those Pac-12 members who visit the CEC between now and the end of next month won’t come in to stage a pity party. Bottom line in a bottom-line business: It’s now up to CU to compensate for the losses of Spencer Dinwiddie and Tre’Shaun Fletcher, and if it doesn’t happen that’s on Boyle and the Buffs.
I thought the debate about the sustained success of CU hoops in the post-Dinwiddie era might not begin until after the 2014 NBA Draft. But that conversation abruptly began on Monday – a day after Dinwiddie went down in Seattle with a left ACL injury.
Shortly thereafter, his teammates absorbed another hit, learning Fletcher would be out for 6-8 weeks with a left knee injury. Surgery will be required for both players.
A collection of Buffs will step into the breach against the No. 25 Bruins and their new coach, Steve Alford. For starters – and he’s expected to be in the starting lineup in Dinwiddie’s place – there’s freshman Jaron Hopkins, who all along has been mentioned as Dinwiddie’s heir at point guard. The long (6-5) and talented Hopkins will play the point, but not exclusively. Junior Askia Booker can (and will) shift from the “2” spot and Hopkins also will play there. Sophomores Xavier Talton and Eli Stalzer also can play either role, but the question becomes how well for extended minutes? Replacing the 6-7 Fletcher, who was averaging just over 10 minutes a game, will be freshmen Dustin Thomas (6-7) and George King (6-5).
Boyle doesn’t have a problem with plugging in players wherever they’re needed: “We don’t get caught up in positions . . . can they pass, dribble, shoot, rebound?” Hopkins, he said, “can do all those things” – and he expects no less from the others.
His foundation of defense and rebounding, hopes Boyle, will remain solid. What he doesn’t want the Buffs to do in Dinwiddie’s absence on offense is stray from their inside-out principles, still taking advantage of Josh Scott, Wesley Gordon and Xavier Johnson in the front court.
But, Boyle conceded, “Now our margin for error is much less. What we have to concentrate on is having great possessions on offense. We can’t have empty possessions or take bad shots . . . that shouldn’t be any different whether Spencer is here or not here. But with him out the offensive possessions become that much more valuable. We have to make sure we take care of the ball and take a great shot every time on offense.”
Much of that will fall on Booker, Hopkins, whoever is running the point, to get the Buffs in their half-court sets when they can’t run. Plus, Dinwiddie had attempted a team-high 119 free throws, making 102 (85.7 percent), and Boyle wants anyone on the court in Dinwiddie’s place to be just as aggressive in getting to the basket and hopefully drawing fouls.
“I’m going to have to get into the paint just like Spencer did and do the things he did,” said Hopkins, who admits to liking point guard better than the off guard spot. “But I’m going to have play my game and not worry too much about it.”
And Boyle doesn’t want Hopkins believing he has to be Dinwiddie incarnate: “He doesn’t have to play perfect. I told him he doesn’t need to be Spencer Dinwiddie, he just needs to be Jaron Hopkins and be as good as he can be. But Jaron gives us great length and great athleticism, size, strength . . . offensively he can distribute the ball, he can shoot the ball and get to the rim – all the things that Spencer did. He’s just going to have to be more consistent.”
Boyle recruited Hopkins and his fellow freshmen with the idea of meaningful minutes probably being required in their first seasons. But he had no idea it would happen like this.
“You never know,” Boyle said. “You recruit them because you like them as players and kids. You believe in them. I believe in Jaron as much today as I did when we recruited him. You never know how quickly they’re going to assimilate and how many minutes they’re going to get.
“Sometimes that’s beyond their control, sometimes it’s beyond yours as a coach in terms of who’s playing in front of them and how many minutes are available. Jaron’s proved he can play at this level. I think the big challenge now is doing it consistently throughout a 40-minute game and game to game.”
If there’s one thing Boyle wants Hopkins to do more of as his minutes increase, it’s talk – not merely for the sake of speaking, but taking command on the court. That can be a rare thing for a freshman, and Boyle knows it’s a role Hopkins has to grow into: “I think everybody has that capability . . . I think sometimes as freshman it takes a really special guy to come in and have the confidence to have your voice heard,” Boyle said. “I don’t believe in leadership by example. I think if you’ve got a leadership-by-example guy, you’ve got a hard-worker who busts his tail every day (but) it doesn’t make him a leader. Don’t use the term leadership; (he’s) a great example.
“We’ve had guys like that and we’ve got guys like that in our program right now. But if you want to truly be a leader, your voice better be heard. Spencer really developed into that as his career went on. Jaron – is it there? Absolutely. It’s our job to demand it and bring it out of him. But I’m understanding, too, that it’s a process, it doesn’t just happen by snapping your fingers . . . it’s going to happen over the course of his career.”
Hopkins calls Dinwiddie “the best point guard I’ve ever played with” and says Dinwiddie’s advice mirrors Boyle’s top requirement – be more of a vocal leader. “I tend to be quiet on the court, so I’m going to have to change that a little bit,” Hopkins said, adding, “It’s a little bit (difficult), but I can do it. It’s going to take a lot out of me. I know coach is going to be on me each and every day, even more than he’s been. It’s a little more pressure on me but I think I can do it.”
Alford, coming to Westwood from New Mexico, has instilled more of an aggressive offensive mindset in the Bruins, and in 6-9 Kyle Anderson he has a point guard who creates matchup problems against most teams. Anderson averages 15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.8 steals, ranking him in the top five in the Pac-12 in the last three categories.
In conference play, UCLA (13-3, 2-1) is averaging a league-best 89.7 points and has four players among the top 18 scorers – Anderson (18.7), Jordan Adams (16.0), Bryce Alford (15.0) and Zach LaVine (15.0). Steve Alford has two sons on his team – freshman Bryce and sophomore Kory.
Pac-12 play is entering only its second weekend, but the Bruins have made an early statement. They’re atop the league in scoring, rebounding offense, rebounding margin, defensive rebounding percentage, assists, steals, turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio.
By contrast, the Buffs (14-3, 3-1) are grinding along with very little statistical fanfare. They are first in blocked shots (5.3 a game) and tied for first in offensive rebounding (12.5). But one of the things they do best under Boyle is win at the CEC, where they’re 55-7 in his 31/2 seasons.
Thursday night’s question is whether they can win without their floor leader and a top reserve. Dinwiddie and Fletcher will be on the bench, with Boyle now looking to Dinwiddie “to be our student assistant for the next two months. I expect him to have his voice heard and encourage and help his teammates. They respect him and he respects them as well. I expect his leadership role to be there as much as it ever was – it just won’t be on the floor.”
We’ll see how the Buffs respond in his absence, relying on each other instead.