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Buffaloes try to 're-invent' themselves without Spencer Dinwiddie

11:43 AM, Jan 30, 2014   |    comments
Dec 28, 2013; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes guard Spencer Dinwiddie (25) attempts a free throw in the second half against the Georgia Bulldogs at the Coors Events Center. The Buffaloes defeated the Bulldogs 84-74. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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USA TODAY - Spencer Dinwiddie didn't hear a pop, didn't feel pain in the back of his left knee. So, for a few brief seconds, Colorado's point guard didn't think his injury would be that bad.

He'd collapsed to the floor during the first half of Colorado's game at Washington on Jan. 12. He'd just been pushing the ball up the court, "like any other play, really," he says.

"I took a step and it felt like my knee cap shifted over and shifted back," Dinwiddie says. "I just hit the ground. ... I thought, dislocated kneecap, get the swelling down in a week or two. I didn't think I'd really even miss time."

But then he reached for his left leg and tried to extend it. His eyes grew wide as his leg felt weak.

"That's when I kind of got scared," he says. After being helped off the court, he met with trainers and doctors. They told him he probably tore his ACL. Dinwiddie couldn't grasp the notion for a few minutes; he hadn't heard or felt a sudden pop. Didn't you have to have a pop? Wasn't that how ACL injuries go?

A little more than two weeks have passed since Dinwiddie tore his left ACL. He's had surgery, and he's been told he's got six months of recovery time ahead of him. Besides rehab, he's spending a lot of time in bed watching movies and, of course, basketball.

At the time of his injury, Dinwiddie had been averaging a team-best 15.2 points per game, along with 3.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists. DraftExpress.com projected him to be a late first-round pick in June's NBA draft. The Buffs were the 17th-ranked team in that week's USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll.

In Dinwiddie's absence, Colorado has gone 1-4 (including the loss at Washington the day of the injury). The Buffs have also dropped out of both polls.

"That's something that really hurts - to have that taken away," Dinwiddie says. "That's probably the thing that hurts the most. I believe I'll make a full recovery. I believe I'll play in the NBA, whether it's this year or next year. But to have the season that was turning out to be such a great and prolific season taken away on a wrong step, that really hurts."

That's not to say the Buffs have given up on their season. Junior guard Askia Booker says the team is practicing just as hard as ever, and it's working toward the same goals it's had all season. "If you change your goals, then you've already given up," he says.

The shock of Dinwiddie's injury has worn off, according to Colorado coach Tad Boyle. So has some of the sadness. Booker recalls a team meeting held a day before Colorado's first game of the post-Dinwiddie era, against UCLA. Booker cried a bit, imagining what it would be like to take the court without the person he always looked to at the end of games, the player who had been alongside him their entire Colorado careers.

But now, Booker says, it's time to move on and not use Dinwiddie's absence as an excuse for losing. Boyle still believes he has an NCAA tournament-caliber team on his hands.

"I think we've got that kind of talent, but we've got to re-invent ourselves a little bit," says Boyle, who has also lost reserve swingman Tre'Shaun Fletcher to injury. "We're in the process of doing that."

On the court, that re-invention means moving Jaron Hopkins into the starting lineup and relying on other freshmen guards to play more minutes, too. Defensive assignments will be tougher, considering Dinwiddie won't be there to take on the opponent's best perimeter player. Re-invention also requires Booker and sophomore forward Josh Scott to step into leadership roles within the team, and shoulder more of the scoring load, too. Together, Booker and Scott combine for 27.3 points per game.

"It might be a longer process than people think it would be," Booker says. "Against UCLA, we had stretches of times we played well but we had a lot of lapses. We weren't getting back defensively. I think sometimes it might be the leadership that's missing.

"Some of it is just depending on the skill level that Spencer brought. Without Spencer, the margin of error shrinks. You're really talented, athletic, longer, you can maybe make a little more mistakes and not pay for it. Now, we're continuing to pay for it. And it shows over and over again in games we're losing."

These last two weeks have not been easy for Dinwiddie, whose most serious injury prior to this point in his life had been a broken finger. He said he finds it particularly challenging to watch Colorado games, like last Thursday's loss to Arizona, wondering if he could have made a difference.

Meanwhile, he can only sit back and watch as other elite college basketball players make their cases to NBA personnel. But instead of worrying or playing the what-if game, he's begun focusing on attacking rehab - the one thing he can control.

Dinwiddie's six-month recovery time frame poses an interesting question. The 2014 NBA draft will take place on June 26; the early-entry eligibility deadline is April 27. He could be healthy enough by pre-draft workouts, but maybe not healed enough by the time he has to make the call.

"There are so many factors that go into that type of decision, and it's not really predicated on me and how I play anymore," Dinwiddie says. "It's really something that's going to be decided by the end of the year based on everything going on. The No. 1 thing is how I'm healing. That's the thing I can control, attacking rehab. I plan to come back more explosive and stronger. I'm going to take these next six months to really work on my body."

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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