When ascendant teams suddenly lose their best players to exploded knees, they typically -- and how could you not? -- wear that news on their sleeves.
Subsequent games become sluggish, emotionally drained affairs. Zoned-out players shuffle through the motions. Blowouts ensue. Announcers file their laments. Counterfactuals are dreamed and dismissed. Eulogies are read. It takes time to come to terms with how quickly and randomly your season can change, and even longer -- weeks, even -- to realize there’s no use yielding to circumstance. The interim can be ugly.
To Colorado’s everlasting credit, Thursday’s 69-56 loss to UCLA wasn’t like that at all. The Buffaloes were tenacious and engaged, physical and focused; they held one of the most talented offensive groups in the country to just under a point per possession and just 26-of-66 from the field.
And they still lost, because of the sheer obvious fact that star guard Spencer Dinwiddie and his torn ACL were sitting on the sideline watching.
Rarely does a loss connect so specifically to a lost player. Colorado struggled on Thursday in every area where Dinwiddie excels. Offensively, the Buffaloes got to the free throw line just 18 times, one more than UCLA but well short of the 56.1 percent average (ratio of free throws to field goal attempts) that drives so much of their offense. They missed seven of those free throws; Dinwiddie was 102-for-117 on the season. The 6-foot-4 guard shot 41.3 percent from 3, and the only player to attempt more 3s, fellow senior guard Askia Booker, shoots just 28.4. On Thursday night, Colorado went 5-of-17 from beyond the arc.
Other issues were less numerical, but no less visible. Colorado’s offense, which put up 75 points in 67 possessions against Kansas on the same floor a month ago, looked lost, hesitant, out of sync. The Bruins are not known for their stout half-court defense, but Colorado’s issues spacing the floor clogged everything. Colorado turned the ball over on a quarter of its possessions. It shot terribly. It didn’t rebound. It scored roughly .82 points per trip, its worst offensive performance of the season.
Despite it all, Colorado remained in striking distance deep into the second half. That’s when two plays sealed it.
With 3:07 left to play, UCLA guard Jordan Adams -- an increasingly brutish, domineering offensive force -- outmuscled Colorado reserve guard Xavier Talton for an offensive rebound. Adams tried to draw contact on the shot, but the ref didn’t bite, and Talton corralled the ensuing rebound himself. UCLA defenders swarmed. Talton panicked. He unloaded his pass approximately 15 feet over his teammate’s head into the Bruins’ bench. Thirty seconds later, Adams grabbed Zach LaVine's miss and then his own, the last a muscular tip-in that turned UCLA’s seven-point lead at 3:07 into a 60-51 lead when Tad Boyle called timeout at 2:20.
It might be a little unfair to say that Dinwiddie could have kept Adams off the boards. It’s unfair to say Dinwiddie’s presence would have guaranteed a win.
It is not at all unfair to say that Talton’s crucial error was one of many perfect examples of exactly what the Buffaloes lost last Saturday. It’s not just about the efficient trips to the free throw line, or the ability to stretch defenses from 3. It’s about seeing a hundred or a thousand backcourt double-teams in your career and knowing that there’s always a way out if you take a deep breath and a good, long look. Colorado lost that, too.
The good news? The only reason Talton even had the opportunity to make that mistake is because Boyle’s guys fought like maniacs just to stay in the game in the first place. In that respect, the Buffaloes are admirably ahead of the curve. In every other, the road ahead is long.