This is a important week for UCLA as the Bruins try to keep first-place Arizona within reach.
This is also a vital week for UCLA’s opponent Thursday, Colorado. As is next week, and the week after that, and so on.
The Buffaloes enter their game against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion trying to gussy up their image. A month ago, they were ranked 15th in the nation and had the look of a serious challenger in the Pac-12 Conference championship race.
Then star guard Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Teams generally react in one of two ways to these situations: They tank or regroup. Colorado (18-6 overall, 7-4 in Pac-12 play) has a 4-3 record since Dinwiddie was injured. The Buffaloes are tied for third place in the conference with Arizona State, half a game behind UCLA (18-5, 7-3).
“We’ve improved,” Coach Tad Boyle said. “We’ve had guys step into prominent roles that were vacated when Spencer went down.”
Dinwiddie, who averaged 14.7 points, was injured against Washington, a game the Buffaloes lost on the road. Colorado was then defeated by UCLA next time out.
But Colorado has won three consecutive games since being swept on the road against then-top-ranked Arizona and Arizona State. The Buffaloes pounded Washington, 91-65, in their last game.
“They’ve done a really good job of manning up and asking more of themselves,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially in a league like this. Their staff and players have done an excellent job of moving things forward and not keeping it status quo.”
Guard Askia Booker, who played at Los Angeles Price High, and forward Xavier Johnson, who played at Santa Ana Mater Dei, have been a big part of Colorado’s recent surge.
Booker has taken over Dinwiddie’s distribution chores. He is averaging 5.3 assists in the last seven games after averaging 2.1 the first 17. He averages 14.2 points but has been averaging 17.0 since Dinwiddie’s injury.
“Askia welcomed, and in many ways relished, that change,” Boyle said. “He’s playing the way we always wanted him to play. He is still a prolific scorer. What has changed is understanding teammates, getting them involved.”
Johnson, who hobbled through the last game against UCLA because of what was believed to be a groin injury, has picked up some of the scoring slack. He is averaging 14.7 points the last seven games, four above his average before Dinwiddie was injured.
Add to that mix center Josh Scott and reports of the Buffaloes’ demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
“It took some time to figure things out, a little longer than we would have liked,” Boyle said. “Our guys have shown resiliency.”
UCLA has won 13 of 14 games when guard Norman Powell scores in double figures.
Powell had a career-high 21 points in the victory over USC on Saturday. He made eight of 13 shots, including two three-pointers.
“You have to play to your strength,” Alford said. “If that’s foul shooting, you have to learn how to get fouled. If it’s three-point shooting, you’ve got to learn how to get yourself open to get a three. One of his strengths is attacking the rim. That sets up other parts of his game because people start backing off. If he starts knocking down the jump shot consistently, then you have a guard who is the full package.”
Forwards Travis and David Wear are acting like the twins they are at the free-throw line, where they’ve been close to automatic.
Travis Wear has made all 17 of his free throws this season. David Wear has made his last 19.