ORLANDO, Fla. – Within hours over a gloomy weekend this winter, season-ending knee injuries sidelined Colorado’s point guard and cost Pittsburgh one of its top reserves.
Lesser teams might have faltered down the stretch, however the eighth-seeded Buffaloes (23-11) and ninth-seeded Panthers (25-9) made adjustments that enabled them to remain on course to get back to the NCAA tournament, where they’ll meet Thursday in the second round of the Midwest Regional.
Colorado’s 6-foot-6 point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was averaging 14.7 points and nearly four assists per game when he went down during a 17-point loss at Washington on Jan. 12, forcing shooting guard Askia Booker to take on additional responsibilities as a facilitator for teammates.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Pitt lost sophomore forward Durand Johnson, averaging 8.8 points and just over three rebounds, for the year during a 15-point victory over Wake Forest.
“It changed a lot of things and what we wanted to do. He was one of our best five players. We weren’t starting him, but he was our third-leading scorer. He was our best perimeter defender,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Wednesday.
“It was his energy, it was his aggressiveness, it was his defense, and he had become a real good playmaker for us at getting other guys shots,” Dixon added. “Those were the things that stood out to me. And even though he had this reputation of being a shooter only, he had really developed his game and improved.”
Pitt coped by increasing playing time for some of its younger players.
Colorado weathered a tough stretch while learning to play with the 6-foot-2 Booker in his new role.
Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle has his team in the NCAAs for the third straight season, and Booker’s ability to adapt is one of the reasons the team has a chance to make amends for last year’s opening-game loss to Illinois.
“Ski loves big opportunities. He loves challenges. He loves playing when the spotlight is the biggest,” Boyle said. “He’s got a competitive streak about him and a confidence about him, I think, that allows him to play well against the best competition.”
Five things to know about the second-round matchup between Colorado and Pittsburgh.
Familiar territory: The No. 8 seed is the highest Colorado has ever had in the NCAA tournament. The Buffaloes beat UNLV to advance to the third round two years ago, and they’re excited to have a chance to remove the sour taste lingering from a quick exit in 2013. Still, Boyle isn’t sure his team’s previous experience will be an advantage. Pitt has been in the tournament, 12 of the past 13 years and has advanced as far as the round of 16 five times since 2002.
“For this program to get national respect, we have to play well on a national stage, and the stage doesn’t get any bigger in basketball than the one we’re on right now, the NCAA tournament,” Boyle said.
“Every year you’re here, you hope this is the year that that happens,” the Colorado coach added. “But every year you look at your opponent, and you think, oh, boy, we’ve got our hands full, and that’s the case with Pitt.”
Making the transition: Pitt made the transition from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. After an 18-2 start, the Panthers went 7-7 down the stretch, including last week’s loss to Virginia in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.
“The biggest difference to me is the name of the conference,” leading scorer Lamar Patterson said, noting both leagues are tough.
From a coaching standpoint, Dixon said there are a lot differences, ranging from recruiting to playing more games in on-campus arenas instead of NBA venues.
“You go in there saying it’s just basketball,” Dixon said. “But it’s a different deal.”
Late season struggles: Like Pitt, Colorado is trying to recover its edge. The Buffaloes have dropped four of seven since beating Arizona State at home on Feb. 19, with two of those losses coming to Arizona. Leading scorer Josh Scott, a 6-foot-10 sophomore center who’ll be matched up against Pitt’s 6-9 Talib Zanna, was held to four points and two rebounds in a 20-loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tourney.
X-factor: One of the players who has emerged as a solid player for Colorado since Dinwiddie left the lineup is guard Xavier Talton. He and forward Xavier Johnson average nearly 17 points per game.
On the mend: Zanna sat out practice Wednesday because of a stomach virus, however Dixon expects him to be ready to play Thursday.