We all remember where we were when it happened. When team keystone and NBA-bound star guard Spencer Dinwiddie succumbed to the will of a slippery murder floor at Hec-Ed Arena in Seattle. I know where I was - at a barbecue at the home of my friends Wyatt and Mary Ann, eating delicious ribs, playing with their small but unrelentingly energetic child, watching the Broncos game, and trying to avoid any mention of the Buffs game I was recording for later use. I failed, via a single text message that read: "PHIL! :(" My immediate thought was that Spencer went down with an injury. I wish that I had been wrong.
The legacy of Spencer Dinwiddie's injury is that, for a while, this will go down as a season of missed opportunity. That's not to say anything negative about the players who did their best in the wake of the injury, but it is endemic of the exciting and irrational nature of being a sports fan. Sometimes you're a six seed and make a run through the conference tournament - you can even make an upset win in the NCAA Tournament! But sometimes you're a frontrunner, playing big out of conference opponents for important wins, and have to readjust your expectations in the face of unexpected adversity. This season has not been a failure- not by a long shot. But it was a season where we look back and wonder what might've been, and ultimately was not to be. Our players fought hard, fought tough, were forced into uncomfortable roles, and came out stronger on the other end.
There is no doubt that Xavier Talton benefited from Dinwiddie's injury. He improved by leaps and bounds and that improvement can be measured flip book style, as we have seen him become a much better player in real time, from game to game and sometimes from minute to minute. You can argue that he should not have had the final shot at the season finale against Cal, but you would be stupid and short-sighted. He was open, and he has proven before and since that he deserves to be on the floor in game deciding situations. That is not something anyone would have said prior to the Dinwiddie injury.
Askia Booker was forced to change the definition of #SkiBall and become more efficient as an offensive player, more of a ball handler, and better as a leader. That is not an easy thing to ask of a player after two and a half years of freelance dragon riding, but there is no doubt that he did exactly that. The Askia Booker that stands before you now, asking you to love him, is not the same Askia Booker that previously just jabbed you in the chest and dared you to hate him. Granted, our outcomes still rise and fall with his performances more than the emotions of a club kid on molly, but there is now a calmness and clarity to his game that has never been previously evident.
Other players, like Jaron Hopkins and Dustin Thomas, haven't been so fortunate. They were forced into roles for which they simply were not ready. Thomas in particular has seen his confidence shattered over the course of the second half of the season, and Hopkins has seen his hot and cold game put under a spotlight without the benefit of the safety net previously afforded to Booker. That's okay. Ultimately they can and should come out of this season as better players. But the season is not over, and these players need to mature in short fashion.
Similarly, Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson have seen the need to take an unexpected step forward as leaders and producers without Dinwiddie. For the most part, I would grade them as successful, although Johnson's emotions still get the best of him at times and Scott has begun to wear down over the course of the Pac-12 grind. If these are the players we send out on the floor to start the 2014-2015 season, then this is a team that I can support. That is the definition of program building that is the signature of the #RollTad era, injury or not. Respect the process, and believe in the outcome.
The legacy of this team will not be that Spencer Dinwiddie got injured. The legacy will be that we will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Wait... that might be from the movie I'm semi-watching while writing this. But that's the theme of the month, isn't it? Survive and advance. The season did not end with being fed into the anthropomorphic wood chipper that is the Arizona defense. We have come out of the regular season beaten, battered, bruised... but also tough, angry, and resilient. We have taken all of the punches, and now we have the chance to do some damage in the NCAAs, and are well equipped to deal with the pressure and adversity of the moment. Will we take advantage and force some other teams into their own uncomfortable questions of the offseason, or will we fall to our many wounds and take an early seat on the sidelines? We shall see, but until then - GAME ON!