Monday, March 12, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer take a look at the UNLV basketball team's opening round opponent in the NCAA Tournament — Pac-12 tournament champions Colorado.
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UNLV's Justin Hawkins remembers watching the NCAA Tournament during the school day at Taft High in Southern California, dreaming of when students around the world would spend part of their school day watching him play in the Big Dance.
When Hawkins learned Sunday of his fate for a third straight tournament appearance, the junior wing couldn’t help thinking back to those early afternoon, makeshift viewing parties at Taft High. That’s because the Rebels’ opening game against Colorado in Albuquerque will feature Hawkins facing off against high school teammate Spencer Dinwiddie, a talented freshman guard who been one of the Buffaloes' key players in a surprising run to the tournament.
Hawkins immediately thought of Dinwiddie once he saw UNLV, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, matched up against No. 11 Colorado. After all, it wasn’t too long ago when the friends watched the tournament together.
“In high school during class, most of the teachers let us watch the tournament,” Hawkins said. “We were like, one day it will be us playing in front of millions of people. The fact that on Thursday it will be us playing against each other in front of millions of people is pretty overwhelming.”
Of all the possible pairings in the tournament, the odds of finding players from the same high school squaring off are pretty slim — especially this year, involving Colorado. The Buffaloes (23-11) lost three of their last four regular season games, but advanced to the NCAAs by winning four straight in the Pac-12 tournament for a spot in the field of 68 teams.
“I definitely thought of him right away when I saw it was Colorado. I was very shocked about it,” Hawkins said. “I was like Colorado and Spencer, wow, that is someone I’m real familiar with. I watched some of their games this year following him. I'm real happy for him and their team, especially with the kind of year they had.”
In Hawkins’ high school senior season of 2009, Taft advanced to the regional semifinals with Hawkins playing forward and Dinwiddie at point guard. They are longtime friends and lived about a 10-minute drive apart from each other. “We were teammates for two years, but friends for, basically, forever,” Hawkins said.
Come Thursday, the 6-foot-4 Dinwiddie’s dream of playing in his first tournament might also include being guarded by his former teammate. At UNLV, Hawkins is the Rebels’ sixth man and best defender, and will surely be relied upon to strategize against someone whose game he is familiar with.
Stopping Dinwiddie might be the key to UNLV advancing to the next phase of the tournament. He averaged 10.2 points per game as a true freshman this year in making the all-Pac 12 freshman team, and started all of Colorado’s 34 games. He scored a game-high 14 points Saturday in 37 minutes in leading the Buffaloes past Arizona, 53-51, in the Pac-12 title game.
As Hawkins can attest, Dinwiddie is a star in the making — something he hopes millions of people watching around the world, and in their high school classrooms, won’t see much of. After all, the friends will be rivals going for the same goal of advancing in the tournament.
“It’s his poise. He is mature beyond his years and has a high basketball IQ,” Hawkins said.