If McKinley Wright's shoulder injury proves problematic for the next few weeks and beyond, the Colorado men's basketball team will have a colossal void to fill.
Yet one of the bright spots of Saturday night's close-but-not-quite 77-70 home loss against Washington was the play of junior guard Shane Gatling, who showed he is capable of substituting for Wright at the top of the Buffaloes' attack even while his shooting woes continue.
Wright, who played through a left shoulder injury during last week's pair of losses in Arizona, exited Saturday's contest with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the first half and did not return. Gatling has played mostly off the ball this season after transferring from Indian Hills Community College, but he impressed in his return to a ball-handling role that helped make him a junior college All-American last season.
"I was comfortable in that role," Gatling said. "Last year, I had the ball in my hand a lot most of the game. And I had the ball in my hand most of this game (against UW). It didn't feel like much of a difference. I've got to pick it up more and be more of a leader and help lead us to a victory."
In his third consecutive game off the bench after starting the first 13 games, Gatling again struggled with his shooting touch, going 1-for-10 overall and 1-for-6 on 3-pointers just 48 hours after hitting a season-best five 3-pointers in a win against Washington State.
Yet with Wright sidelined, the pace and effectiveness of the Buffs' attack didn't alter with the ball in Gatling's hands. Gatling appeared equally adept at pushing the attack as he did facilitating the offense against the Huskies' zone defense. Gatling had not posted more than two assists in any of the Buffs' previous 15 games, but he finished with six against Washington against just one turnover in 34-plus minutes.
Gatling also recorded four steals, the most by any CU player this season and, despite the shooting woes, his ability to get to the rim and create his own shot led to a 5-for-7 mark at the free throw line.
In 16 games, Gatling has recorded multiple turnovers just twice, hitting that mark in consecutive December games against Illinois-Chicago (two) and New Mexico (three). Since that three-turnover game at New Mexico, which led to a season-low 12 minutes for Gatling, he has been charged with just six turnovers in seven games.
While Gatling's continued struggles at the 3-point line have been equally perplexing and frustrating — Saturday's effort dropped his season percentage to .323 (21-for-65) after he shot nearly 39 percent from 3-point range a year ago — his ability to assume the bulk of the ball-handling duties in the event of a prolonged Wright absence will provide a crutch to a Buffs team that has lost five of seven games since an 8-1 start.
The Buffs were off Sunday and are scheduled to be off Monday as well, meaning Wright's status likely will not be clarified until later in the week. If he merely jolted the previous injury, there is a reasonable chance the extra few days of rest this week will help him get back on the floor in time for the Buffs' Jan. 20 date at Utah.
If the injury worsened, Gatling and freshman guard Daylen Kountz will be counted upon to direct CU's attack.
"Let's make no mistakes about it, Shane Gatling is a good shooter. He's a guy we want to get shots," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "Now, Washington did not want Shane Gatling to get shots. They did a better job of taking Shane Gatling shots away than we did (David) Crisp in the first half."