Junior wing Aaron Dotson had earned a starting spot coming into the 2012-13 basketball season prior to an injury that kept him off the court for over a month.
Frustrated at being side-lined, Dotson kept his perspective and took it upon himself to observe every detail of practice in order to extract whatever he could during his rehabilitation.
Surprisingly, he was able to take a great deal away from his time watching from the sidelines.
"From a defensive standpoint, I learned how important it is to stay in stances. Offensively, I learned that being patient is huge, and in watching I saw that a lot of guys were impatient," Dotson revealed. "There was a lot of dribbling, and I realized how much faster you can move the ball with a pass."
The transfer from LSU looked to apply his newly realized lessons and returned three games ago, just in time for the Runnin' Utes' first road trip, a two-game swing through Texas that resulted in a split.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak indicated that he was considering playing Dotson in the days prior to the road trip, which came as somewhat of a surprise given the fact that his time frame for return had originally been set for 4-6 weeks. Additionally, observing Dotson in practices found him somewhat limited, with more time on a stationary bike than on the basketball floor.
In fact, in the immediate days before the road trip, Dotson had only two or three days' worth of practice and even his time and activity level was limited to just one hour of live work each of those days.
"I just came back that Monday, and the game was on Wednesday so I didn't get the time in the gym that I wanted," Dotson pointed out. "I never really got to work on putting up shots or those kinds of fundamental things."
Dotson returned to the Ute line up against SMU, playing just seven minutes which yielded four turnovers and two personal fouls and a rather unremarkable performance for both Dotson, and the team. Utah lost the contest 62-50 in a down game for nearly every Ute but senior guard Jarred DuBois.
"I thought I would be able to come back a little easier, and when I was out there it felt like I was moving in slow motion," he explained. "I could run up and down the floor, but nothing was really clicking, especially on offense."
Against Texas State two days later, Dotson's minutes increased, however slightly, up to 10, and his game showed marked improvement. Dotson's line on the night didn't pop, but he eliminated his turnovers and made an impact defensively during key stretches of the game in limited minutes.
In his third game back, a home win against Boise State, Dotson was notably more active and comfortable on the court in his 12 minutes and also got on the board with six timely points.
As Dotson's minutes and performance trend upward, so have his health and comfort level. With increased practice time, Dotson is beginning to get his basketball legs back, perhaps the biggest factor in his emergence.
"I just had to get comfortable and get my legs back. That's starting to happen, and the sooner the better," Dotson acknowledged. "I'm not playing in slow motion, and it's just taking a little bit of time to play out of that, but I feel good now."
His recent performances in practice this week show promise of a potentially explosive offensive force, and another long, athletic defender, giving Krystkowiak one more option to work into his line-up.
"We want to have as many offensive weapons as possible, and he provides us with some things both on offense and on defense" said Krystkowiak.
After red-shirting in 2011-12 due to NCAA regulations pertaining to transfer situations, most Ute fans don't know what to expect from the soft-spoken wing, nor are the familiar with his strengths. While Dotson can certainly score when called upon and is especially good on the dribble drive, he feels that, given his very recent return he can focus on helping the team in other ways.
"I think I can help my team defensively, and in rebounding and scrapping for the ball in some of those loose ball situations," Dotson offered. "They don't really need me to score, so I'm not going out there to put a lot of pressure on myself that way. At the same time, I feel like I can do that. Basically, I just want to win and I'm willing to help do whatever my team needs me to to do that."
Indeed, the Utes do need Dotson to rebound, and assistant coach Tommy Connor is pushing him to work on that aspect of the game.
"Coach Connor has been talking to me a lot lately about defensive rebounding recently, and how our team really needs defensive rebounds, Dotson said. "Offensive [rebounds], too, because they have me crashing and being aggressive."
At 6-foot-4, Dotson's unique skill set may yet prove to be a key factor, presenting a match-up problem for opposing defenses. With all that in mind, Krystkowiak may yet call on him to score and play a larger role offensively, especially with the recent struggles of big man Dallin Bachynski who has scored little over the past few games.
"Yeah, Aaron can post up and do some things offensively that make him pretty versatile and kind of a mis-match for guys trying to guard him down in the post. He's strong, he's got good ball skills and he can dribble and penetrate. His movement doesn't seem as strained, and he's looking about as good as he ever has this week," said Krystkowiak after practice Thursday. "With him we could run some things off the block, and that's something we haven't really have a chance to look at or play with, but yeah, that could end up being an advantage for us at times. That's something we'll look pretty seriously into as time goes on, and it's just another nice option."
Regardless of how he plays, Dotson says getting the real, live game minutes has been extremely valuable for him, especially on the road.
"I think for our whole team, getting to play out on the road was a big thing. We have a lot of guys who don't really know what that's like, and SMU's crowd was getting after us, so it was good experience for our team," he said. "We learned just how hard you have to play every single possession, especially on the road. That's what I'll take away from my first two games back in Texas."
As far as what he has learned about his own game since his return, Dotson says he's focused on being more productive and efficient when driving and penetrating.
"A lot of the time I get to the basket and look for others too much, so I'm really trying to work on finishing for myself," he admitted. "I'm good at drawing defenders, but I get so deep that it's kind of too late and I might as well just shoot it. So I'm just trying to work on that."
As both Dotson, and the season progress, he could yet be a force on this Utah team. In the Utes' big match up Saturday at BYU, his focus will likely be to play defense on Tyler Haws and/or Brock Zylstra and limit their production, which will be crucial to a Ute victory.