Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013-14 Washington Basketball Preview #1

Wednesday night, in front of a dead crowd and a mostly-empty arena in Spokane, Washington, the Buffs played down to their competition, allowing an obviously inferior Washington State squad to push them into overtime.  Compared to the team we saw beat Oregon at their own game last weekend, I almost didn't recognize the Colorado squad on display.  However, in spite of a lethargic performance that seemed doomed to end in a loss, CU closed well down the stretch, and powered through hot shooting from the Cougars to claim a 71-70 victory.

WSU almost pulled off the upset by knocking down a shockingly high percentage of three pointers. Coming into the game, the Cougars were shooting barely over 30% from deep, but were allowed to shoot near 60% from range in Spokane.  You saw players like Dexter Kernich-Drew (26% coming in) and Royce Woolridge (18% coming in) hit trey after trey.  More than luck, it was simply a product of the Buffs leaving the shooters wide open.  Another team allowed to stay in the game through their perimeter play, *sigh*.
Anyone want to guard the shooter?
Outside of WSU's hot shooting, the story of the night may very well be the pseudo-absence of CU's talismanic point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie.  The Mayor was nigh nonexistent for most of the game, failing to take a shot in the first half, and only scoring after 32 minutes had been played.  Said Coach Boyle of the performance, 'he was not in Spokane Arena tonight mentally, physically, he was somewhere else. I don’t know where it was, but he wasn’t here.'  Athletes have off nights, but there was something almost worrying about how muted Dinwiddie was.  To my eyes, he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but playing in that game, which is not the attitude you usually see from him.

Without their best player playing to his capabilities, the Buffs had to turn to their other stars.  Josh Scott, Askia Booker, and Xavier Johnson obliged by all scoring in double figures.  It was Scott who can be said to have won the game through his dominating performance in overtime, scoring eight of his team-high 19 points in the extra frame.  Booker, while a ugly 2-12 from the field, was terrific at getting to the free throw line, going 13-14 from the stripe.  Johnson also did a good job getting to the line, and was generally difficult for WSU to matchup on defense.
Without Scott, the Buffs would've wound up losing on Wednesday.
Nights like Wednesday aren't unheard of, particularly in college sports.  While there is no excuse for letting a team like Washington State (without their best player, no less) push you around, at least the Buffs found a way to win.  I've seen versions of that game before, and in almost every one, CU has taken the loss.  No, this time, Colorado came back and escaped with the win.  A testament to their talent and will.

Hopefully, lesson learned, the Buffs will put together a better showing Sunday afternoon in Seattle. Washington has been playing better as of late, but they should still be a beatable proposition for a CU team playing somewhere in the vicinity of good basketball.  A win over the Huskies would go a long way towards erasing the doubts generated by the Scare in Spokane.


Tip-off from the verbose Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion is set for 1pm on Sunday. The Broncos play at 2:40, so I don't actually expect anyone reading this to plan on watching the game.  It's OK, do your thing.  If you do still plan on watching the Buffs, however, you can find the action on FOX Sports 1, with the radio call on 760 AM.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last season, the Buffs and Huskies met in Seattle in what looked to all like a bricklayers convention.  Both teams were ice cold from the floor, as they combined to shoot 35%.  Colorado was particularly putrid, clanking all but one of their 10 three point attempts.  Even the best defensive team in the world can't cover up that offensive disaster, and CU eventually fell off the pace, and wound up taking a 64-54 loss.

Not a single Colorado starter would finishing shooting above 50%.  In fact, the only player on the roster north of half was Eli Stalzer, who hit the only shot he took.  Make no mistake, UW was a decent defensive team in '12-'13, but not that strong.  The Huskies did a great job of shackling the Buffs to the halfcourt, as Colorado failed to score a single fast break point in the game.  With no fast break opportunities, and eight fewer free throw attempts than their average, the Buffs were stuck in the mud.  As a result, CU shot only 29% in the first half, and only notched six assists for the game.
Without transition opportunities, CU had difficulty scoring in Seattle last year.
For the Huskies, CJ Wilcox went off.  The then-junior shooting guard dropped 25 points on 8-14 shooting. He carried Washington through their quiet stretches, and finished the game off at the line.  CU was lead by a 10/11/3 double-double from Andre Roberson, but needed someone to step up offensively.

The lesson here is that Colorado needs to get back to their strengths.  Attacking the rim, getting out in transition - without these cornerstone offensive components, even an above average defensive team can make the Buffs look impotent.

The Huskies in 2013-14 - 

Things looked real bad for Washington earlier this season. They took a pair of rough losses to UC-Irvine (at home) and Boston College (at the 2K Sports Classic) in November, and have posted a few other shaky performances, like back-to-back 'look away' home victories over Mississippi Valley State and Hartford towards the end of 2013. If you would've asked me about them two weeks ago, I would've said they're a basement-caliber Pac-12 squad. Now, however, my opinion is slightly different.
UC-Irvine?  Really?
As Pac-12 play has started, they appear to be a completely different team. In the conference-opener against Arizona State, they stunned the much more heralded Sun Devils on the road in Tempe, 76-65. While they took a loss two days later against the #1 Arizona Wildcats, they played really well, and pushed the 'Cats before falling 71-62. On Wednesday, they survived for a 59-57 win against a very capable Utah squad. Suddenly, after a non-conference stretch mostly notable for its inconsistency, the Huskies are 2-1 in Pac-12 play, and look capable of sneaking into the top-half of the conference standings.

They key so far has been Washington's defense. In conference play they're #2 in defensive eFG, and #1 in allowed three-point percentage (a shockingly low 13.2% through three games). It's a big turnaround for the team, who had been struggling defensively for most of non-conference play.  Coach Romar even calls them 'functional' now. Yes, the law of small sample size applies, but it's still important to note.

Part of the problem had been adjusting to the loss of mammoth center Aziz N'Diaye, who graduated after last season. A true seven-footer, N'Diaye was a looming defensive threat in the paint. Just the sight of the big man could deter dribble-drive penetration. Without Aziz patrolling the block, opponents have been allowed to shoot an additional 10% of their shots at the rim, and have seen a 20% reduction in blocked shots overall this season. As a result, opponents score near 60% of their points inside of the arc (11th nationally). Said a UC-Irvine player after their upset earlier this season, "It was like, just get inside and make things happen because they really don’t have anybody back there that’s going to block your shot."
They've really missed Aziz this season.
While Washington has focused in recent weeks to cut-off this penetration (expect a lot of switching), and make opponents more honest offensively, I still think CU would best be served trying to attack the rim, as those rates have stayed consistent through conference play.

Offensively, they fall into the two-point jumper trap 40% of the time, which, as I discussed in the Oregon preview, can lead to some inefficient play.  Still, they can score the ball, notching just under an adjusted 1.1 points per possession, while playing fast (about 70 possessions per game, 44th-fastest in possession length). With this in mind, I don't anticipate the patience problems we saw in Spokane - both Colorado and Washington look to keep the tempo elevated.  It should be another fun game to watch, more akin to what we saw against Oregon.

Star Players - 

The big star for the Huskies continues to be C.J. Wilcox.  Now a senior, the 6-5 wing is second in the conference in scoring, averaging just under 20 points per game.  While he does lead the team in minutes and possessions used, he's far from a volume shooter.  His jumper is one of the most consistent in the conference, as his 42% shooting from three-point range attests.  Over 50% of his attempts are from deep, which worries me, as Colorado continues to struggle guarding the perimeter.  I expect him to have a massive game, simply because he should receive numerous open looks.
Wilcox is a pure scorer that I expect will have another huge game tomorrow.
Sharing the backcourt with him are a pair of intriguing young talents in Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews.  Williams-Goss, a true freshman point guard, came to Seattle with the high expectations commensurate with a top-40 national recruiting ranking.  To-date he's lived up to much of the hype, posting sterling 12/4/4 averages while leading the team in assists.  Andrews, a 6-2 sophomore, is more of a complimentary piece.  He's leads the team in free throw attempts, and has posted an offensive rating near 108, but otherwise doesn't stand out.  Both have struggled at times with their shot (Williams-Goss: 45%/64%/29%, Andrews: 44%/76%/32%), which is OK since Wilcox is the man carrying that load.

Up front, 6-9 senior Perris Blackwell had been leading the charge almost entirely by himself.  Fellow power forward Desmond Simmons missed much of the early going with a knee injury, and, while the 6-4 Mike Anderson put in some yeoman's work on the block, Blackwell has mostly had to go at it alone. The transfer from San Francisco (yes, he played in the infamous overtime game from 2010) has responded by posting very solid 11/7 averages and leading the conference in offensive rebounding.  
Blackwell has almost been alone underneath this season.
Happily for Blackwell, he has received some reinforcements.  After eight weeks of rehab, the 6-7 junior Simmons is back in the mix, and has brought with him his trademark gritty defense.  Still, Washington remains a little undersized up front, a fact that CU should be able to exploit with Josh Scott and Wes Gordon.

Coaching - 

Lorenzo Romar continues to be one of the big-name figures in West Coast coaching.  In the last five seasons alone he has lead Washington to four 20-win campaigns and two league titles, and has posted a ridiculous 113-69 in-conference record over the last decade.  Still, after missing out on the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, there have been some grumblings out of Seattle that Romar's tenure has run its course. It seems absurd to me, as he continues to post wins, but the hotseat is what it is.
Romar doesn't deserve half of the criticism he receives.
The problems, oddly, seem to have arisen three years ago when he landed top-15 recruit Tony Wroten. While it was a big coup to sign the local prodigy, the task of placating a one-and-done talent like Wroten (now with the 76ers) seems to have disrupted the inner-workings of the Washington program.  Recruiting fell off in his wake, and losses have followed.  I don't think the problems are fatal, in-and-of-themselves, but the whole situation speaks as a cautionary tale (one that, oddly enough, includes a regular season title).

While the program continues to re-invent itself, I wouldn't expect Romar to lose his job, even if the Huskies do end up missing the Dance this season.  Now in his 12th season in Seattle, he has earned a long leash from the Husky faithful, and should receive at least a few more seasons to return to the highs of his first decade running the program.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 4-2.  Against the spread: 3-3.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +3 pts/gm)


Hopefully, CU has taken the cautionary tale of Wednesday's lackluster effort in Spokane to heart. They deserved to lose, but, as Coach Boyle loves to say, you'd rather learn from a win than a loss.  There's plenty of lessons to absorb, and the team has had plenty of time to absorb them, so I'm expecting a completely different team to emerge from the tunnel in Seattle tomorrow afternoon.

Prepare yourself for another fast-paced, high scoring game.  Maybe not on-par with last week's Oregon thriller, but it should certainly strike the eye as much more entertaining than the molasses-dripping that was the game against Washington State.  If CU can get out in transition and attack the rim a little bit, they should be able to ride the wave to another close win.  Give me the Buffs by three.

CU 75 - UW 72


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