Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, February 21, 2014

2013-14 Arizona Preview #2

Earlier this week on WANE, the podcast, I mentioned that Arizona State has an uncanny ability to drag the game and their opponent down to their level.  Contests with the Sun Devils are invariably gritty, physical affairs, more reminiscent of the old wars CU used to wage with Kansas State than anything usually found in the Pac-12.  As Coach Boyle said, "They’re a physical team and you’d better buck up and be physical back, otherwise they’ll punk you." Wednesday night, with postseason hopes on the line, Colorado came prepared for this style of ball, and brought a warrior mindset to bear against the visitors.  It worked, and CU out-muscled a team that has recently had their way with the Buffs, earning a vital 61-52 win in the process.
A huge win for Ski and the boys.  From: the BDC
This was a program win, both in execution and result - if this were on the football side of campus, we'd be talking about bricks.  It meant something to the team, from Coach Boyle on down.  You could see as much from the intensity Colorado brought to the court, and the reaction from everyone after the game.  The Buffs wanted this win, bad, and would not accept defeat.  A month after a game with ASU marked the low-point of the season, it was good to see the team play with this kind of intensity and passion to make the statement that Colorado is back(!).

The tilt was defined by the play down low between heavyweight post-men Josh Scott and Jordan Bachynski. These two share a brutal history, and I could tell from the opening possession that Scott was out for revenge. The Young Fundamental gave no quarter to the ASU center, routinely going toe-to-toe in the paint with the hulking brute. For all but a handful of instances in the first half, Scott got the better of the fight, controlling the game with a 13/13/2/1 line that towers over Bachynski's 4/4/1.  Further, while Josh played 35 minutes without a foul, his counterpart battled foul trouble for most of the second half, and left the arena with a bum ankle and a black eye.  All things considered, the judges scored it 12 rounds to 0: utter domination. While Josh can't remember the last time these two met in Boulder, he came up with a performance on Wednesday that will be hard to forget.
Scott dominated Lurch.  Wasn't even close.  From: the BDC
If Scott's dismantling of Bachynski wasn't enough, CU controlled all other phases of the interior game.  They finished +21 on the boards (+20 in the second half alone), shut out the Sun Devils 12-0 in second chance points, and finished +8 in paint scoring.  Add in a level of defense not seen from the Buffs in weeks, and there was no chance ASU was going to steal this one.

In victory, CU now leap-frogs the Sun Devils into 3rd place in the Pac-12, and takes a major step forward in the chase for their third-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.  It also marked their 20th win on the season, making the fourth 20-win campaign in as many tries for the great Tad Boyle.  That's pretty good value for a late-Wednesday evening.

... of course, it also sets the stage for tomorrow's titanic matchup with Arizona.  On a day when the marquee roadshow event in the sport comes to town, CU has a chance to erase all doubts that the late-January hiccup is behind them.  The stadium will be packed, the crowd will be electric, and the Buffs will look to send senior Ben Mills and Beau Gamble out in style.  Whatever it takes, get it done.


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 7pm on Saturday.  This is it, your last chance to see Colorado in Boulder this season. The Keg should be foaming over for this one, so make sure you give yourself enough time to get to the stadium.  No one wants to be stuck in weekend traffic when the ball goes up...  Oh, and remember to WEAR BLACK for the blackout.  Coverage for those without tickets can be found on ESPN: Mothership, with Mark Johnson and the radio call on 850 KOA.

For reference, my preview from the first game can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

It was over quickly in Tucson, as the #1 Wildcats, then still at the height of their powers, steamrolled the Buffs in the opening minutes to put to bed any possibility of a upset performance.  Arizona would lead by as many as 20 in the first half, as CU struggled to find a footing in the hostile environs of the McKale Center.  It would take the Buffs more than five minutes to hit their first field goal.  Meanwhile, the UofA poured on the first half points, putting more than enough distance between them and their rival. Colorado played better after halftime, but the hole they dug early was just too deep to climb out of.  Arizona coasted to a 69-57 win that wasn't nearly as close as that score would suggest.

Unlike the performance a few days later in Tempe, there were a few bright spots to highlight from the first matchup between these two.  Xavier Johnson had a magnificent offensive game, scoring 21 points on 7-12 shooting. Josh Scott was also strong, dropping 15/11 against an imposing Arizona frontline.  Still, when Arizona is +18 in paint scoring, doles out 16 assists, holds CU under 30% shooting in the first half, and shoots just under 50% for the game, you know things are going right for the Wildcats.
Early struggles doomed the Buffs in Tucson
As disappointing as the loss was, there was no reason to expect any better from the action, as CU was still reeling in the aftermath of the injury to Spencer Dinwiddie.  It was their first road game post-Spencer, and the offense was nowhere near ready to head to Tucson to take on the 'Cats.  No harm, no foul, there will be better days.

Of course, the biggest waves from the trip to Tucson came only after the game had concluded.  At the traditional post-game presser, Xavier Johnson took the opportunity to speak his mind about how he saw the Wildcats.  Headlines ensued.

Saying things like 'they're not that good,' 'we have better players than them,' and 'the good news is we get another crack at these guys, at our place... that'll be a 20-point blowout,' Xavier seemed to bypass reality and poke the bear that had just finished gnawing on Colorado's collective leg.  Where's a press secretary when you need them?
That's good advice.
Look, I love Xavier, and his confidence serves him well - he has even backed up that bravado in recent weeks, averaging 18/8 over the last five to spur CU's resurgence - but you cannot let those thoughts spill out of your mouth minutes after a team, then the #1 in the land, finishes toying with you.  I know it's easy to make the point that Colorado won the second half in Tucson (they were +3 after the break, afterall), but the reality is that Arizona pulverized CU in the only portion of the game that mattered.  Swag on, dude, but keep it away from the press next time.

The Wildcats since then - 

The Wildcat win last month was just one of 21-straight the team reeled off to start the year.  It was an incredible, record-setting run that kept the UofA in the #1 spot of the AP poll for eight consecutive weeks. Not to shabby.

All good things come to an end, however, and so it was for the Wildcats and their streak when they traveled to Cal at the start of February.  Only minutes into the game, the team lost starting power forward Brandon Ashley to a foot injury (later learned to be season-ending), which immediately threw matters into doubt.  On the road, without one of their starters, an already short Arizona bench began to waver precipitously.  The Golden Bears (who have since been exposed as a pretender, rather than a contender), took full advantage, pushing the nation's #1 to the brink.  A last-second shot from Cal star Justin Cobbs (along with a blown no-call on a premature court-storming) felled the 'Cats for good, and the team was perfect no longer.
It took an impossible shot, but the Bears brought the juggernaut to their knees.
That Ashley injury has had some lingering effects.  Prior to the Cal game, they had been rolling.  Only once in the month of January did they play to a one-possession finish.  Since then, however, they've appeared mortal.  Besides the Cal loss, they've also fallen victim to ASU (a game with its own finishing controversy), and played to narrow escapes against Oregon and Utah.

Reacting to the rocky road, Coach Sean Miller has gone with the roster shakeup route, swapping reserve guard Gabe York for freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.  It is yet to be determined how much of an effect this will really have on the rotation, as RHJ still played 31 minutes in the overtime win in SLC, but the hope is that the shift will give the shooter York more confidence, and a chance to get into an earlier rhythm. Considering how awful CU's perimeter defense can be, Saturday might be a false positive for that theory.
York is getting an opportunity to start.
Statistically, Arizona remains the most dominant defense force in the country.  All told, they give up only about an adjusted .87 points per possession, which is neigh on criminal.  There are only two teams all season who have cracked 70 on these guys (Michigan and UCLA), and they make their hay by forcing you to work, work, work for even the simplest of baskets.

On offense, their bugaboo continues to be free throw shooting.  They're under 65% from the stripe in conference play, which is... well, it's not good.  The primary culprit continues to be Aaron Gordon, who is creeping up on the 40% Mendoza line that only the worst brick-layers can sniff.  If it's close, late, the Buffs need to play hack-a-Gordon.  As terrible as he is from the line, he is integral to the UofA defense, meaning the freshman superstar should still be seeing minutes as the game reaches its climax.

Why things could be different - 

The loss of Ashley certainly changes things.  In fact, it changes things so much that I actually like the way CU matches up with the 'Cats now.  Arizona only played about seven deep before the injury, and haven't really expanded the rotation since.

Check out the box score from the ASU game.  In a hard-fought, overtime contest, the Wildcats' starting lineup still played all but 22 minutes against the Sun Devils.  That's insanity! Given that short bench, I would call CU the deeper team (even with Dinwiddie and Fletcher still out), and, at altitude, there's an opportunity for Colorado to play attrition basketball to outlast the 'Cats.  Get fouls on them early!
Arizona is dealing with their own injury issues.
Further, I'm not sold on the idea that Gabe York helps Arizona as a starter.  They've been searching for the right rotation and lineup combination over the last few games, not unlike how CU needed time to respond to the loss of Dinwiddie and Tre'Shaun Fletcher, but going small doesn't pass the smell test.  It just strikes me as more of a distraction than anything else.

Still, you have to admit that Arizona oozes talent and class, even if the form isn't necessarily there.  They're only about two plays (and some correct officiating) away from still being perfect, so anyone expecting a easier time tomorrow is fooling themselves.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 13-4.  Against the spread: 8-9.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +0.7 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 12 - NO LINES POSTED

I've been burned before.  Coming off of emotional mid-week victories in recent years, I've been prone to massively over-estimating CU's chances on the weekend.  I will not make that same mistake today.

I think Arizona might have been dreading the trip to Boulder, especially after back-to-back bruisers against ASU and Utah.  However, with the comments from Xavier Johnson ready and waiting to pump them back up, I expect 'Zona to be primed to hit the CEC with energy, passion, and focus.  Ambush blown, I can't help but envision the Buffs letting the fired-up 'Cats slip away on Senior Night.

Opportunity lost, lesson learned - don't trip the trap a month early.

UofA 69 - CU 61


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