Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, February 15, 2014

2013-14 USC Basketball Preview #2: Mal-Ski's revenge

And now, for something completely different...

One month after playing through an error-prone home loss to the UCLA Bruins, CU decided to come out with a different tack in Westwood.  They went against convention, playing run-and-gun basketball, trading shot-for-shot with the effusive home team.  At least for 30 minutes it worked, and it was glorious.  The Buffs were playing beautiful, offensive basketball, and held a lead over the heavily favored Bruins on the road. Unfortunately, as is often the case when you try to out-shoot a shooter, Colorado tired out, and the Bruins just kept right on making shot after shot.  It was only a matter of time, and CU succumbed down the stretch, falling under the tide of a 56-point second half.  The 92-74 final was not indicative of the run of play, but that matters little.  A loss is a loss.

Overall, UCLA shot 57% for the game, and scored 1.3 points per possession. Even without another team guarding them, Colorado is going to be hard pressed to maintain that kind of pace. That doesn't mean they didn't try.  Behind a transformative performance from Askia Booker (who finished with 16 points and 12 assists), CU scored 40 first half points on only 16 shots.  It was probably the best the offense has looked all season. We'll always have that first half Paris.
Ski had a beautiful game in defeat.
The second frame was less-positive.  With 13 minutes to play, Colorado clung to a 53-52 lead.  UCLA proceeded to make seven of their next eight shots, including three of Bryce Alford's four made three-pointers, to take a 10-point lead that all but ended the game with 10 minutes to play.  It didn't help that, over this same stretch, Colorado began to panic and try to make up the gap with hasty three-pointers.  For the second half, CU would finish 3-15 from beyond the arc, forsaking the interior completely, and becoming very easy to guard.

With their three best defenders on the bench due to injuries, guarding the Bruins was always going to be an issue.  Coach Boyle admitted as much in the opening minutes, when he had the team come out in a loose and ineffective 2-3 zone.  Because they don't know how to play a zone properly, that idea had to go, and CU played man-to-man the rest of the way.  But that only accentuated the matchup issue, and players like Kyle Anderson and Travis Wear took advantage of playing against smaller defenders.  Anderson was especially magnificent, going for 22/11/7 without Wes Gordon to guard him.
Coach Boyle could only watch as Kyle Anderson gashed his defense.
I will cop to becoming seduced by the offensive fireworks.  Twice I tweeted about how much fun I was having watching the game, which, while true, covered over my knowledge that the pace and style of play was not sustainable for 40 minutes.  It may have been fun and entertaining, but that kind of basketball is not winning basketball for Colorado against the better teams in this league.  They have to play defense, they have to stick to their principles.  The simple fact is that CU isn't going to win many games played in the mid-160s, especially on the road.

The result against UCLA, on its own, is not devastating, it's not even really all that painful.  A winless trip to SoCal, however, would probably put the Tournament out of reach.  CU has a solid opportunity to salvage the necessary split tomorrow night against the Trojans.  The game is not only winnable, it's probably the only date the rest of the way that the Buffs will be favored in.  They need to take advantage.


Tip-off from the Galen Center in downtown Los Angeles is set for 6pm tomorrow evening.  The run of coverage on the ESPN family of networks continues, as the game can be seen on ESPNU.  Mark Johnson and the radio call will on 850 KOA, per usual.

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

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

For the first time since the injuries to Spencer Dinwiddie and Tre'Shaun Fletcher, CU looked like themselves when they thoroughly routed the wayward USC Trojans last month at the CEC.  It was never a contest, as the Buffs raced out to a 20-2 lead after the tip and never looked back on their way to a very satisfying 83-62 win.
When Ski is meeting 7-footers at the rim, you know it's a good day.  From: the BDC
There's not much more you could ask for.  CU did it on both ends, playing +20 on the boards, blocking 10 shots, and shooting over 50% from the field.  BuffNation even got to cheer three points in as many minutes from Beau Gamble.  USC was simply unable to put up anything resembling a fight, and Colorado happily stole their milk money.

Leading the charge was Josh Scott, one of four Buffs to finish in double figures.  Scott posted a 20/7/2 line that was typically understated.  The Trojans made the bizarre decision to try to man-up the slick power forward, and he made them pay for their intransigence.  To date, they're the only Pac-12 team that I can recall who did not, at any point, double-team Josh on paint touches.  As I said, bizarre.
Scott towered over the proceedings, largely because USC let him.  From:
It's not like that dedication to spreading the defense around did them any help.  CU got whatever they wanted offensively, further highlighted by Askia Booker's 13/4/6 line.  Ski had more assists than shots on the day, underscoring how easy it was for Colorado to break the Trojans down.

You're never as bad as you look on your worst days, and you're never as good as you look on your best, but that doesn't mean I can't savor a day like that one.  Hopefully, CU can create a repeat showing tomorrow.

The Trojans since then... - 

USC has slightly rebounded in the aftermath of the CU loss.  They've managed to even win a game, a 77-69 shocker over Cal, and pushed two others to overtime.  In terms of learning to walk, it has been effective crawling.  The Trojans still aren't close to threatening anyone, but at least they're competing.
Statistically, it's still a mess. In conference play they're dead last in defense, and 11th in offense.  They give up more offensive rebounds than any other team, turn the ball over at a 21% clip, and shoot under 28% from deep.  Just a disaster.  There's no amount of coaching help needed at this point, they just need a whole new roster if they ever hope to make a name for themselves in the Pac-12.

But, enough of that narrative garbage.  It's time to fulfill my promise, and talk about Mal-Ski.

Since we last met, the world was introduced to the one, the only, DJ Mal-Ski.  (You're welcome for the column idea, Ringo. *ahem*) I'm not a big proponent of the modern shift away the basketball band.  I still think brass-heavy bands are essential to the college basketball experience, and generally think canned music is trash.  Still, there's something about Mal-Ski and his energy pumping through the arena.  He was engaging and entertaining; I gravitated immediately to his style, joking at first, much more serious later.  It's unique in the league, and, at least, makes USC marginally relevant, which is new.
This is Mal-Ski's world, we just live in it.  From: Yahoo Sports
That said, for the love of God, no DJs at the CEC!  I think it was proven over the last few years that a strong band-centric atmosphere is easy to create, and just as impactful.  Put the pieces in the stands, and just let it roll.

Why things could be different this time - 

As much as I like to make fun, USC is not as bad as they showed in Boulder.  Byron Welsey was awful, Pe'Shon Howard was worse, and the Trojans never gave themselves a chance.  Wesley has been on fire since the game in Colorado, averaging 20 points per over the last six - my guess is that we'll that form on display again tomorrow night.  I wouldn't expect much of a turnaround from Howard - he's still very limited at this level - but he's also more capable than he showed in last month's negative performance.  Overall, look for a better fight from the Trojans.
Wesley is better than he showed in Boulder.  Expect an improvement form the Trojan captain.
That would just be par for the course in this sport.  College basketball is so site conscious that you never can tell when a less talented team will jump up and bite a team they should have no chance against.  You only have to look to USC's win over Cal to see that in action.  The Trojans were coming off five straight conference losses by a combined total of 116 points, and the Bears were coming in with a perfect Pac-12 record.  Of course USC won, why not?  Home court matters, so a repeat of the blowout in Boulder is far from guaranteed.

That said, Colorado still has more than enough talent to run past USC, and I expect that the defensive lesson learned at UCLA (that you still need to play some) will serve CU well.  That win over Cal remains the only one in Pac-12 play for Southern Cal, meaning it's more of a home court fluke than anything.  A focused effort from the Buffs should be enough to push past that nonsense.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 12-3.  Against the spread: 7-8.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.6 pts/gm)

Lines as of Saturday @ 6pm - CU -3

I just can't help but feel a victory coming tomorrow evening.  Colorado's offense continues to play well, and the Trojans are about a tenth of a point per possession off their pace.  I just don't think they have the horses to keep up with CU, regardless of the style of play on display.  Further, USC doesn't have the pieces to challenge Colorado defensively. It may get ugly, simply because of the home court factor, but, at the end of the day, numbers should prevail.

Give me Colorado and the cover.

CU 71 - USC 63


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