Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, February 28, 2014

2013-14 Utah Basketball Preview #2

It's that time of year, time to start keeping one eye on the action, and one eye on Bracketology.  Yep, I'm talking bubbles.

Much of the panicked, uninformed thought is that tomorrow's affair with Utah is a 'must-win' game for CU. That, for them to sneak into the NCAA Tournament for the 3rd consecutive season, necessitates, at least, a win over the Utes, maybe even another win or two the rest of the way. That conventional wisdom is wrong.

Colorado continues to be in fantastic position for the Tournament, thanks to some typically brilliant scheduling from Coach Boyle.  With a Strength of Schedule in the nation's top-15, and an RPI in the top-30 (along with protection from another year of an ugly, soft bubble), they're in, no questions asked.

'But what if the Buffs lose-out?'  Even in that scenario, CU is still in.  The RPI would remain in the top-40, and no power conference team with a top-40 RPI and a top-15 SOS is going to be excluded. What's more, Colorado has no bad losses.  Not one.  Their worst to-date is a road loss to Washington, which doesn't even qualify as the Huskies are solidly in the RPI top-100.  The Committee isn't going to hold a top-100 road loss against you.  Utah is on the fringe, but a win over CU would prop them up above the Mendoza line for good.  The resume is clean.  It's not perfect, but clean.

Now, without a single win the rest of the way, is CU going to get a good seed?  No, and it could inch them towards the dreaded play-in trip to Dayton.  Not an ideal scenario, and it would behoove the Buffs to get at least one over the next week, but that's not the point.  The point is that Colorado, regardless of what they do the rest of the way, is in the Dance. With that knowledge, they should be able to just go out there any play free, easy basketball.

Take a deep breath, the NIT will be reserved for lesser teams this season.


Tip-off from the Hunstsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT is set for high noon on Saturday.  Coverage will be on Pac-12 Networks, with 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 - 

Granted a week to re-group and recuperate after an ugly late-January swing through Arizona, the Buffs came out in the first game against the Utes with a slightly tweaked look.  Turnovers and 'playing too fast' had been an issue, so they slowed down the pace a little (only 17% of their offense was in transition, 15-points lower than their seasonal average).  Jaron Hopkins was struggling, so Xavier Talton was given more minutes.  The changes weren't major, and it never hurts to be playing at home, but the result speaks for itself.  Halting a devastating free-fall, Colorado took the Utes into overtime, where the Buffs sprung ahead for a much-needed 79-75 win.
It wasn't perfect, but it was a much-needed win.  From: the BDC
It's hard to remember nearly a month later, but the Buffs had to come from as many as 12-points back in the second half to secure the victory.  Behind a barrage of three pointers from Ute guards Dakari Tucker and Brandon Taylor, Utah all but had this game wrapped up.  They forgot to account for Xavier Talton, however, who stepped up off the bench to produce 14 points in 22 minutes when his team needed him the most.  With Talton dropping back-to-back three pointers mid-way through the second half, CU was propelled on a 14-2 run that turned the game on its head.  The Utes managed to push the game to overtime when a dagger of a three-pointer from Taylor silenced the CEC.  Unperturbed, the Buffs simply used the extra frame to assert their momentum.  A 14-7 run ended all doubt, and Colorado kick-started a three-game win streak that saved the season.

For the game, CU was lead, per the usual, by the duo of Askia Booker and Josh Scott.  Mssrs Inside and Outside combined for 38/18/7, and played all but seven minutes of action.  The Buffs would need every ounce they could give, as the Utes were, by all rights, the better team on the night.  Think of it this way: Colorado out-rebounded Utah by 18, held star forward Jordan Loveridge to an all-but-silent 4/4 on 2-11 shooting, yet still needed overtime to outlast their travel partner.  I don't want to say they were lucky the first game, because the win was well-earned, but Colorado will need a cleaner performance to get the win tomorrow night.

The Utes since then -

Utah has continued to be an enigma.  Strong enough to push good teams to the brink, but still a player or two away from being able to break through and truly compete in this league.  You don't have to look much farther then their effort against Arizona from last week to realize how close these guys are, but their continued struggles in close games and away from Salt Lake City will ultimately doom them to the NIT.
Utah has lost far too many close games this season.
From the outside, it's easy to point to their home-road splits.  The Utes have only lost two home games all season, both in overtime, while sitting an abysmal 1-7 out on the road.  It's not unusual to see that level of home-road disparity in the college game, but they've been particularly snake-bitten on their road trips.  The tired adage reads 'defense travels,' but for Utah the problem has been the inverse: their offense doesn't. They've been leaving about 12 points per game and a full tenth per possession behind on conference road trips, which really hurts when you consider their first three Pac-12 road losses this year were by a grand total of nine points.

But more than just a lack of scoring has hurt the Utes.  The season has been crippled by an unfortunate series of late-game collapses, one that must be beyond frustrating for their fanbase to watch.  Of their nine losses on the season, all but two have come by four points or less, and they've held a second half lead in all but one.  Echoing that rebounding issue from the first meeting, they're 10th in the Pac-12 for both offensive and defensive board rates.  Call it toughness if you will, but cleaning the glass continues to be a problem for the Utes, one that may explain much of their difficulty closing out games, regardless of venue.
Rebounding has been an issue.
Beyond the cold arithmetic of those nine losses, it's hard to see how the Utes aren't a better team this season. KenPom has them in the nation's top-40, and any time spent watching them play will reveal how good they are.  In Pac-12 play alone, they're 4th in defensive efficiency, and #1 with a bullet in shooting inside the arc. Those stats alone will tell you that they're going to be a bear.

Why things could be different this time - 

Right off the top, I wouldn't expect a repeat performance from Jordan Loveridge.  Wes Gordon and Xavier Johnson deserve all the credit in the world for holding the Utah star to 4/4 on 2-11 shooting in Boulder, but it's just not tenable to bank on a similar effort tomorrow evening.  Further, I'm not convinced that Gordon is 100% healthy.  Look for Loveridge to break out.
Loveridge is better than he showed in Boulder.
Additionally, I don't think it can go understated how close the Utes have been to a truly special year.  Flip just a couple of those close losses, and they're in the hunt for a bye in Vegas and a Tournament bid.  Down-play them at your peril, these guys are good, especially at home.  As I said earlier, the Buffs were rather fortunate to come from behind in Boulder, and a repeat performance in SLC will certainly end in defeat.

The trick is whether CU can continue to press their rebounding and transition advantages.  Utah will try to play brutally slow in their half-court possessions, waiting as long as possible for the fantastic Delon Wright to get some dribble-drive opportunities, but any miss should turn into an easy fast-break opportunity for Colorado.  Despite playing slow, Utah continues to allow the fastest defensive possessions in all of Pac-12 play, and are 241st nationally in transition defense.  For CU to pull the road upset, they'll need to take advantage of every transition opportunity they can tomorrow afternoon.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 14-4.  Against the spread: 9-9.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.72 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 5:30pm - CU +7

There's a reason Colorado is a touchdown dog on the road tomorrow.  The Utes are legit, and I have no doubt they're hungry to bounce the Buffs on Senior Day.  I'm fully aware that CU is 5-0 under Boyle after a 20-point loss, and the week off should do wonders, but I just think Utah is the better team in the Huntsman Center.  Give me the Utes and the cover.

Utah 77 - CU 68


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