Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Monday, November 17, 2014

2014-15 CU vs Auburn Basketball Teaser: Late in the Evening

So, just why is this game tipping off at 11pm?  Well, because it's part of ESPN's seventh-annual Tip-Off Marathon, a yearly showcase of more than 24-hour of continuous basketball action to celebrate the start of the season.  It's actually kind of an honor to be chosen to participate, even as part of the night shift. Believe me, it could be worse - Iona and Wofford tip-off at 7am ET.  I don't even want to think the student section would like with a early-morning tip.

Speaking of the students, this is their game tonight.  There's no doubt in my mind that the attention-span of the few adults in attendance will wane as the game progresses, so it'll be up to the C-Unit to keep the energy ramped up throughout the contest.  In fact, the more of them, the merrier.  If you're not going to the game tonight, because of the understandable intersection of work effectiveness and sleep, why not find a helpful young'un to give your ticket to?  It's what Coach Boyle would want.

But, enough of that noise, onto the matter at hand: Bruce Pearl, and his Auburn Tigers.  Basketball has never been all that much of a strong-suit on the Plains.  Outside of the brief blip of the Charles Barkley era, the program been largely indifferent, even though they play in the hoops-shallow SEC.  That's where the introduction of Bruce Pearl comes in.  Coach Pearl is a known quantity -  a proven winner at the higher levels of the sport. During stints at UW-Milwaukee and Tennessee, he routinely had his teams in the Dance, and winning. While basketball will always be second-fiddle at Auburn, the high-priced hire of Pearl (six-year, $14.7 million) signifies an honest investment in the sport.  Especially in a league that struggles to place more than a few teams at the big boy table, it seems like an opportunity for a high ROI.
Pearl's hiring signals a newfound commitment to hoops at Auburn.
There is some risk, however.  Even in the bootstrapping world of recruiting in the southeast, Pearl carries with him the stigma of a convicted rule violator, stemming from a few recruiting violations picked up during his time on the bench at Tennessee.  In the eyes of the SEC, it's only cheating if you get caught, and Pearl... well, got caught.  Covering up a few kids at a barbecue isn't the worst crime ever (hell, Baylor once picked up a couple cheating on equestrian recruits), but the fact remains. His show-cause penalty just expired a few months ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if the NCAA keeps their eyes on him, especially as he has immediately improved recruiting efforts at the school.

Those recruits won't matter much tonight, but the Tiger program has already been invigorated by the presence of a big time basketball persona.  It seems like just Bruce's name alone has gotten them on some pre-season watch lists.  Certainly, Pearl has a proven track record of coming in and making teams better in a hurry.  Case in point, at his previous stint in Knoxville, he took a team what went 14-17 the year before to 22-8 and a 2-seed in the Tournament.  With his hard pressing, wing-cutters style of play, teams are liable to look different overnight with Bruce at the helm.
The Tigers barely managed to escape the Panthers on opening night.
Still, there's a long way to climb for a program that hasn't had a winning season since 2009, and lives with the TCU's and DePaul's of the world in the hierarchy of major conference basketball.  It won't help their cause that the Tigers lost three high-profile seniors from last year's squad (14-16, 6-12), and are trying to improve a defense that finished at or near the bottom of the SEC in several major categories (allowing over an adjusted 1.06 points per possession).  They're off to a good start, at least, as the team kicked off the Pearl era in style with a 83-73 win over UW-Milwaukee.  In victory, however, you could see some growing pains. They were down by as many as 12 in the second half against their coach's former school, and had to get red hot from the floor to pull off the comeback (over 54% from the floor in the second half). There's nowhere to go but up, but there's a lot of up to go.

Luckily for the Tigers, there's a chunk of guard talent still in the cupboard.  While they lost those three senior starters from a year ago, one starting piece that remains, wing KT Harrell, is a star ready to shine.  The 6-4 senior from Montgomery, AL is a little undersized for his position, but stands as a pure shooter, and a capable scorer.  With a strong frame complimented by great form on his jumper, he averaged 18/4/2 a year ago, and looks to only improve on those numbers this winter.  He is, undoubtedly, the team leader, and the Tigers will need a lot from him if they want to do anything this season. As good of a bucket-getter as he is, however, his defense is suspect, and I'm interested to see what the Buffs can do to exploit him.
Harrell is one of the best scorers that CU will see all season.
Playing off of Harrell is transfer Antoine Mason.  The 6-1 guard comes to Auburn as the nation's leading returning scorer, having averaged 25.6 ppg for Niagra last year.  Of course, life in the MAAC isn't nearly what it is in the SEC (such as it is), so most expect that Mason will be taking a back seat to Harrell.  The pair combined for 39 points on opening night, mostly thanks to 16-22 shooting from the line.

Rounding out the backcourt is the other returning starter, 5-9 sophomore Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who also happens to be a good shooter, and 6-0 sub KC Ross-Miller, another incoming transfer.  With Shamsid-Deen running the point, the other three form the backbone of an intriguing 4-out-1-in attack that loves to get to the line.  Free throws could be key tonight, as Auburn's small guards look to penetrate and draw contact.

Really, about the only threat up front is massive 6-7, 270 lbs bruiser Cinmeon Bowers.  The dude is a classic inside banger, the type of player who used to give this program fits.  He's big, strong, and active, and went for 18/17 on opening night against UW-M.  The problem is, he's the only forward of any note for the Tigers, a fact which CU should be able to exploit.  While standing up to Bowers will be a challenge, the rest of Auburn's talent will defend and attack at a height disadvantage.  Aggressive Colorado forwards should have huge games inside.
Bowers is a BIG boy.
It's because of the interior disparity, and Coach Pearl's history, that you should expect to see a lot of press, and a lot of long- and mid-range jumpers this evening.  Bruce will take one look at CU's front line, and immediately try and neutralize them with tempo and outside play.  A possession game would be death, so #TadBall need not apply this evening.  The Buffs are going to have to run a little bit, which should suit them just fine at altitude.

Full court press worries aside (Talton will earn his stripes tonight), that defense is unconvincing, and Colorado should be able to take advantage. Barring a barrage of threes (not out of the question, considering continuing perimeter defensive concerns), I have no problem predicting a CU victory in a boat race.  That doesn't mean there won't be some nerve-wracking moments, however, should Harrell get hot, or the whistle start going the Tigers' way... At the very least, this should be an entertaining game to watch, worth the late night.

Tip-off from the CEC is set for 11pm this evening (that is not a miss-print). I took the step of telling the boss that I'm not coming in tomorrow, as I would expect this one to go to at least 1:30am. Coverage for those who will still be awake, but not at the stadium, can be found on ESPN2, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

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