Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 31, 2015

2014-15 UCLA Basketball Preview #2: Looking for a Quality Hollywood Sequel

There've been times this season where I've openly pondered "what has to happen for this team to get a road win?"  Thursday night's tilt with the USC Trojans answered that rhetorical question: Askia Booker has to get medieval, and drop a historic amount of points.

Playing in his home town, just minutes from the courts where the human jitterbug learned the game, Ski went off for 43 to almost single-handedly drag the Buffaloes across the finish line for their first road win in eight tries. Colorado needed every one of those points, as USC was holding on for dear life on their home floor.  Locked in a war of attrition, the two teams would battle on through three overtimes and six player disqualifications, stretching nerves and rosters thin.  CU, however, had the trump card - Booker - and kept playing it at just the right moments to secure a 98-94 win.  Finally, the sighs uttered across BuffNation were ones of satisfied exhaustion, rather than frustration.
Ski would not be denied on Thursday. From: the BDC
There's no possible way to overstate how brilliant Ski was on Thursday.  It took him until the 6:28 mark of the first half to find the scoresheet, but, having finally woken up, it was game on.  He scored 10 points in just under two minutes, helping to all but erase a 10-point deficit headed into halftime.  In total, he would score 24 in regulation, powering CU to an 11-pont lead midway through the second half.

About the only thing that could slow Booker down was a cheap shot from brutish USC center Nikola Jovanovic.  On a fast break with eight minutes to play in the second half, the galoot threw a shoulder and a leg into Ski, sending the point guard flying.  While he got up, and only sported a bruise after the game, the assault had its desired effect.  The spark plug was shaken, failing to score down the stretch, and committing a trio of turnovers in the immediate aftermath.  As a result, Colorado as a whole would go on a nearly 15-minute long drought without a made field goal. The refs, particularly clueless in a game marred by questionable officiating, only awarded a common foul.  Askia would have the final laugh, however.
Booker has never been better than he was in overtime.  From:
Once into overtime, Booker began to shake off the cobwebs.  By the time the game got to the second extra period, the Scrat was ready to fully flip the switch back to 'on.'  From then till the final horn, Ski would score 17 of CU's 25 points, all without committing a single turnover.  He was everywhere - off the bounce, at the rim, on the step-back.  Hell, he even posted up a defender at one point.  It was Ski Season, in all its ride-the-dragon glory, and the high has never been so good.  For the game, he finished 13-23 from the floor, 13-15 from the line, and even dished out three of Colorado's eight assists in 51 minutes of action. The performance marked the most points by a Buff in a single game since Donnie Boyce's 46 against Oklahoma State in 1994, and stands as the fourth-most ever.  We take him for granted far too often, but that was a perfect example of a player refusing to lose; it was Ski Booker in a nutshell.

It's a little unfair, but Ski's 43 overshadows some encouraging efforts from his teammates. Down two starters, with Jaron Hopkins joining Josh Scott on the inactive list with a bum ankle, the team needed others to step up. Xavier Johnson returned to the lineup for the first time in weeks to chip in 12/5, including the game-tying three pointer in the final minute of the first overtime.  Freshman forward Tory Miller, who has been performing exceptionally well over the last few weeks, submitted his first career double-double (11/13), which featured five huge points in the final frame of overtime to supplement the Ski-splosion.  Without them, and the little efforts chipped in by the other six Buffs who saw the court, the outcome would've been completely different.
Xavier Johnson returned to the court, and played a major role in extending the action.  From: the Post
For the Trojans, they boasted their own historic offensive outputs, as Jovanovic and shooting guard Katin Reinhardt combined for 65 points.  Jovanovic bullied his way to 30/9 on 17 shots, getting most of the CU front line in foul trouble in the process.  Reinhardt went for 35, mostly on 9-18 shooting from deep.  Without Jaron Hopkins to help with defense on the perimeter, he was consistently getting loose on the wing for wide open shots, and was approaching Scott the Dick territory.  Thankfully, both fouled out, and Booker's heroics put an end to that nightmare.

This has the potential to become a massive win.  Beyond just the cancellation of the road losing streak and Ski's bonkers night, the boost to overall team confidence cannot be denied.  The Buffs, as a team, showed more grit and determination on Thursday than I've seen from them all season.  I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, and the untimely the loss to follow, but, time after time, Colorado fought through it (even that damned 15-minute field goal drought).  If they can bring that same determination with them into tonight's meeting with UCLA, this road trip has the potential to become a season-saving moment.  Let's see what the Buffs have for an encore.


Tip-off from Pauley Pavilion, new court and all, is set for 8:30pm this evening.  Pac-12 Networks, complete with BILL WALTON, has the pictures.  850 KOA, complete with MARK JOHNSON, has the sound.

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

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014-15 USC Basketball Preview #2: Can Haz Road Win?

This is a big one tonight.  CU watched a winnable home game against Washington slip through their grasp last week, and now need a road win to make up for it... a road win which would be their first of the season (their lone win away from Boulder was the beat-down of DePaul in Honolulu). The USC Trojans, rocked on their heels by a 1-6 start to Pac-12 play, seem to be an inviting target, probably the best remaining on the schedule.  If the Buffs can't convert this one, it's hard to see where that true road cherry will get popped in 2014-15.

Tip-off from the beautifully appointed Galen Center in downtown LA is set for 7:30pm this evening (good seats still very much available). Coverage can be found on Fox Sports 1, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

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

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tuesday Grab Bag: You can't defend? You can't win in Boulder.

Straight to the action... Today in the bag, I'm talking the curb-stomping of the Cougs, a new basketball commitment, and the public phase of fundraising.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Washington State Basketball Preview #1: Battling to get back above .500

You had to see it coming.  Locked in a 50-50 tie Thursday night with the Washington Huskies, Colorado took the ball out of a timeout with just over 40 seconds to play, looking for a leveraging score.  The designed set for Jaron Hopkins was for naught, however, as the sophomore slipped into a held ball, flipping possession back to UW.  They would capitalize, as Andrew Andrews canned a jumper from the elbow for the win.  52-50 final; another heart-breaker for the Buffs.
Andrews didn't flinch with the game on the line.
The loss overshadows a series of gritty, encouraging performances from oft-maligned sophomores like Hopkins, Wes Gordon, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher.  Gordon was particularly good, posting a monster 10/17 line, while helping to swarm Washington's imposing front line.  Hopkins, whose offensive game is really starting to develop, lead the team in scoring, while Fletcher had an all around affair.  I can't help but say their contributions would've been more than enough had junior star Xavier Johnson been active for this game, but such is life.

Overall, this was an ugly, slow, defensive show.  Both teams struggled offensively, with layups and easy opportunities missed left and right.  CU hit their numbers on 'D,' holding the 'Dawgs to 36% from the floor (25% from three) while out-rebounding them by five, but couldn't solve the Washington zone.  There were plenty of terrified looks on the faces of Colorado players when the ball came their way, and there was a lot of pointless passing (as opposed to effective passing) going on.  It makes sense, with two of their best offensive players - Josh Scott and Johnson - on the bench, but the molasses drip of scoring made for uncomfortable viewing.
Scrappy, defensive play was the name of the game.  From: the BDC
It's hard to keep this in perspective, but the Buffs have been playing some pretty good competition (all four of the last few games have been against teams in KenPom's top-60) without two of their three best players. Yet, to their credit, the team has been battling their asses off, and deserved to win at least the last two.  It's small consolation, but there are some signs of life if you peel back the fat flaps.  This season will not end in the NCAA Tournament, it may not even end up in the NIT, but I'm learning a lot about the character of those on the bench, and who could be on the front line for next winter.  Frustrating? Yes, but just as informative.


The attention now turns to tonight's battle with Washington State.  Both mired at .500 overall, the two teams are seemingly headed in different directions after the opening weeks of conference play.  As opposed to Thursday's offensive struggle, those in attendance should at least see some fireworks, as the Cougars bring with them a willing offensive mindset and a porous defense.  I guarantee that more than 102 points will be scored in this one.

Tip-off from the CEC is set for 6pm.  Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Washington Basketball Preview #1 - Battling the UpShaq

We come to another big weekend for the Buffs. Mired in mediocrity, CU needs to bank home wins if they have any postseason aspirations (note, I'm not talking about the Tournament, here).  The duo from the 42nd state is formidable - especially tonight's opponent, Washington - but I learned long ago not to count out Colorado in Boulder.  Even with injuries and suspensions, this program has knack for surprising in home environs, and playing over absences.  Let's see if they can pull a rabbit out of their collective hat this evening...


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 7.30 pm this evening.  Fox Sports 1, who are broadcasting four of the next seven CU games, has the live coverage.  Mark Johnson and the radio call are on 850 KOA, as always.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tuesday Grab Bag - Another Fruitless Trip Through the Desert

Does the football team have a DC, yet?  No?  Well then, straight to the action...

Today in the bag, I'm talking the frustrating loss to Arizona State, a surprise suspension for a CU star, and the NFL playoffs.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Arizona State Basketball Preview #1 - Looking to Rebound

Well, not nearly as bad as I was expecting.  Without either Josh Scott or Xavier Johnson, the Buffs came out and hung with the #10 Arizona Wildcats on their home floor, keeping the game within reach into the second half before finally succumbing to the pressure down the stretch.  The final: 68-54, and a backdoor cover.

Losing by 14 is never a comfortable feeling, but I thought the team played well...  and by team I really mean Askia Booker.  Down two of their best scoring threats, it was up to Booker to lead the way, and, DAYUM, did he answer the call.  The little spark plug scored 30 of the team's 54 points, showing the brazen disregard for circumstance that has endeared him so to fans of #SKIBALL.  He finished 11-17 from the field, 6-9 from three point range, and was CU's only scoring threat.  If you were worrying earlier in the year where the senior's head and heart were at as he struggled through some off-court issues, I hope you've long since stopped, as he's been averaging 20 per game since November 30th.
Ski was magnificent, but he was largely on an island. From:
For Arizona, it was all about super frosh Stanley Johnson.  Playing tenaciously on the baseline, he gashed CU's softened underbelly for 22/8/3/2.  It certainly helped his cause that he didn't have to go against Xavier Johnson and help-defense from Josh Scott, but the kid's for real.  His efforts were the difference on Thursday, countering the great work that Booker was putting in.

The trick then will be how the team rebounds from defeat, and carries the respectable effort with them to Tempe.  Today's game is a winnable prize, one that the Buffs would behoove themselves to claim.  If there's any faint Tournament hopes remaining, it's a must, but it's also important for conference positioning.  If Colorado can emerge from the desert at 3-2 in Pac-12 play, having already put road tilts against the league's best in the rear view, they have a leg-up on their competition for a top-six slot.  It may not seem like all that much now, but this result is will loom large on the plane ride to Las Vegas in two months.


Tip-off from Wells Fargo Arena is set for 2:30pm this afternoon.  A slight change from Thursday night, when Colorado was featured on ESPN in primetime, CU is back on Pac-12 Network.  What hasn't changed, however, is that Mark Johnson and the radio call will be on 850 KOA.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Arizona Basketball Preview #1 - ... and now to Tucson

Take a deep breath.  Have a seat.  Relax.  I just want you calmed before presenting the possibility that Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott, two critical legs of CU's big three, might be out of the action tonight.


Of course, as I talked about on Tuesday, XJ is dealing with a high ankle sprain suffered in game against the Utes.  I didn't expect him back tonight, but, at the dawn of the annual march to Tucson, it's a little daunting to realize Colorado's bubbly leader, the straw that stirred the rivalry stew last year, will be MIA.

Scott's story is a little more complicated.  His return to action in Utah after missing two games with back spasms seems to have been a little premature, as he struggled to fight through the pain, only attempting three shots (all missed) in the game.  Apparently, in the wake of that effort, Josh has been left out of practices, leaving his availability for tonight up in the air.  As the Daily Camera reported, he's been fighting his back since before Honolulu (the plane flights couldn't have helped), so more time away from the court could be needed.

Colorado is already facing an uphill battle entering the valley of the beast.  If the Buffs have to play tonight without either Big X or Jelly, it's going to get rough in a hurry.  I just have a hard time picturing where the scoring will come from in their absence.  I've been wrong before, but, pending a surprise roster announcement this afternoon, I'm pretty pessimistic headed into this one.


Tip off from the newly renovated McKale Center is set for 7pm this evening.  Proving that broadcast schedules shouldn't be chosen in August, television coverage can be found on ESPN: the Mothership. On the call are Walton, Pasch and Jay Bilas... well, if it's going to be a blowout, at least it'll be a well-covered one. If, however, you hate the World of Walton (most likely because you hate freedom), Mark Johnson will have the impassioned descriptions on 850 KOA.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tuesday Grab Bag: Buffs Reeling Without XJ

Sad but true, the storybook Oregon Ducks failed to get the job done against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes claimed the national title 42-20 last night. UO just couldn't handle the bruising rushing duo of QB Cardale Jones and RB Zeke Elliott, failing to tackle either on first hit.  On passing downs, they almost never got penetration into the back field, and tOSU slowly ground down the Pac-12 champions.  Even a four-pack of Buckeye turnovers couldn't turn the tide as Oregon slipped behind into the fourth quarter behind back-to-back scores from the B1G champs.

No shame is losing in the title game, but I wanted so much more, both because I thought the Ducks were the best team in football, and that the Pac-12 was the best conference in the land.  Ohio State deserves their win, but I was hoping for a much better night for the Conference of Champions.


Today in the bag, I'm talking the loss in Utah, the need for a speedy recovery from Xavier Johnson, and the NFL Playoffs.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Utah Basketball Preview #1 - The Road Trip of Death Begins

So, just how rough is the next stretch of three games?  Well, the Buffs now go on the road to the two best teams in the league, before a finishing visit to the program that has been a personal demon in recent years. It's not just that Utah and Arizona are the Pac-12's best; they're clearly the best, (seriously, back to back visits to SLC and Tucson? *smh* Fuck the dude who dreamed that beast up) and Arizona State, while not nearly as good as they were the last two years, should still make things mighty uncomfortable for Colorado in Tempe. Friend of the blog @Hyperhedman asked my thoughts on the chances that CU could go 2-1 or 3-0 on this trip (15%, 3%, respectively).  What he didn't ask were my thoughts on the chances CU could go 0-3. I honestly figure it's about a 50-50 proposition.

It's not that I've completely forgotten the goings on at the CEC over the weekend - when the Buffs roared past the SoCal duo of UCLA and USC - it's just that going on the road is a completely different matter, and the environments in play (yes, even Tempe), are no joke.  Even with the probable return of Josh Scott, and the recent emergence of the bench as a scoring threat, this road trip will test the Buffs to no end.  Should they come home 1-2, wining any of the three, while staying relatively competitive in the others, I would take it as an overall victory. 


Of course, first up on this Road Trip of Death is a particularly uncomfortable jaunt to Salt Lake City.  The Utah Utes, now the #9 team in the country, have come out of essentially nowhere (6-25 three years ago) to become a dark horse Final Four contender.  They've turned the Huntsman Center into a house of horrors for visiting opponents (haven't lost there since Arizona came calling last February), and seem to be an insurmountable challenge for Colorado.  But, of course, that's why they play the games.

Tip-off from the Beehive State is set for 7pm this evening.  Coverage can be found on ESPN2, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tuesday Grab Bag: Back on Track?

With a short turn around to tomorrow's game with Utah, there's little time for idle chit-chat.  Straight to business!


Today in the bag, I'm talking the beat down of USC, how the rest of the Pac-12 fared over the weekend, and a little NFL playoffs.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014-15 CU vs USC Basketball Preview #1 - Needing to Capitalize

No Josh Scott, 16 allowed offensive rebounds, and as many turnovers (18) as made baskets.  If you would've handed me those facts before Friday night's tilt with UCLA, I would've told you there was no chance that CU would win.  Instead, thanks to a series of intense efforts inside the paint (and a little luck), Colorado made the plays necessary to grab a crucial 62-56 win over the Bruins in the conference opener. A welcome change of pace.
A deservingly happy group of Buffaloes.  From: the BDC.
So how, given the numerous second chances and turnovers afforded to the visitors, did the Buffs manage to come away with such a massive win?  It comes down to UCLA's three point shooting (abysmal), and CU's free throw rate (superb).  The Bruins were ice cold beyond the arc, only making 6-26 for the game.  It wasn't so much that Colorado's perimeter defense was that good (although Jaron Hopkins did a solid job on Bryce Alford - 0-9), the kids from Westwood were just blatantly missing open looks from the wing.  The performance struck me as more flukish than telling, but I'll certainly take it.  From the line, at least, it was all about Colorado getting their shit together, as crunch time attempt after crunch time attempt went down.  The Buffs were 21-25 on Friday, salting the game away to stave off frantic UCLA comeback attempts.

The lack of Scott was made known about a half hour before the game.  Colorado's prized power forward was sidelined with back spasms, leaving the still-developing grouping of Wes Gordon, Dustin Thomas, and Tory Miller to go toe-to-toe with one of the better forward corps in the West.  The thing is, forced to dig deep, the trio answered the bell with a ferocious defense of the rim that really helped CU cover up the loss of Jelly.  Keyed by a career performance for Gordon, who finished three blocks shy of a triple-double with an 11/14/7 line, the Buffs more than held their own in the paint.  More importantly, they got their counterparts embroiled in foul trouble to open up the lane, keeping options open for the offense.
Wes Gordon stepped up on defense in Scott's absence.  From: the BDC
The three young forwards were helped by the energetic presence of Xavier Johnson.  The fiery Californian played significant minutes in the four-slot, showing a tenacity down the stretch that UCLA had no chance of countering.  The lefty would finish with 14/6 and three steals, but his contagious exuberance in the final minutes ended all doubt of a CU win.

On the perimeter, the tandem of Askia Booker and Jaron Hopkins continued to develop, with both proving able to push the pace and break down the defense.  I'm really starting to like what I see from the pair, and the offense has a different timbre to it when both are on the court.  They combined for 27/9/5/4 against UCLA, and, while there were still mistakes, played well.
Great win, Coach, but are you sure about that color of shirt when playing UCLA?  From: the BDC
Overall, it wasn't a particularly pretty effort, but this program has made a lot of hay in recent years winning ugly.  As disappointing as the start to the year has been, if this is a sign of things to come, I'll happily take it. The conference campaign is all that matters now, and the team is off to a perfect 1-0 start.  So far, so good.


The focus now turns to the USC Trojans.  CU needs a win today to fully capitalize on Friday's victory over UCLA. Southern Cal is a youthful enigma, and should be beatable, especially at home, but I'm still not convinced that the Buffs are fully on the mend.  How they approach today's game will tell us all a lot.

Tip-off from the CEC (now with beer!) is set for high noon today.  For those not able to make it up to Boulder, coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

2014-15 CU vs UCLA Basketball Preview #1 - Into conference play

Happy New Year!  I took the last week off recovering from my miss-adventures in the Aloha State, but am back and ready for more!

It strikes me that, with all the excitement of Christmas Day, I never got around to posting my Hawai'i game recap.  For those who didn't get a chance to watch, the game played out like a greatest hits album of what's been troubling the Buffs recently. Fighting for third place on the final day of the Diamond Head Classic, CU held a late lead over the host Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors. However, stunted by an inability to defend the perimeter (what new) and a painful scoring drought over the final five minutes (a new take on an old tune), CU coughed up that 62-58 lead, eventually losing 69-66. It was the second time in as many games that the team couldn't turn a second half advantage into victory.  The loss left the trip to the Islands at an uncomfortable 1-2, and the team with more questions than answers.
Hawai'i got to celebrate on Christmas Day.
Perimeter defense continues to be CU's Achilles heel.  Opponents are scoring almost 35% of their points from deep this season against Colorado, which is simply criminal.  The Warriors, playing inspired ball in front of their home crowd, were always going to be a tough nut to crack, but it's hard to beat any team when you're allowing 9-18 shooting from behind the arc. Down the stretch, however, the story was more about play making - as in the ones Colorado wasn't converting. The Buffs would go the final 5:07 of the game without hitting a field goal.  As the clock ticked down, CU would turn the ball over more times (4), they they even attempted shots (3). It was a painful inability to mix clock management with a struggling offense.

Generally, it was hard for CU to find any offensive rhythm.  Hawai'i forced 16 turnovers, muscled out six blocks, and grabbed nine steals.  Only the big three of Askia Booker, Xavier Johnson, and Josh Scott could find any joy with the rock, scoring all but six of Colorado's points.  The inconsistency from the second unit was paramount.  While Coach Boyle shortened his bench, the inability of anyone other than those three to make a damn basket really limited the Buffs in the second half.
Not enough from players like Dustin Thomas. 
Look, CU proved good enough to play with both George Washington (the eventual tournament champions) and Hawai'i (a home team leveraging their advantage well), but lost both because they couldn't make the plays in the final minutes.  There'd be a sudden breakdown on defense, or a lack of creativity on offense, and the team would fall into defeat.  Those were both games this program would've found a way to win over the last few years, and they're a prime example of what is wrong in 2014-15.  Against good teams, the Buffs are just too good at finding ways to lose - the how and why a team full of talent goes 7-5 in non-conference play.


And so, the Buffs return home searching for answers, only to find conference play waiting.  This is a dangerous time for CU.  The opening rounds of Pac-12 action are brutal, and the season could completely spin out of control if they aren't successful this weekend in the home games against the SoCal schools.  Up first: a similarly inconsistent UCLA squad.  Colorado has yet to beat the Bruins in the Pac-12 era, losing the four matchups by an average of 13 points, and could surely use a buck of the recent trend this evening.

Tip-off from the CEC is set for 8pm.  Those still on Winter Break can avail themselves of either the Fox Sports 1 broadcast, or Mark Johnson's radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the bag...