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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When last we met -
2014 was not a good year for the once budding Colorado/Arizona rivalry. While the Wildcats were soaring into the upper echelons of the top-25, the Buffs were falling well behind their Pac-12 South brethren, and it showed in each of the regular season meetings between the two teams. Both in Tucson and back in Boulder, CU proved incapable of making the 'Cats sweat, let alone challenging for a win, losing the pair of games by a combined 39 points. In each, Arizona had roared out to massive early leads, leading by 20 at one point in the first half at McKale, and by 17 in the same at the CEC. (I guess you could make the argument that the Buffs were two bad halves from playing even with them, but then you'd be a fool)
Looking for a different tack, CU slipped into a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal match with the UofA with a different mindset. In this one, they actually played their best basketball in the first half, even forcing a tie last in the frame. Behind 3-5 shooting from the three-point line, CU was in with a shout, only down 27-24 into the break. The second half, however, was more along the lines of what the thousands of 'Zona fans in attendance were expecting. The Giant Death Robot came alive, holding the Buffs to 22% shooting over the final 20 minutes, while playing +17 ball overall. After a first half of promise, the game fell into a rut, and Colorado into a 63-43 defeat.
|CU had nowhere to go against the dominating 'Cats D. From: the BDC|
Individually, the Buffs were lead by the duo of Booker and Xavier Johnson. Ski closed his strong performance in Vegas by providing 12/6 to lead the team in both scoring and rebounding. All told, he put up 50/16/9 that week on 44% shooting and against only four turnovers, which, deservingly, got him on the all-tournament team. XJ had a strong first half, coincidentally helping CU to that strong first half, but let his emotions get the better of him after the break. A few quick fouls and a devastating block from Aaron Gordon all but erased the fiery Californian from the rest of the action. Beset by quick double teams from the Wildcats that left him no room to operate, Josh Scott was largely absent.
|Booker did the best he could to attack the stifling defense. From: the BDC|
The Wildcats in 2014-15 -
After a largely successful '13-'14 campaign that saw the GDR stall out in the Elite Eight against Frank 'the Tank' Kaminsky and Wisconsin, Arizona was forced to part ways with ultra-stars Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. The loss of Johnson, a consensus First Team All-American, and Gordon, the most dynamic defensive basketball player I've even seen at the collegiate level, would've stunted most programs, but this is Sean Miller's 'Zona, and he has this beast rolling. They've re-tooled around a core of returning talent, a freshly healthy vet, and the typical infusion of high-profile freshmen. The result: about what you'd expect. 14-2 and in the top-10.
This isn't the Giant Death Robot of legend, however. They've lost a little bit of that defensive efficiency - 'fallen' all the way to 7th nationally, averaging an adjusted .887 ppp allowed - and aren't completely breaking teams the way they did through through much of last season. Defensive eFG is up (44%), as is opponent shooting inside the arc (43%), and their foul rate (39% FTA/FGA ratio). That's a little like complaining that $999,957 isn't quite $1 million, but in a year that defensive numbers are better across the board, the Wildcats just aren't shining as much as they did a season ago. Case in point, Saturday's defensive wheeze in Corvallis against the mighty Oregon State Beavers. Allowing them to shoot 51% from the floor? What the what? Very unlike them.
|Not the look of a defending league champion.|
On offense, it's an explosive show. They play fast (16 seconds per possession), are comfortable taking extended jumpers, and, above all else, get to the line. 3rd nationally with a 52% free throw rate, they get whistles like it was a birthright. With length and athleticism all over the place, they get the benefit of the doubt on dribble-drive, and excel at getting opponents out of position. The Buffs have a counter here, as they are relatively good at clogging the lane, avoiding opportunities to foul on cheap drives, but expect the home whistle to play a large role in the proceedings.
|Length everywhere, this team comes at you in waves.|
Star Players -
The most interesting player on the roster, at least for me, is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 6-7, 220 lbs sophomore swallowed a lot of pride to come off the bench early in the season, but is back in the starting fold now that conference play in upon us. He's a whirling dervish of personality; constantly slashing, constantly making a nuisance of himself. A major presence on the boards ('Zona's best on either end), and a terror in penetration (12th-best free throw rate in the country), Rondae is the difference maker that keeps this team in the upper echelon on the collegiate game.
|Hollis-Jefferson is a fantastic athlete who can take over games.|
Playing off H-J, the replacement for the freakish Aaron Gordon is freshman Stanley Johnson - a 6-6 wing with seemingly limitless potential. One High School All-American out, another in, I guess. While not the defensive monster that Gordon was, Johnson has stepped in with more than enough length and athleticism to fill the dynamism quotient. He can generally do it all. Versatile enough to play multiple positions, he can shoot (43% from deep), pass, defend, and rebound (second best rates on the team). Overall, he's averaging 14/7; numbers which can only project to improve as he drives towards the NBA.
|Johnson is just the latest high-profile freshman to run through Tucson.|
Moving past the wing, I don't think nearly enough is made of what last season's addition of point guard T.J. McConnell meant to the program. For years, the Wildcats had been sorely lacking a true point guard to meter out the ball, and generate offensive rhythm. McConnell, a battle-tested transfer from the Pittsburgh area, is a premier distributor, boasting a top-20 assist rate. He fills the required role perfectly, taking Arizona to an entirely different level than they were before. With him at the helm, everything makes a little more sense, and the slashers get better opportunities to wreak havoc. Throw in a gritty mindset that gets him into passing lanes with a 4.6% steal rate, and the senior's a pest on either end. Without him, they don't make the Elite Eight last year, and would be a step behind this season.
|McConnell is a transformative piece at point guard.|
Off the Bench, the big threat is junior Gabe York, the team's best perimeter shooter. I could see him coming off the bench mid-way through the first half, sinking a few threes, and really putting the Buffs in a bind. After him and sophomore Elliott Pitts, however, there's not much bench left to speak of.
That just leaves, of course, head coach Sean Miller. An elite recruiter and program manager, he has rebuilt the Arizona juggernaut, and has the desert stocked with talent for years to come. It's hard to remember that, when CU first arrived on the Pac-12 scene, the Wildcats were making an awkward appearance in the NIT, and searching for direction during a re-tooling phase. Now they're a defending Elite Eight participant, and clearly in the West's upper crust. Wave after wave of incoming talent will help that.
|Miller gives great coach-face. Unparalleled.|
(My record on the season: 3-2. Against the spread: 4-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.2 pts/gm)
Lines as of Wednesday @ 8pm - NO LINES POSTED
With or without Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, it's going to be another butt-whuppin'. But what else would you expect? The Buffs have a lot of growing to do, and trips to Salt Lake City or Tucson are not the places for introspective development. I expect it to get ugly quickly, with foul trouble and turnovers being primary culprits. It'll be up to the team to circle the wagons for the quick turnaround to Tempe on Saturday.
UofA 78 - CU 40
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME WRONG, AND BEAT THE 'CATS!