Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

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...

When last we met - 

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 was 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 looked all season. We'll always have Paris (that first half).
Ski had a great game in LA.
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 22/7/11 without Wes Gordon to guard him.
Anderson proved impossible to guard against.
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 efficient offenses.  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.

Luckily for the Buffs, a lot of the offensive talent from that UCLA team is now collecting professional paychecks.  The Wears, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Zach LaVine are all gone - a core went for 62/24/19 in the second fixture last year. That doesn't mean the Bruins are 'weak,' by any means, but they are certainly less daunting than they were with all that NBA talent.

Star Players - 

The story of UCLA this season is how they're going about recovering from that talent drain.  Those players, all products of the Ben Howland regime, are gone, leaving head coach Steve Alford to forge his own path.
Of utmost importance has been the continuance of sophomore point guard Bryce Alford, the son of the Indiana legend. Standing at a willowy 6-3, 180 lbs, the sharp shooter leads the team in offensive rating, assist rate, and true shooting percentage.  But, as good as he's been for the Bruins this season (17/3/6), he faces an inordinate amount of criticism from the UCLA fanbase, really only due to his parentage.  BuffNation is more than familiar with the perils of nepotism, but some of the venom thrown his way from certain portions of the fan base is obscene.
To the chagrin of many, Alford is the best in the UCLA backcourt.
With as much as CU struggles with perimeter defense, Alford's ability to get loose behind the arc will be critical.  Along with fellow backcourt star Isaac Hamilton (a transfer from UTEP), should Bryce start raining down the threes, it could get ugly quickly.  Remember, it didn't get out of hand in Pauley last year until Alford went on his tear, and a similar run of play could be in store for us all this evening.  On the plus side, defensively, I like the potential matchup against Askia Booker, and think that Ski's speed could lead to a lot of chances against Bryce (should Coach Alford stick to conventional defensive pairings).

Out on the wing is 6-4, 215 lbs San Diego product Norman Powell. The lone senior in the rotation, and the lone holdover from last year's starting lineup, Powell has seen a big jump in minutes this fall as he takes on a 'lead guard' role.  Generally, he's taken to the increase in playing time (15 points per game), but struggles from the free throw line (69%) keep him from having a premier impact.  Still, a phenomenal athlete, it's best to keep Powell away from the rim.
Powell is one of the better wings in the Pac-12.
Up front, UCLA depends on impact freshman Kevon Looney. A top-10 recruit from this last class, the 6-9 frosh from Wisconsin is a prime one-and-done candidate.  Luckily for the Bruins, he's capitalizing on his talent in a hurry, averaging a double-double each night (13/10).  He's a premier rebounder and a dynamic athlete with great length. Combined with the beefy presence of 6-9, 260 lbs junior Tony Parker, the team has more than enough size in the paint to cause CU some trouble.  If Colorado still plans on working the glass, they're going to have to earn it tonight.
Looney has been a vital addition to the UCLA attack.
Beyond the starting lineup, the Bruins start to have issues.  Reserve forward Wanaah Bail was ruled academically ineligible, dealing a huge blow to the depth of the Westwood bench.  Other than former CU recruiting target Thomas Welsh and versatile wing Noah Allen, there's not much available off the bench. At the begining of the season, I would've thought this would be an area that the Buffs could exploit, but now, with CU's depth disappointing, and Coach Boyle shortening the bench in response, I'm not so sure.

The Bruins in '14-'15 - 

Much like Colorado, the Bruins have been underachieving this season.  Sitting at 8-5, they've lost every game they've played against a power five team, have only one win over someone in the KenPom top-100 (vs San Diego), and have been very inconsistent overall.

Nothing exemplifies their struggles more than their recent three game losing streak against Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Alabama.  They allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 59% in an 87-74 loss in Pauley, showed up limp and impotent against the dominating Wildcats in a 83-44 blowout, and struggled to hit the broadside of a barn with 30% shooting in a 56-50 loss at the Crimson tide.  The problem has been poor starts.  The Bruins were outscored 108-51 in the first halves of those games, including the embarrassing 41-7 blitz from UK.  Even in the Alabama game, which was a closer outlier, a member of the Tide, Ricky Tarrant, was able to outscore them in the opening frame all by himself (18-17).
The Bruins could do nothing but watch against the Wildcats.
UCLA just doesn't play enough defense.  They're giving up nearly 76 points per game in their five losses, at a clip well over one point per possession.  In the high possession affairs they prefer (17th nationally in tempo, under 16 seconds per possession), the holes get deep quickly, and they struggle to keep up against better competition.  With a lot of length across the board, their 1-3-1 defense can frustrate a lot of teams, but elite offenses only see open looks.

There's not a lot of what I would call 'elite' in the Pac-12 this winter, but I expect UCLA to continue to struggle into the new year.  They'll certainly slump against similarly lengthy teams like Arizona and Utah, and the second-tier like Washington and Stanford should also be able to push them.  Just like the Buffs, they look to be fighting with .500 all the way through to Vegas.

Coaching - 

Trying to make sense of that hodgepodge of athletic pieces is Steve Alford.  Don't get me wrong, I'm no Alford fan.  Personally, he strikes me as a jackass, and the way he handled a sexual assault case while at Iowa is repulsive.  Still, the crap he gets gets from certain sections of the UCLA fanbase strikes me as far over the top.  Especially for a coach that took the team on a 28-9 run through a Pac-12 championship to the Sweet Sixteen, to be so dismissive of him as being 'unworthy' of the Bruins legacy is a little petulant.
Even a Sweet Sixteen run can't keep the doubters at bay in Westwood.
Alford certainly benefited from Howland's leftover talent, but you can't really argue with results.  At the end of the day, it was Alford that lead his charges over the Giant Death Robot in Las Vegas, and it was Alford who coached them past the Tournament's first weekend.  In the modern landscape of college basketball, that's a pretty damn good run.  Is it a national title?  No, but, and I hate to break it to those from Westwood, the sport is a whole hell of a lot deeper now than it was in the 60s and 70s, and a decade of absolute dominance can no longer be the standard.

Is Steve Alford one of the best coaches in the country?  No.  Is he someone I'd want coaching my kid? Maybe not.  But he's yet to really give UCLA fans a reason to lob grenades, and, even should the Bruins continue to struggle this winter, he deserves more time to develop his program.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 1-1. Against the spread: 2-0. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +3 pts/gm)

Lines as of Saturday at 10am: CU -5, O/U 136

For a pair of squads picked in the preseason to earn first day byes in Vegas (someone even voted for UCLA to win the league), the Bruins and Buffs have dramatically underachieved this season.  Neither squad has a good win to speak of on their record, and each has an embarrassing blowout loss away from home that included a single-digit scoring half.  Right now, these are not good basketball teams, and I expect the game tonight to reflect that.

Look for sloppy play, head-scratching decisions, and poor execution.  It should be high scoring, but that is not always an indicator of quality.  Generally, I expect both squads to play to form, as each runs around in desperate search of a win that could jump-start a return to form.

In the end, I just don't like the way Colorado looks right now.  They're more adept at beating themselves than anything else, and the Bruins have the key pieces to beat them in Boulder (as a little outside shooting and zone defense is often all that's needed to beat CU). With the kids still out of town, and a general dour outlook for the rest of crowd today, the home court advantage is reduced, as well. Maybe something's changed in the last week, but I doubt it.  Give me the Bruins and the over.

UCLA 73 - CU 69


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