Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

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.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Speaking of ugly wins, the last time USC and Colorado got together, in last year's Pac-12 Tournament, that's exactly what BuffNation was treated to. The Buffs found themselves pushed around by the bigger Trojans, allowing what should've been a fast-paced up-and-down affair to devolve into a possession by possession struggle.  CU came dangerously close to inviting uncomfortable questions about their Tournament competency, but correctly responded when pressed mid-way through the second half.  A few heroics from Askia Booker was just what the doctor ordered, and Colorado snuck into the quarterfinals by ripping off a 59-56 scab of a victory.
Oraby muted Scott for much of the afternoon.  From: the BDC
Much of the difficulty surrounded the individual battle between CU's superlative forward Josh Scott, and Trojan big man Omar Oraby. While Scott had decidedly gotten the better of the matchup in the regular season games, Oraby bullied and frustrated the Colorado sophomore in Vegas.  Jelly just couldn't get a shot off in the first half, and only scored a single point in the opening frame.  He was so off his game that at times he would resort to basically jumping into the towering Egyptian, all but begging the refs to bail him out with a gift whistle. With none coming, the ugly vibes only deepened.

It all came to a head mid-way through the second half when USC, behind a 23-point day from Byron Wesley, opened up a five-point lead on the Buffs.  Luckily, that's when Askia Booker took over.  On the following possessions, Ski scored three straight baskets, grabbed a huge defensive rebound, and assisted on a game-tying bucket from Xavier Johnson.  For a brief moment, it was Booker's world, we were all just living in it -- and USC was helpless to stop it.  The sparkplug guard would finish with 21/7/4 for Colorado against only one turnover on 53% shooting.  Just a masterful performance.
Ski came alive in the nick of time.  From: the BDC
Behind Askia's example, the Buffs would close well down the stretch.  Finally, after much consternation and grinding of teeth, they got some production from Scott, who scored the team's final nine points - just enough to secure the victory, and keep CU perfect against the Trojans in the Pac-12 era.

The Trojans in 2014-15 -

It's all about youth in University Park.  Players like Wesley (transfer to Gonzaga) and Oraby (graduation) are gone, leaving the Trojans a completely different entity this season. They're starting four sophomores and a freshman point guard each night, and it shows.  There have been some highs (like a 12-point win over New Mexico in the Pit), but many more lows (embarrassing home losses to Portland State and Army).  They come in at an inconsistent 8-5, but Friday's 24-point loss at Utah shows exactly where they're headed. While the roster is getting closer towards the Andy Enfield ideal, they're still miles away from relevancy in the Pac-12.
USC shocked everyone with their win in the Pit, but that hasn't lead to continued glory.
As you would expect from the Dunk City guru, the Trojans are in the top-35 nationally in percentage of shots at the rim.  However, that may also be a factor of their dearth of outside shooters, as they are in the mid 330s in terms of three point volume.  If you aren't taking, let alone making, triples, the shots have to come from somewhere else.  The pack-line could serve CU well this afternoon.

The Trojans also like to get out in transition.  Over 26% of all of their shots come within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, helping them keep the tempo up.  They usually play their games in the high 60s, with offensive possessions around 15 seconds per.  I don't know if that's a product of youthful urgency or an active plan, but it is what it is.  They get the ball out early and often, so CU needs to be prepared to play aggressive early in the defensive shot clock.
The Trojans had no answer for Utah two nights ago.
Conversely, you can catch USC in transition.  In the games I've watched, they've struggled to pick up men in transition, stop ball, or otherwise get their defense set up quickly.  CU has to push on rebounds and made baskets, just like they were doing Friday against the Bruins, to keep the Trojans on their heels.  Slow, measured possessions aren't the way to go, as they'll throw a little zone at you - including some 3-2, which is a weird look for college - which could put some pressure on Colorado.  There's a lot of long athletes on the court (34th nationally in effective height), and passing lanes may disappear.  Best to avoid it by staying on the gas.

Star Players - 

Probably the biggest key for USC is the development of freshman point guard Jordan McLaughlin.  It's not ideal to have your team lead by a frosh, but the kid has serious talent, and should blossom in Enfield's point-heavy style.  Coach Enfield had to win a high-profile recruiting battle with UCLA for his services, and has shown no qualms with throwing him into the heat of battle early and often. Tellingly, the young Californian leads the team in points, steals, and minutes while posting a top-50 assist ratio.  There are some cracks in the foundation - he misses too many free throws (65%), hasn't developed his outside shot (29%), and also leads the team in turnovers - but, overall, is living up to his billing.  He's fighting off a shoulder injury sustained two nights ago in Utah, but I would expect him to play today.
McLaughlin could be the key to a revitalization of USC basketball.
It doesn't help that McLaughlin is usually forced to work off of shooting guard Katin Reinhardt. For a guy with sluggish shooting rates (39.1 eFG) and an assist rate (15.7) that isn't anything special, Reinhardt sure has made a significant amount of noise through three years of college.  A one-time CU recruiting target, Reinhardt left UNLV because he wanted the ball more; he even recoiled at the notion of playing 'off the ball' during his exit interviews with the media.  Not exactly the type of presence that's going to help properly develop a burgeoning, young point guard.
Reinhardt doesn't strike me as the perfect fit for Enfield and the Trojans.
You'll notice him immediately.  He's the 6-6 wing with a splashy haircut - which may very well be a Mater Dei thing (*cough* Xavier Johnson *cough*) - and has always struck me as someone with a higher opinion of himself than reality dictates.  Reinhardt is 'that guy,' and still miles away from being a productive collegiate player.  With McLaughlin the long-term solution as a creator in University Park, I wonder how long Reinhardt will stay quiet in his new home.

Down low, the lead post is 6-11 Serbian Nikola Jovanovic.  Owner of some solid rebounding numbers, he's really the only interior threat from the Trojans.  Jovanovic averages about 12/8 each game, and could be tough to handle if Josh Scott is still out.
Jovanovic is the key interior presence for USC.
The remainder of the probable starting lineup is filled out by Darion Clark and Julian Jacobs.  Clark, another transfer from Charlotte, is a nice 'four,' and can be very active defensively, but is a butcher from the free throw line (42%).  Jacobs will take some minutes at the point, and is a solid defender on the top of the zone.

Coaching - 

Coach Andy Enfield is fighting though his second season at USC, still mired in a painful rebuilding effort that looks to require additional time to complete.  It has to be an uncomfortable reality for Enfield, who seemed to crave the Hollywood limelight when he bolted from Florida Gulf Coast for the first high profile job he could find.  Under his watch, the Trojans are a sad 2-13 in Pac-12 play, and still miles from competitive.
Still a long way to go for Enfield in LA.
But, he finally has his point guard, and may now have his roster headed in a direction he can use.  Stuck with Kevin O'Neil's leavings, the offense was never able to take flight last year.  They're still not efficient with the ball in '14-'15, but you can see a plan in motion. Before we can really judge Enfield, he'll need at least another year to get his roster right.  A little more experience in the starting five couldn't hurt, either.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 1-2. Against the spread: 2-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.33 pts/gm)

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

Any momentum gained by the strong performance against UCLA could be immediately vacated with a stumble against the Trojans.  The Buffs need to come out strong, keep their foot on the gas, keep USC out of transition, and force them into jump shots.

One key could be free throw shooting.  The Trojans are under 60% from the stripe their last eight games, and, other than Reinhardt (79%), I don't think a single Trojan could be counted on to hit freebies consistently.  If it comes down to crunch time, that could be the difference between a win and loss for Colorado.

In the end, I expect CU to win, if only because the young Trojans shouldn't be (yet) capable of winning on the road in Pac-12 play.  The zone could frustrate that effort, but USC's free throw and three point issues should act as a firewall against complete disaster.

CU 70 - USC 59


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