Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

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.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Unsurprisingly, Colorado found this trip to be very difficult last March.  Two of my keys to the game for Colorado - rebounding and transition offense - tell the story perfectly.  The Utes finished +3 on the boards (which will happen when you only miss seven shots total in the second half), and CU failed to score a single point in transition. With those advantages, Utah defended their home court well, overwhelming the Buffs in the final frame to earn a 75-64 win.
Utah raced past Colorado in the second half.  From: the BDC
For a while, at least, CU managed to make a game of it.  Behind refreshing contributions from Dustin Thomas and *ahem* Eli Stalzer (12 combined points in the first half), they pushed the Utes throughout the opening minutes despite foul trouble for three of their starters.  While early leads of as many as eight points evaporated to a 30-30 tie at halftime, I was pleased that Colorado was still in position to win after 20 minutes.

The well had been tainted, however.  Starting with four minutes to go in the first half, and stretching seven minutes into the final frame, Utah would go on a 23-2 run that ended all doubt as to the outcome.  CU was 1-11 from the floor and turned the ball over 10 times during that stretch.  The struggles were definitive.
The Utes managed to corral the Buffs. From: the Deseret News
What had been a glaring deficiency in the first half, interior play, opened into a gaping wound after the break. All told, Utah dominated the paint, playing +16 basketball under the rim, and blocking six Colorado shots. For the second game in a row, an opponent was allowed to make a startlingly high percentage of their second half shots.  Previously it had been Arizona shooting 85%, this time, behind their ownership of the paint, the Utes only made 71%.   I don't even know how that happens, especially to a program as focused on shot percentage defense as CU.  For the record, Coach Boyle blamed mental toughness and a lack of on-court leadership - themes that have continued into this season.

The Utes in 2014-15 - 

Since then, the Utes have only continued their upward swing, and now claim a place in the upper echelon of the Pac-12.  What was once a laughing stock program has quickly slipped past the Buffs to the top of the heap.  If there's any team that can challenge Arizona for the league title, it's these guys.
Big wins, like the one over Wichita State, tell you that Utah has arrived. From: the SL Tribune
They have two losses this season; a four-point affair @ San Diego State (one of the ugliest games of the year), and an understandable 'neutral site' loss to Kansas in Kansas City (the damn Jayhawk logo was on the court, neutral my ass).  Other than that, it's been all good.  Moreover, their non conference schedule, even beyond SDSU and KU, wasn't the traditional convention of the little sisters of the poor. Utah has played (and beaten) three other teams in the KenPom top-100 (Wichita State, BYU, and UCLA), along with a tough UNLV squad that managed to turn around and clip 'Zona.  It's a legit schedule, and one that has them currently projected to finish with the 6th-best RPI in the country.  Not too shabby.

The key has been a dominating defense that has held opponents to only 55.5 points per game, and an adjusted .876 points per possession.  Utah simply makes you work for everything; clogging lanes with their length, defending the rim with their intimidating front court, and generally making life difficult inside the arc. They're allowing only 37% on all two-point attempts, which is a full 10% under the national average.  Maybe not as good at making penetration difficult as Arizona, but right alongside them.  Expect a lot of stumped passes around the perimeter from the Buffs, as they probe the Ute defense.
The defense is one of the best in the West.
On offense, it's all about attacking the rim to force defenses into an uncomfortable choice: stay true to the perimeter to guard against their near-40% three point shooting, or help on one of the best dribble-drive attacks in the country.  Their success inside the arc (near 56%) is undeniable, but one of the bigger surprises this year has been their rising numbers from outside (39%, top-30 nationally).  The times I've watched them, teams are collapsing far too much on Utah's dribble-drive, giving them easy looks from three.  This is a notorious problem for CU, and I can't help but see another dagger night from the perimeter.

Overall, it's easy to see why this team is so good.  Play at the rim is dictated by the Utes, as there's a full 18 percentage points of difference between their offensive and defensive rates from two.  Sure, some teams will be able to counter, especially if they have an elite point guard, but there will be no easy wins against this bunch.

Star Players - 

What makes the Utes so formidable is the all-encompassing skill of National Player of the Year candidate Delon Wright.  The former JuCo transfer, in only his second season of D1 ball, is legitimately one of the best offensive and defensive talents in the country.  He averages a stat-stuffing 15/5/6/2/1 per game, and probably will end the year leading the nation in overall win shares.
Wright is simply fantastic.
I don't like to quote a fellow scribe so liberally (even one I enjoy reading on a continuous basis), but Will Whelan put it perfectly as he described the devil's bargain all teams must make when defending Wright:
Well, first, it puts your point guard (like Talton or Collier) in foul position by asking them to defend Wright in the open floor off of rebounds. Then, if they do, it forces wings and big men to back track in a hurry and find shooters and secondary cutters. Screw that up two or three times, and someone’s yelling at someone in the huddle, telling them to get their *** back on defense. Off of a make, Wright works Utah into their offensive sets, sets designed to put him in a position to make defenders choose their own poison. Hedge hard up top, and he’ll swing it quickly to a Brandon Taylor, who can either hit the trey or hit the rolling Jakob Poeltl. Or, they can swing it to Jordan Loveridge, so he can shoot or drive on his man. Say Wright keeps it, and sees even an inch of space between Jaron Hopkins, as he recovers, and the rim…that’s where he’s most special. Again, he’s an absurd finisher at the rim, but still maintains discipline in his vision, as his wings rotate to open shooting spots.
The 6-5 senior point guard is the whole package - the perfect collegiate player - combining size, speed, court vision, and overall athleticism. You can take a few points off for a lack of a consistent outside shot (30%), but that's just nitpicking.  Whether it's using his wingspan to take away your offense, or attacking the rim like a terror, it's tough beating him.
It's really on a question of how far he can take them.
The quintessential Delon Wright moment is at the point of a steal, when he pokes the ball into space, and gets out on the break.  There may be none better in transition in America, one of the biggest reason's Utah posts a top-10 transition eFG%.  This alone is a reason to not like CU this evening, as Wright will make every turnover (and the Buffs concede a lot) count.

If Wright by himself wasn't enough, he gets to work off of a deadly inside-outside duo in the form of Brandon Taylor and Jakob Poeltl.  The junior Taylor is the primary three-point threat in red, constantly lurking on the outside as the defense collapses to deal with the point guard. The Austrian freshman Poeltl (sounds like 'turtle'), is the recruiting equivalent of found money, the result on an intercontinental pursuit. At 7-0, 230 lbs, he's a massive presence in the paint, and has proven to have absolutely no adjustment issues coming to America.  With stellar rebound rates (23%/19%), over two blocks per game, and solid offensive numbers, if he doesn't go to the NBA soon, he could come to dominate the Pac-12 over the next few years.
Poeltl, Poeltl.  From: the SL Trib
Some of you may be asking, 'wait, didn't they have an undersized power forward with some serious stretch-four skill?'  Well, yes they do.  His name is Jordan Loveridge, but he had been sidelined for almost a month with a knee injury.  The 6-6 junior recently returned to action, but is still working his way back to game rhythm.  If 100% healthy, he only adds to the difficulty of defending this lineup, and, with heir apparent Brekkott Chapman, that difficulty only looks to extend into the future.

Rounding out the probable starting five should be lanky 6-6 wing Keneth Ogbe (another solid outside shooter), but he's day-to-day with a groin injury. Oh, and they still have a Bachynski, albeit one who's nowhere near as douchey as the other one.

Coaching - 

In charge of Utah is the venerable Larry Krystkowiak.  Dragging the Utes kicking and screaming out of the dark ages, the other Coach K has performed relative miracles in SLC.  Possibly the worst Power 5 team ever in 2012 (297th in KenPom), they're now one of the toughest outs in America.  One hell of a turnaround.

By far the biggest compliment I can afford Krystkowiak is that his program can truly be said to have improved in each of his four seasons on the SLC bench.  You can't even really say that about His Tadness through his first four seasons.  Recruiting, on court, off court; you name it, the Utah program is a completely different animal with him at the helm.
Coach K has completely transformed hoops in SLC. From: The SL Tribune
The natural question is, then, how long he'll stick around.  A former NBA coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, I wouldn't be surprised by some lingering professional ambitions.  Needless to say, other colleges will start sniffing around, as well.  Utah has a proud hoops tradition, and will certainly offer large sums to keep Coach K around, but I can't help but wonder...

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 2-2. Against the spread: 3-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -3.5 pts/gm)

Lines as of Tuesday at 7pm: CU +11.5

I just can't find the upset potential here.  Not only are the Utes a very good team, but they are expert defenders of their home court... oh, and they just happen to have the single best piece in the region. Beyond just a CU loss, I think it'll be a blowout.

Utah 67 - CU 50

... then again, I've been underestimating the Buffs this year by about 3.5 points per contest, so what do I know?


No comments: