Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

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.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last February against Washington, CU took leads of 10-0 and 20-4 in the opening minutes.  From those lefty heights, they rarely looked back en route to a 91-65 *ahem* rout of the visiting Huskies. Despite losing starting forward Wes Gordon the morning of the game, the Buffs had no trouble defending their home court. From wire-to-wire, Colorado wasn't just the better team, they were the dominant team.
CU swarmed Washington from the tip.  They never had a chance.  From: the BDC
The stats are delicious to look at.  CU shot over 55%, hit nearly 2/3rds of their three-point attempts, out-rebounded the Dawgs by 14, and held their shell-shocked opponents to only 32% from the field.  It was about as perfect as CU would get last winter, and about as poorly as Washington played in all of 2014. One team's explosive performance is another's embarrassment.  Such is life.

The Buffs were lead by the high-flying trio of Askia Booker, Josh Scott, and Xavier Johnson. All three scored over 20 points in the blowout, and, combined, the veteran core went for 68 points, 23 rebounds, and 12 assists.
Johnson was about as good as I've seen.  To bad he can't go for a repeat performance.  From: the BDC
Taking top-scoring honors was Xavier Johnson, who blew the doors off the building with his near-flawless 27/10 performance.  The then-sophomore from LA hit 10 of 14 shots from the field, including all three of his attempts from deep.  He was essentially unguardable, and returned the favor by helping to mute UW super star CJ Wilcox to only eight points in 10 shots.  It's sardonic, in retrospect, that XJ was so good against the Huskies last season, as he will miss the game tonight because of off-court stupidity.  Sure could've used a repeat effort here.

Continuing the unguardable/sardonic trend, the Huskies had absolutely no answer for Josh Scott.  Poor Perris Blackwell was tabbed with guarding the lanky Colorado Springs native, but simply wasn't up to the task. Scott was too quick, too agile for the UW forward, and easily put up 21/8/3/3. Unfortunately, Washington has since shored up their glaring weakness in the paint, and Scott is still hobbled by his weakened back.  So much for any carryover advantage here.
Josh Scott had a field day against the undersized Huskies.  From: the BDC
One player who does remain healthy and available in the CU starting lineup, Askia Booker, was similarly fantastic in this fixture a year ago.  He was aggressive in transition, generous in the half-court (seven assists), and obligingly efficient. This effort was the culmination of a marked change, stylistically, in the way the spark-plug approached the game in 2013-14.  The banzai high-wire act of the Skiball! era was still there, but it became more controlled, focused.  Including this one, he had averaged 17/5 over the proceeding four weeks, and was, decidedly, playing the best all-around basketball of his career.  Said Coach Boyle after the game, "He's playing with the mentally that, quite frankly, we've wanted him to play with since he got here." The Buffs were better off for it, and have continued to be so.

Look, any team is going to look good when the shots are falling, but this was a step beyond a merely strong night of basketball.  After a month of questions initiated by a blow-out loss to these very Huskies, to get the emphatic closure of a 26-point victory was cathartic.  The team enjoyed it, the fans enjoyed it, and all was well.
The Huskies left bloodied and bruised for their troubles.  Payback for the previous month in Seattle.  From: the BDC
CU could sure use a repeat this evening.  Not that I'm expecting it, but to lay the Huskies low again - without XJ and probably still without Josh Scott - would be a very welcome surprise.  Not going to hold my breath, though.

The Huskies in 2014-15 - 

One thing that defined UW last season was their absolute dearth of an effective post presence.  The 6-9 Perris Blackwell was often left alone inside, and skilled post men would just as often rip them apart because of it.  Opponents would score nearly 60% of their points against them from inside the arc last season; it was often painful to watch.  Not so much this campaign, as a pair of massive post players are having their way in the paint (UW is now 22nd in effective height).  Particularly on defense, it's no longer easy pickings against this bunch in the front court.

The key has been their ability to defend the rim.  8th overall in block rate (about seven per game), 5th in two-point shot percentage defense, Washington has turned into master defenders of the lane.  Only 25% of all attempts allowed are at the rim, as teams are starting to shy away from attacking the stalwart Husky front line.  It doesn't get much better farther out, as they're 6th in the country defending mid-range jumpers.  All told, they're posting a defensive eFG under 41%. It helps that they've been playing a lot of zone.  Keeping their defensive giants at home keeps dangerous penetrations (and fouls) down, while forcing awkward shots.
UW has completely turned around what was once a dramatic disadvantage in the paint.
It's a similar story on offense, where Washington has been pounding the ball inside.  Through conference play, they're shooting a best in the league 51% from inside the arc.  It helps them all over the court, opening up driving and passing lanes, and creating open looks on the perimeter.  With Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson still out for Colorado, and the forward corps still reeling in their absence, I expect this to be decisive.

This interior advantage has paid dividends for the Huskies, allowing them to jump out on a 11-0 run to start the year.  Big wins over UTEP, San Diego State (avert your eyes), and Oklahoma had them in the top-15 back in late September.  A recent run of four straight losses, however, including head-scratching home losses to Stony Brook and Washington State created some doubt.  The skid was built around abysmal shooting from behind the arc (low 20%).  That seems to have been righted recently, though, as they swept the Oregon schools last week.  Outside shooting returned to form, and the wins followed.
If it's hard to get to the rim, it's hard to win.
Overall, this group screams 'Tournament team' to me, and should find their way into a top-four spot in the Pac-12 once all is said and done.  Once in Vegas, they could be a solid long-shot pick to win the damn thing, given their strength inside.

Star Players - 

What has separated this UW squad from the inconsistent groups of the past three years has been the mammoth presence of sophomore center Robert Upshaw.  Dedicated BasketBuffs will remember the 7-0, 250 lb draft horse from his freshman year at Fresno State, when he gummed up the works throughout CU's 50-43 win over the Bulldogs in late 2012.  Let me tell you, though - he's only gotten better since then.  Way better.
Big Robert has been erasing a prodigious number of shots.
Playfully nicknamed UpShaq for his O'Neal-esque dominance of the paint (and his terrible free throw rates), Robert was a top-50 prospect out of high school who raised some eyebrows when he decided to stay close to home with FSU.  After only one season in the Valley, however, he was booted from the squad for repeated violations of team rules.  He quickly signed on for the greener Pac-12 pasture of Seattle, but off-court problems only continued through his transfer season.  Finally back on the court this winter, he seems to have put all of that behind him, having blossomed into the kind of defensive force rarely seen in college.

Simply, Upshaw's the best shot blocker in the country.  #1 with a bullet.  He's averaging four and a half per game, and is sending back almost 18% of all opportunities.  It helps that he has great size, but Robert is also really smart in the way he attacks the ball.  A testament to his skill, despite all those blocks, he's only averaging about 3.4 fouls called per 40 minutes played.  He picks his spots perfectly.  Offensively, he's still coming around, and hack-a-UpShaq is in play with his 42% shooting from the line, but his primary value is in his protection of the rim. CU had already been deferring outside the last few games without Johnson or Scott, I would be shocked if they got anything in the paint this evening (even though Booker has stated a willingness to 'damn the torpedoes').
Upshaw combines well with the son of the Reign Man
Playing up front with Upshaw is senior Shawn Kemp, Jr.  A 6-9 power forward, Kemp is here for more than just his dad's name.  He's been very efficient around the rim this season, hitting over 78% of his attempts, helping him to post an offensive rating near 118.  A nice compliment to Big Robert, when these two are on the court, the Buffs will be at a marked size disadvantage.  Kemp has been struggling with with defending stretch fours, both in the man and the zone, though; maybe this calls for an extra dose of Dustin Thomas?

With the ball, the Huskies are defined by the backcourt tandem of Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews.  NWG, the sophomore point guard, handles the ball most of the time, and has the 11th-best assist rate in the country.  Averaging nearly seven per game, he does a great job finding teammates in space, and creating off the dribble for both himself and others.  I don't expect to see him back for his junior year Andrews, still around for his third season, is the volume shooter responsible for keeping defenders honest. He's taken 84 jumpers from behind the arc, and could make the Buffs pay for collapsing on the paint threats.
Williams-Goss may be the best point guard in the Pac-12
The starting five is rounded out by returning senior Mike Anderson.  A 6-4 wing from Connecticut, Anderson is everywhere and anywhere for the Huskies, hustling to fill the swiss army role wherever he's needed the most.  Decidedly a jack of all trades, Coach Romar likes to move him around, using his activity off ball to frustrate opponents.

Off the bench, one player to keep an eye on is 6-7 freshman forward Donaven Dorsey.  A Sea-Tac-area product, Dorsey is starting to come into his own as a deadly corner three artist.

Coaching - 

One of the most revered stars of his profession, Lorenzo Romar is rolling through his 13th season on the bench in Seattle (19th overall).  A Pacific Northwest institution, Coach Romar has been struggling in recent years to keep up with the rest of the Pac-12.  They won the league back in 2012, but failed to make it to the Tournament, and haven't been back since, missing the post season entirely last spring.  Inconsistent play and near-misses on the recruiting trail have been the culprit, and some were starting to question whether the UW lifer still had it in him to build a winner.
Coach Romar would like a word with his doubters
That's why this year has been such a breath of fresh air up on Lake Washington.  Solidly 'in' at the moment, the Huskies are clearly in the upper echelon of the conference.  A rough stretch of losses to start 2015 aside, they're playing great basketball this season.  I've never really doubted that Coach Romar still had 'it,' just that recruiting had been letting him down.  There seems to be a better foundation now, and a monster class is on the way (currently 9th in the Rivals rankings, four top-150 talents). The days of Washington missing the Dance may be through.

Prediction -  

(My record on the season: 4-3. Against the spread: 4-3. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -2.7 pts/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 8pm - CU -1

I don't really know.  Playing at home is a massive advantage, but the combination of CU losses to the bench monster and UW's ferocious talent in the paint have me wary. XJ would've been key stretching Shawn Kemp, Jr. outside of his comfort zone, and Jelly would've been huge in battling Upshaw.  Without either, I see the Huskies owning the post, and punishing the Buffs for it.

A little #TadBall should keep it close and UGLY, but I'm expecting a Colorado loss.

UW 62 - CU 58


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