Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 24, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Washington State Basketball Preview #1: Battling to get back above .500

You had to see it coming.  Locked in a 50-50 tie Thursday night with the Washington Huskies, Colorado took the ball out of a timeout with just over 40 seconds to play, looking for a leveraging score.  The designed set for Jaron Hopkins was for naught, however, as the sophomore slipped into a held ball, flipping possession back to UW.  They would capitalize, as Andrew Andrews canned a jumper from the elbow for the win.  52-50 final; another heart-breaker for the Buffs.
Andrews didn't flinch with the game on the line.
The loss overshadows a series of gritty, encouraging performances from oft-maligned sophomores like Hopkins, Wes Gordon, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher.  Gordon was particularly good, posting a monster 10/17 line, while helping to swarm Washington's imposing front line.  Hopkins, whose offensive game is really starting to develop, lead the team in scoring, while Fletcher had an all around affair.  I can't help but say their contributions would've been more than enough had junior star Xavier Johnson been active for this game, but such is life.

Overall, this was an ugly, slow, defensive show.  Both teams struggled offensively, with layups and easy opportunities missed left and right.  CU hit their numbers on 'D,' holding the 'Dawgs to 36% from the floor (25% from three) while out-rebounding them by five, but couldn't solve the Washington zone.  There were plenty of terrified looks on the faces of Colorado players when the ball came their way, and there was a lot of pointless passing (as opposed to effective passing) going on.  It makes sense, with two of their best offensive players - Josh Scott and Johnson - on the bench, but the molasses drip of scoring made for uncomfortable viewing.
Scrappy, defensive play was the name of the game.  From: the BDC
It's hard to keep this in perspective, but the Buffs have been playing some pretty good competition (all four of the last few games have been against teams in KenPom's top-60) without two of their three best players. Yet, to their credit, the team has been battling their asses off, and deserved to win at least the last two.  It's small consolation, but there are some signs of life if you peel back the fat flaps.  This season will not end in the NCAA Tournament, it may not even end up in the NIT, but I'm learning a lot about the character of those on the bench, and who could be on the front line for next winter.  Frustrating? Yes, but just as informative.


The attention now turns to tonight's battle with Washington State.  Both mired at .500 overall, the two teams are seemingly headed in different directions after the opening weeks of conference play.  As opposed to Thursday's offensive struggle, those in attendance should at least see some fireworks, as the Cougars bring with them a willing offensive mindset and a porous defense.  I guarantee that more than 102 points will be scored in this one.

Tip-off from the CEC is set for 6pm.  Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last season, playing against a bottom-feeding Washington State squad that had pushed them to overtime in their previous meeting, Colorado took the court in front of a mostly-empty arena almost entirely devoid of students due to some historically frigid temperatures.  As a result, the atmosphere in the arena was mostly listless, and the normally potent home-court advantage was largely negated. What's more, a cynical defensive gameplan from the Cougars stifled Josh Scott, driving the essential big man away from the rim, and reducing him to a glorified decoy. Add in Washington State star DaVonte Lacy having a prodigious night, and the Buffs were without both their best player and their trump card against a red-hot shooter on a team already proven to be capable of making things uncomfortable.
The cold kept plenty of seats empty for tip-off.  From: the BDC
And yet, CU won, easily.  The 68-63 final may not look like much, but Colorado was up by as many as 19 with under seven minutes to go, and largely cruised home.  It was a satisfying result that brought them into a four-way tie for third place in the Pac-12, only a half game back of UCLA for second.  Pretty good value for a game against WSU.

By all rights, the star of the game was Lacy, who got hot early, and stayed in a scorer's mentality for the full 40.  Going 8-13 from beyond the arc en route to 34 total points, he took advantage of CU's notoriously suspect perimeter defense.  That's a little simplistic and unfair to the Buffs, however, who were far better guarding the outside than they had been in the previous meeting at Spokane.  Lacy was legitimately on fire, and hit some ridiculous shots, but the ball don't lie, and Colorado got lit up once again.
Lacy was on fire.  From: the BDC
For the Buffs, much had to be done with Josh Scott having a quiet evening.  The Colorado Springs native was held to one point and one rebound in 32 minutes of play.  Scott was given no time on the ball, no open looks from 15-18 feet, and was double-teamed at every turn.  In his stead, CU turned to superlative performances from Xavier Johnson and Askia Booker.  The pair combined for 46 points, 30 of which were scored in the second half.  Booker was especially potent, going for 26 on 9-12 shooting to go with 5 assists, scoring 21 of his points after the break.  He was as aggressive as I've seen in getting to the rim, and really changed the complexion of the game with his pace.
Xavier Johnson, along with Askia Booker, paced the winning effort.  From: the BDC
The lesson to carry forward is that CU cannot allow Lacy to get going early.  By the time Colorado made a commitment to stopping his perimeter looks, he was already on fire, and little could be done.  The Buffs need to come out focused on locking down the WSU star, or else they could see him lead a resurgent Cougar squad to victory.

The Cougars in 2014-15 - 

These are not the Cougars you may have expected coming into this season.  Sure, KenPom has them in the high 100s, and their .500 record is far from sexy (*cough*), but this is a dangerous team.  No longer a pushover, they will work opponents for 40 minutes each and every night, and anyone traveling to Pullman better be ready for a fight.

The turnaround is mostly based on offense, where a new head coach has turned a strong core of attack dogs loose.  They were 336th in adjusted tempo last season, one of the slowest teams in all of college basketball. But a new, score the damn ball mentality has WSU in the top-40 nationally in pace, completing their own possessions in less than 17 seconds.  They thrive on the break (about 27% of all shots in transition), and will make you pay for not getting back on defense.  All told, they're pumping in over 71 points per game; night and day from last season when they mandered to about 62 per contest.  Schematic change, certainly, but they are dramatically more entertaining to watch this winter.
With an attacking mindset boosting play, smiles are returning to Pullman.
Case-in-point, their recent 108-99 overtime win over Oregon in the Palouse.  A joyous affair of offensive basketball that hearkened back to an age of the sport long since lost to the era of overcoached drudgery, the game featured combined 53% shooting on 133 total attempts.  Through a combination of red-hot shooting and half-hearted defense, the two teams played to a total of 109 points in the first half alone, as the flood gates flopped open from the tip. The Ducks, of course, are more than willing to take flight with the ball, but it was the Cougars who proved to be the aggressors, taking the attack to the attackers.  They tore out into transition, were quick to pull the trigger on open looks, and generally seemed to be having fun out there. I enjoyed watching this one about as much as any this all season.

Of course, that just means that the devil on my shoulder says the trick against these guys is to slow the pace down.  Their losses in conference play have been at or around 63 possessions per contest, while their wins have averaged 75 possessions per.  Give me #TadBall, and give me a win.  A repeat of Thursday's ugly, lethargic molasses drip would serve nicely... at least from a victory perspective.
You have to find a way to slow these guys down.
Because, at the end of the day, Washington State can't guard crap.  They're giving up nearly 1.06 points per possession, and, in conference play, are dead last or next to last in most major categories.  CU's offense has often looked like hot compost this season, but, against this bunch, should be able to come alive.  With XJ back in the lineup, I expect fireworks.

Points off for defense aside, I like this club.  Good defensive teams can slow them down (see: back-to-back losses to Oregon State and Utah), but lesser groups will fall into the trap of running and gunning with them. Overall, they try to make the game fun to watch, and should be able to play a nasty late-night spoiler come Vegas-time.  When they end up in the 8/9 game, they alone will make it 'leave-the-poker-table,' appointment-level viewing.  Can't wait.

Coaching - 

The reversal of fortune with the ball in their hands shouldn't be all that surprising considering the man holding the reins in Pullman.  Ernie Kent, formerly of Oregon and the Pac-12 Network, has returned to the sidelines to spark the revival at Washington State.  The Rockford, IL native is a well-known offensive guru, having lead his Ducks to speedy offensive outputs year after year in the early 2000s. This is exactly what he was hired to do: bring excitement (and points) to the Palouse. So far, so good.
Kent is back in the Pac-12, and already has the Cougars showing signs of life.
BuffNation has no real feel for Coach Kent, yet.  By the time Colorado arrived in the Pac-12, the Ducks had already moved on, and Kent into television work.  But those of us with a greater appreciation of the collegiate game will remember those UO teams of his, along with his five Tournament appearances and two Elite Eight runs.  More than just a talking head from the tube, the man can coach, and is a legit presence on the bench.

Whatever he's doing is working.  No, they're not going to make the Dance this season, and they will still probably settle into a bottom-half finish, but, not even half-way in the conference slate, WSU has already matched last year's league win total.  Heads are starting to turn, and his players are starting to believe. At 60 years old, this is probably Kent's last run at leading a program, but he seems intent on making the most of it.

Star Players - 

Of course, the cupboard wasn't completely bare of talent when Kent arrived.  Senior wing DaVonte Lacy remains, and he's a great one.  As we saw last season in Boulder, the 6-4 Tacoma product can go off at a moment's notice, and can push his team over the top if given the chance.  Lacy has a complete offensive game, averaging 17 points per this season.  He can attack the rim, kill it with his jumper, and even slip a sweet pass every now and then.  He'll be a tough assignment for Jaron Hopkins this evening.
Lacy is a pure scorer.
What has really changed the dimension of this team, however, has been the emergence of 6-10 power forward Josh Hawkinson.  Almost non-existent as a freshman (averaged six minutes and one point per game), the baby-faced post has burst onto the scene this season by averaging a 15/10 double-double through the first 18 games.  The race for most improved player in the Pac-12 is over.  Don't even bother handing out ballots, the honor is secured for Shoreline, WA product.
Hawkinson has come out of nowhere to become an all-conference level player.
The kid is seemingly unstoppable.  He's got a great set of post moves, a high motor, and a knack for making smart plays at the right time.  Primarily, Josh is an elite rebounder, posting the #2 defensive rate in the country (about 33%) with a 'Dre-like nose for the ball.  With the ball, though, he's been just as impressive, working off his teammate's efforts.  Whereas DaVonte Lacy creates his own shot, Hawkinson's points are usually the result of a deft pass from a fellow Cougar. P&R, P&P, interior passing, proper spacing - Josh takes advantage of it all. It'll take a determined, focused defensive effort to keep the sophomore quiet this evening.

Providing the spark to release both Hawkinson and Lacy are the starting point guard duo of sophomore Ike Iroegbu and freshman Ny Redding.  They combine for seven assists per game, and do a great job metering out the offensive flow for the pouncing Cougars.  Iroegbu is an elite speed demon, capable of blowing past any would-be defender, while Redding is an inviting talent for Coach Kent to build around.  Not really shooting threats, their ability in transition and off the dribble is what makes them dangerous.
The speedy Iroegbu will push the pace.
The one player who can reliably provide some outside shooting is junior Brett Boese.  The 6-7 forward is shooting 44% this season, and is great at picking his spots.  Of the bench, the big threats are win Que Johnson and Jordan Railey.   Johnson brings some slashing/shooting spark to the court, while Railey is a bruising 7-0 center that adds a lot of physicality to the mix.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 5-3. Against the spread: 5-3. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -2.2 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 8pm - CU -9

I'm a little torn between minds on this game.  Teams who come to Boulder and try to run with the Buffs usually get shredded, but slowing down the pace seems to be the best way to stall the Cougar attack.  Either way, I see a win for the Buffs.  With XJ back in the fold, it should be just enough of a spark to see the team through, and get them back over .500.  WSU will cover, though.

CU 70 - WSU 62



Claroofus Jones said...

Outstanding recap of the Washington game. You should be getting paid for your writing, which has blossomed over the years from an avocation to so good that it wouldn't surprise me if you change professions some day from your presumed day-geek job.

RumblinBuff said...

That's far too kind, but I appreciate the sentiment. Thanks for reading!