Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tuesday Grab Bag: Buffs Reeling Without XJ

Sad but true, the storybook Oregon Ducks failed to get the job done against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes claimed the national title 42-20 last night. UO just couldn't handle the bruising rushing duo of QB Cardale Jones and RB Zeke Elliott, failing to tackle either on first hit.  On passing downs, they almost never got penetration into the back field, and tOSU slowly ground down the Pac-12 champions.  Even a four-pack of Buckeye turnovers couldn't turn the tide as Oregon slipped behind into the fourth quarter behind back-to-back scores from the B1G champs.

No shame is losing in the title game, but I wanted so much more, both because I thought the Ducks were the best team in football, and that the Pac-12 was the best conference in the land.  Ohio State deserves their win, but I was hoping for a much better night for the Conference of Champions.


Today in the bag, I'm talking the loss in Utah, the need for a speedy recovery from Xavier Johnson, and the NFL Playoffs.

Click below for the bag...

Hunted down by the Utes - 

Much like last season's trip to Salt Lake City, the Buffs started out well enough, opening up an early lead over the hosts.  An injury scare, however, shook the team to their core, and marked the beginning of a 13-minute field goal drought. Ready and waiting to pounce, the Utes would explode past Colorado during the offensive hibernation, en route to claiming a 31-21 halftime lead.  It would only get worse after the break, with the Buffs eventually succumbing to a 74-49 final.
The Utes blitzed past the reeling Buffs.
The game seemed to turn when Xavier Johnson, Colorado's bouncy swing forward, came down from a layup attempt clutching his ankle early in the first half.  Almost exactly a year after the Seattle incident, the sight of XJ rolling on the floor in pain brought back nightmarish thoughts for the CU faithful.  Many would-be doctors even jumped to the worst-possible conclusions in the immediate aftermath. Thankfully, Johnson's injury - a high sprain to the right ankle - does not seem to be season-ending.  In fact, trainer Rawley Klingsmith was quoted in the Camera as saying "I'm optimistic (of a short absence)."

That bit of good news, however, provided little comfort Wednesday night, as the Buffs, without their fiery leader, were woefully incapable of keeping pace with the Runnin' Utes.  Between the injury to Johnson and a rash of foul troubles effecting fellow stars Askia Booker and Josh Scott, there was little offensive talent left on the court in black, and it showed.  Colorado would go eight minutes without so much as a point, a stretch which coincided with a 15-0 Utah run.  Ballgame.

Even the return to the lineup of Josh Scott wasn't enough to help the struggling road offense.  The big man, sidelined recently with back spasms, seemed to need a little more time in recovery, fighting to find his rhythm. He would only take three shots on the day, making none, and only chipping in three points from the line in 28 minutes.
Scott was largely ineffective in his return to the lineup.
His teammates, without their emotional leader, and still missing their elite post presence, flagged significantly. Turnovers were abundant - 18 in total against only five assists - and no one seemed capable of stepping up to provide some relief.  Jaron Hopkins (12 points on 5-7 shooting) and Tre-Shaun Fletcher (2-2 from beyond the arc) played well, but they were out on an island.

Overall, it's about what I expected.  The Utes are a fantastic team - one of the only two of quality in this league - and CU was always a longshot to win in SLC.  Even had XJ stayed healthy, I would've anticipated a strong Utah run in the second half.  Without Johnson, the Buffs were never going to be able to stay close. As a result, not much to take from this one.

Need to get XJ back - 

BuffNation, count your blessings that Big X has received a friendly preliminary diagnosis.  While the final word isn't known, the fact that the trainer was 'optimistic' is a great sign that the extent of his downtime will be minimal, and certainly better than what we were hearing after similar circumstances last winter. When something athletically awkward happens, like Xavier's hard landing after the missed layup, anything can happen. Bullet dodged.

Johnson's eventual return is critical for the Buffs, who already struggle at scoring, and need their versatile wing on the court.  To-date, he's posted career highs in almost every statistical category - Ortg, usage, eFG, rebounding, and free throw rate - all while finally getting his free throw percentage above the 70% barrier. Throw in a three point percentage well over 40% and he's been performing above expectations.
Xavier's injury comes at an awkward time for the Buffs.
The professional whispers coming into this season mostly surrounded Josh Scott, but, the way he had been playing, I was starting to think more about the draftability prospects of XJ.  Xavier had been answering most of the questions posed about his game coming into the year - his three point shooting has stayed strong, he dramatically raised his free throw rate, he's been much more active on defense, and proven to be much better in the paint in his role as a flex four.  Above all else, he's been consistent.  Prior to Wednesday night's injury-shortened effort, he had been on a tear, averaging almost 16 points per over the last seven contests.

While there's certainly a need to be mindful of getting the Mater Dei product a full recovery, the longer he's out, the more CU will struggle.  The Buffs will sorely miss him in the desert this week, but his presence will be critical against the Washington schools next week.  If he can return for the UW game on the 22nd, I'll count it as a win.

NFL playoffs - 

Indianapolis 24 - Denver 13 -

Oh my.  The entire state of Colorado is in meltdown mode after the Donkeys blew their divisional round game against the Colts.  Without giving so much as an ounce of credit to Indy, the assembled horde of Broncos faithful were quick to turn on everyone from head coach Jon Fox to even *gasp* Peyton Fucking Manning (playing with a torn quad, btw).  At least one of those names won't be in Orange and Blue next fall, as Fox is already out, and the possibility of Manning following him into the sunset remains.  Bitch and moan all you want, Bronco fan, but the team will probably look very different next season, and not necessarily for the better.
Getting after Pey-Pey proved effective.
Enough of that whinging, props to the Colts for playing a near-perfect game.  They got after PFM, protected their own QB, and stayed away from the big mistake.  Andrew Luck was good (265-2-2), not great, but made enough plays to put his team in a position to win. I actually like them next week in New England, if only because I think it's Luck's time.

- New England 35 - Baltimore 31 -

Speaking of the Patriots, they used a series to trick plays to frustrate the Ravens, and steal away with a win they may not have deserved.  Twice, B'more held two touchdown leads, and seemed to be on the verge of blowing the game open, only to see NE storm back behind a sustained aerial attack.  The Pats couldn't run the ball to save their lives, but 408 yards from ole' Tommy Brady were decisive.

- Green Bay 26 - Cowboys 21 -

Over in the NFC, the big game was up in Lambeau Field, where a replay of the '67 Ice Bowl stole the show. Back and forth the big plays went deep into the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, in a game that was a enjoyable spectacle throughout, the game was decided by the refs.  On a high leverage 4th-and-two play with four minutes to go, the Cowboys went deep to Dez Bryant.  The star wideout appeared to out-jump his coverage, secure the ball, get two feet down, and stretch out for the goal line.  The problem was that the stretch loosened his grip on the ball, allowing the ground to bounce it out of his hand. That was all that head official Gene Sterratore needed on replay to reverse the decision, leaving Bryant with a catch in all but name.

I guess it's fitting for Dallas, who used a little officiating chicanery to slip past Detroit the previous week, but any sport that doesn't call that play a catch needs to re-evaluate the rules.  Yes, by the letter of the law, it can be argued that Bryant failed to finish the game-changing grab (although, I'd say his stretch of the ball was a 'football move'), but, in the spirit of the game, it's clear that Dez did his job.
A hobbled Rodgers got the 'W.'
The referring controversy takes a little of the focus off the Packers, who played a great game.  Behind a hobbled Aaron Rodgers (316-3-0), they moved the ball real well, and showed great fight on their home turf. It'll be interesting to see if they can take that same grit on the road next week - and if Rodgers can still move - as they travel to Seattle.

- Seattle 31 - Carolina 17 -

In almost perfunctory fashion, the Seahawks handled their business at home against a Panthers squad that never really had much of a chance of pulling the upset.  Carolina was close into the fourth, but 21 unanswered points, including a 90-yard pick six from Kam Chancellor, sealed the deal.  Nothing but what I expected; Cam Newton made mistakes and Russell Wilson didn't.  The 'Hawks remain my favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Happy Monday!

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