Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, February 26, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Arizona Basketball Preview #2 - The Final Homestand

I've been a writing fool the last few days, posting my Askia Booker retrospective, and participating in a Q&A with's Adam Butler.  The extra word-smithing, as fun as it was, has left me precious little time to complete the preview of tonight's tilt with Arizona.  So, without further adieu, onto business...

Tip-off from snow-covered Boulder is set for 7pm this evening.  Once again, ESPN needs to figure out this whole 'scheduling too early' thing, as they've tabbed this one for the mothership.  At least out of region CU fans have no excuse to miss the broadcast, as ESPN's market penetration is about the same as breathable air.  The radio call will be on 850 KOA.

For reference, my preview of the first game can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last month, without either of the injured pair of Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, the Buffs came out and hung with the #10 Arizona Wildcats in Tucson.  CU surprised the hell out of me, taking an early lead, and generally keeping the contest within reach into the second half.  Reality, however, as it is wont to do, hammered home, and the Buffs succumbed to pressure down the stretch of each half. Still, a somewhat respectable 68-54 final, and a backdoor cover.

Losing by 14 is never a comfortable feeling, but I thought the team played well...  and by team I really mean Askia Booker.  Down two of their best scoring threats, it was up to Booker to lead the way, and, DAYUM, did he answer the call.  The little spark plug scored 30 of the team's 54 points, showing the brazen disregard for circumstance that has endeared him so to fans of #SKIBALL.  He finished 11-17 from the field, 6-9 from three point range, and was CU's only offensive piece of consequence.  If you were worrying earlier in the year where the senior's head and heart were at as he struggled through some off-court issues, I hope you've long since stopped.  The dude has been averaging 18.7 points per game in Pac-12 play (3rd in the league), and has been carrying the majority of the offensive load for much of the year.
Ski was magnificent, but he was largely on an island. From:
For Arizona, it was all about super frosh Stanley Johnson.  Playing tenaciously on the baseline, he gashed CU's softened underbelly for 22/8/3/2.  It certainly helped his cause that he didn't have to go against high school teammate Xavier Johnson and help-defense from Josh Scott, but the kid's for real. His efforts were the difference in the first meeting, countering the great work that Booker was putting in.

I don't want to say that CU 'wasted' a seminal Ski moment with the loss in the desert, but I'm forced to wonder if things could've been different with a full compliment of Buffaloes at Ski's side.  Booker noticeably flagged in energy as the game wore on, exhausted by the weight of carrying the team on his back.  At least with a healthy Johnson or Scott on the floor, someone else could've shared that burden.  It is what it is, and CU probably would've lost anyway (Stanley Johnson really was that spectacular), but there's a soft asterisk in my head next to this one.

The Wildcats since then - 

Arizona has continued to roll since the first meeting, winners of nine of the interstitial 10 games. The lone loss came against rival Arizona State, 81-78, their second loss in Tempe in as many seasons.  Looking past that little blip (although I'm sure it was painful for those in red and blue), it's been situation normal for the Giant Death Robot.  They lead the Pac-12, with good reason, and look to be in line for one of the top eight seed in the coming NCAA Tournament. Ho-hum, just Sean Miller rolling folks, as always.
I'm not comfortable with 'Zona losing to Sparky.  Just doesn't feel right.
KenPom shows that 'Zona leads the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in conference games.  They average scoring 1.13 ppp, while giving up under .87.  That's right, under .87.  For reference, that juggernaut defense from last season couldn't even crack the .90 plateau in league play.  For sure, the 2014 version of the Pac-12 was a much tougher animal, but still.  What they've been doing to conference opponents is just absurd.  Arizona has held Pac-12 opponents to 50 points scored or fewer as many times (four) as teams have cracked 60 on them.  Feel free to gulp

The key is rebounding.  They're far and away the best in the West on the glass, grabbing near 37% of offensive rebounding opps, while cleaning up 80% of defensive misses.  You're one and done against Arizona, which makes it damn near impossible to get into an offensive rhythm.  Really the only reason CU was able to get anything in Tucson was that Ski got so damn hot.  Colorado was out-rebounded by 15, and only managed to collect four offensive rebounds on 28 misses.  Given mortal Ski, and the Buffs wouldn't have sniffed 40.
Arizona has owned the glass this winter.
Taking a step back, for the 'Cats, the trip east is all about Saturday's tilt with Utah.  With a game advantage over the Utes, really the only way UU can get back into the race for the league title is to return the favor dealt to them in Tucson, and beat Arizona in Salt Lake City.  Certainly, at home, Utah is more than capable, and it sets up what should be viewed as the game of the season.  I know this preview is ostensibly supposed to be about tonight's game, but I'd be remiss if I didn't hand out a plea for everyone who cares about Pac-12 basketball to take a peek at that one - Saturday @ 9pm on ESPN.

Why things could be different - 

Well, on paper at least, the Buffs are healthier than they were in Tucson.  Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson are again regulars in the rotation, and CU has been playing with the roster as envisioned headed into the season.
Just how healthy are Johnson and Scott?
The problem, of course, is that I'm not that sold on exactly how healthy the two forwards are.  Scott, for one, with his recovering back, is running like an old man, still tentative to bend over, and looking like he needs the offseason worse than me.  Johnson, off of his bum ankle, shows flashes, but his shot isn't anywhere near where it was back in December/early January, and has been generally not as effective when on the court.

The numbers bear out my suspicions that there are still miles to go in the recovery process for each.  For XJ, he's averaging 8/7 in the seven games since returning from the ankle injury, compared to 16/7 over the seven proceeding the Utah trip.  His shooting numbers have dipped dramatically, as well.  Looking back over those same intervals, Johnson's averages from the floor have fallen from 55% before the ankle business to just 32% since.  The stroke just isn't there.  For Scott, it's a little more subjective.  He had been looking out of sorts since the CSU game, long before he was ever removed from the lineup, so his production in December won't really tell the story.  His 9/9 averages since return are a full chunk off last season's 14/8, and his free throw numbers, once a source of perverse pride for BuffNation, have slipped dramatically.  Since the plane flight to Hawai'i, he's only 29 of 46 for the stripe, 17 percentage points off his career average.
Scott is still fighting with his back issues, and recent physicality hasn't helped.
As a result, I don't look at their availability tonight as I would if they were proven healthy and in rhythm.  The same goes for Jaron Hopkins, who only missed a single game with an ankle injury suffered in practice, but who has been essentially MIA since his return (averaging three points per game).  That still leaves it as Ski vs the world, which isn't enough against Arizona.

Prediction - 

 (My record on the season: 10-6. Against the spread: 10-6. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -0.63 pts/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 7pm - CU +10

I wish I could report better. Arizona is just a perfect buzzsaw designed to take advantage of our wayward Buffs. They play great defense, boast a hardscrabble point guard, have other pieces that can directly counter the versatility of XJ and Jelly, and, above all else, rebound the basketball. Unless Ski pulls the magic he was conjuring in Tucson, it'll look a lot like the game in Boulder last year. I expect a 15-20 point final that is all but over by halftime. It’s where the team is at right now, unfortunately.
UofA 71 - CU 52


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