Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, February 7, 2015

2014-15 CU vs Utah Basketball Preview #2 - The Return of Jelly

With just over five months left to go before the Pac-12 Tournament, Colorado Basketball has officially entered the home stretch.  In years previous, this meant postseason positioning; not just for Las Vegas, but for the real Dance, as well.  The latter part of that equation is no longer an at-large possibility, but the former portion is still a practical purpose. Currently sitting in 7th at 4-5 in the league, the Buffs have a ways to climb to get over the hump, and into the top-half of the Conference of Champions.  The team has five games to play at home, and need to leverage them to their fullest stay where they've historically finished on the league table.

Which leads into tonight's fixture with the #13 Utah Utes. A win here gets Colorado that much closer to an upper-half finish (and some saved face).  It wouldn't single-handedly salvage the season, or anything like that, but a win tonight over the travel partner would serve as a beacon of light in an otherwise foggy campaign.

Tip-off from the appropriately suds-filled Coors Events Center is set for 8pm this evening.  Pac-12 Network has the coverage, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Much like last season's visit to Salt Lake City, the Buffs started out well enough in early January's trip over the hills, opening up a quick 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 (and, eventually, a four-game losing streak). 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 in the early minutes of 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 only took two weeks to recover from, rather than the months that more dire predictions called for, and tonight will be his first home action since the opening days of Pac-12 play.

Johnson's relatively positive prognosis, however, provided little comfort throughout the rest of the first meeting, as the Buffs, without their fiery wing, were woefully incapable of keeping pace with the Runnin' Utes.  Between the injury to Johnson and a rash of foul troubles affecting 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.

This trip also featured the brief return to the lineup of Josh Scott. The big man had been sidelined the proceeding week with back spasms, but tried to make a go of it in SLC.  His recovery, however, was incomplete, as the man they call Jelly seemed to need a little more time on the bench, fighting to find his rhythm against the powerful Utah front court. Scott would only take three shots on the day, making none, and only chipping in three points from the line in 28 minutes.  He hasn't seen him the court since.
Scott was largely ineffective in his return to the lineup.
His teammates, without either their emotional fire or a practical impact from 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, other than the fact that the Utes are as good as advertised.

The Utes since then - 

The biggest development has been that the Utes were finally beaten in conference play... twice.  Both of the losses endured were understandable, coming at the hands of Arizona and UCLA, but, more importantly to tonight's action, they each came on the road.  While the Utes remain unblemished at the Huntsman Center, they're only 4-4 in angrier environs.  Not a single one of those four is a bad loss, by any stretch (all in the KenPom top-50), but a hole in their resume, nonetheless.  Not a weakness, but a vulnerability; like a poorly designed thermal exhaust port.
The Utes have been getting out-scrapped by good teams on the road this season.  From: The SLC Trib
Still, the Utes are a very strong team.  In conference play alone they've been Runnin' to an adjusted +.25 points per possession, which is ridiculous.  They are exceedingly efficient on both ends of the court, and lead the league in both offensive and defensive eFG.  Utah shares the ball, makes you work on offense, and grinds you down possession by possession.  While the UofA remains the frontrunner for the Pac-12 crown, Utah stands as my favorite to cut down the nets a month from now in Las Vegas.

The key to this team is their defense. Seventh nationally in ppp, they're the shot percentage defense juggernaut that Coach Boyle wishes the Buffs were.  Utah is holding all opponents under 38% from this field this year, and an overall eFG under 43%.  They will guard you, from perimeter on in, making passing lanes disappear, and taking away effective dribble-drive opportunities.  Long, active, and eager, they're the kind of team that makes the CU offense get all glassy-eyed and minimalistic.  I hope the corner threes are falling...
Wright remains an all-around force, but is he slipping as the season wears on?
With the ball, it's all about valuing possessions, and getting the most out of every trip.  Since the start of 2015, they've been assisting on 62% of all makes, and scoring and adjusted 1.15 points per possession. What has been surprising, though, is their sudden efficiency beyond the arc.  They're shooting over 41% from deep, and lead the league in the amount of scoring they get from three.  They use the shot effectively, taking advantage of open looks created to keep struggling opponents at arms-length.  It has helped them leverage advantages over the last month.

On thing to keep an eye on, though, will be the play of Delon Wright.  The West's best all-around player struggled mightily last week in Los Angeles.  While he averaged 13/6 over the two games, he posted a combined 3:7 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is nowhere near his usual rate.  His lackluster performance certainly contributed to that UCLA loss, and raises a few eyebrows.  Could the great Wright be slipping?  I doubt it, but the Buffs will need to keep him isolated and contained to have a chance at victory.

Why things could be different - 

The Buffs were missing a lot last month when they last took the court with Utah.  Xavier Johnson went down with an ankle injury in the opening minutes, and Josh Scott, still figuring out his back troubles, was a shell of himself.  Their absence wasn't the lone factor leading to the 25-point blowout, but certainly a contributing one.

If anything, the injury sheet has only gotten more active over the interstitial month, as Jaron Hopkins developed his own ankle troubles, and Askia Booker has been fighting a pair of hip pointers in practice. The good news, however, is that those injury woes may finally be clearing up.  While Ski and Hopkins are still question marks (Coach Boyle is 'hopeful,' when it comes to Booker; no word on J-Hop), Scott and XJ seem to have full bills of health, and are both expected to feature heavily tonight.  This completely changes who the Buffs are, and how they will attack the game.
The return of Josh Scott is a major story.  From: the Post
We saw this before from Josh Scott - last month against Utah, in fact.  He briefly returned from his back issues to tepid results in the first meeting, but the word from practice is that this is different. His return in SLC was about trying things out (which made some sense, as the Buffs were on the verge of a week off), but didn't seem to help matters at all. This time, reports suggest, his return comes because he feels completely ready to play.   If he truly is healthy, and truly ready to be Josh-Fucking-Scott again, it goes a long way towards evening up this matchup. 

We've seen in recent weeks, particularly in the last game against UCLA, how negative the CU offense gets without a post presence.  Playing 4-out, 1-in against P5 competition will only get you so far, and teams have been able to take advantage of the Buffs as both Scott and Johnson have been out.  It's what contributes to those extended scoring droughts the fanbase has come to plan for (always pack a flask!).  With them back in the fold, the hope is that the offensive rhythm opens up once more, and whoever the guards are won't be relied upon to play hero ball.  Further, as bench/role players like Dustin Thomas, Tre'Shaun Fletcher and Tory Miller have been turning extended playing time into improved performance, their return to the lineup only bolsters the reserves.
Xavier Johnson returning to form would also help.
Beyond just the health issues, the change in venue also looms large.  I talked earlier about how the Utes appear vulnerable on the road, but the Buffs take that locational gap to the extreme. 9-2 in Boulder, 1-7 in true road games, Colorado has been a completely different team, depending on where the game is played, this season. To me, this all comes down to scoring.  In the CEC, the offense seems to work, with everyone confident and active, sharing the ball at will; as a result, the team scores just over 75 points per game.  On the road, however, the attack seems to slow, with players more worried about mistakes than dictating their will.  If you account for the 15 minutes of extra ball against USC, the Buffs are only scoring about 57 point per in true road games.  That 18 point swing would've made that first meeting with the Utes a completely different story.

Finally, in the land of legal marijuana, I say Coach Krystkowiak's sweet grass ritual has no power.  You gotta bring something stronger than that to play on the Front Range, Larry.

Prediction - 

 (My record on the season: 8-3. Against the spread: 7-4. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -4 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 7pm - CU +5

I sense opportunity here.  At home, with the healthy return of the front court anchors expected, I look at this tilt completely differently from the one a month ago in Salt lake City.  As long as Ski plays, and Hopkins isn't as limited as he was in Pauley, the Buffs should be in with a shout.

Colorado finally got over the hump in a close game with USC, now I'm ready to see them take advantage of an opportunity presented in Boulder.  The game tonight is about pride, it's about regaining what has been lost over the last two months. I can't turn away from that! Optimism has served me wrong in the past, and maybe I'm being clouded by loyalty, but I'm going to take the Buffs to win a close one.

CU 68 - Utah 65


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