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.|
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.|
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|
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?|
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'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.|
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.
(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
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME RIGHT, AND BEAT THE UTES!