Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

2015-16 CU vs Air Force Basketball Teaser

Playing the Air Force Academy is always an interesting proposition.  Of course, it's nice to see a local school pop up on the schedule, and anytime you face one of our nation's military academies it's a special occasion. But, more than that, it becomes a trial of patience and persistence.  Why?  Because the Falcons run the Princeton.

Basketball junkies throw the 'Princeton Offense' jargon around about as offhandedly as a football freak brings up the 'air raid' or the 'read-option spread.'  So, what exactly am I getting at when I talk about 'The Princeton?'  Well, I'm talking about a style that values each possession, that relies on versatility from each of the players on the court, and that lives and dies by structured off-ball motion.  Tonight there will be back cuts, there will a crap-ton of passes out on the wing (assists on nearly every made basket), and there will be extended possessions deep into the shot clock. The emphasis is on finding the highest quality shot available, and the Falcons will be willing to wait you out in the pursuit of just that.  More importantly, it will test the focus of the Buffs' defense, who have to know where man and ball are at all times, lest they get burned bad.
Head coach Dave Pilipovich has kept the Princeton offense alive and well in the Springs.  From: NBC Sports.
Colorado fans are old hats at this, having watched it for three years as the 'hyper-Princeton' ([insert laugh track here]) under former coach Jeff Bzdelik. Many people, good basketball minds, love this stuff.  Me? I'm just not convinced that it can work at a high level consistently (even Georgetown, the un-Princeton Princeton team, struggles mightily in the post-season).  Further, I wonder if running the formulaic construct caps your ability to snag and keep talent who would rather play anything but. Case-in-point, the Academy's outgoing transfer point guard Matt Mooney (who had 10 points and five steals against CU last November) took some pot-shots at the system on the way out the door this past spring:
“I didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into, especially the way the Air Force Academy runs a Princeton-style offense. I watched them play and they told me they run the Princeton, but I didn't actually really know what it was like until playing in it. And it's very restrictive. You kind of play like robots, pretty much. There's not really basketball instincts involved — like you don't read and react, you go from piece to piece to piece. And I didn't really like playing like that.”
Maybe as a reaction to that, the loss of nine seniors, and the middling success of the program in recent years, head coach Dave Pilipovich is making some conciliatory tweaks to his staid system -- "there will be more ball-screen action, more dribble drives and a quicker pace."  Dribble-drive?  In the Princeton? What in the name of Pete Carril is going on here?
Lyons and the Falcons are trying to speed things up - a little bit - this season.  From: USA Today
I will grant that they are playing a little faster in '15-'16.  That's not a very high bar to clear, having run near 20 seconds per possession last winter, but they're up to almost 69 possessions per night now (shortened clock caveat applies).  With this new found speed (the relative equivalent of a brisk walk) the Falcons are 3-1 on the year, but have yet to play anyone of substance; wins against Tennessee Tech, Mississippi Valley State, and Robert Morris.  One interesting trend through those opening games, though, is their poor shooting numbers.  This is supposed to be a system of efficiency and high shooting rates. Instead, they're laying bricks from deep (20% from three point range as a team, worst in the country), and are struggling with efficiency (an adjusted .986 ppp) against these lesser teams, as a result.  The word from the Springs is that it's the result of opponents throwing some zone against them, something CU rarely attempts. Consume that excuse and talk about small sample size if you must, and there a number of good shooters on this roster, but at some point it becomes a trend.

Still there's a lot to be worried about if you're the Buffaloes.  Sophomore guard Trevor Lyons and junior swing forward Hayden Graham are excellent mid-major talents who can hurt you in a number of ways.  If the Lyons name in an Air Force uniform sends chills up your spine, it's a natural reaction to the whupping Trevor's older brother, Michael, used to put on the Buffs.  The younger Lyons may not be as good as his bro (who is?), but he's a budding star none-the-less, and the 6-3 point guard leads the team in points and assists. Graham is more of a double-double threat, albeit a little undersized at 6-5, averaging 16/9.5 in the early going.  One of his best assets is his ability to sneak offensive rebounds, 14 so far this season -- with AFA's measured pace, an offensive board translates into you going without the basketball for a full minute, not a good thing. Combined, these two rarely leave the court (minute rates well over 90%), and spark the Falcons. CU has their work cut out marking these two.
Graham is a fantastic, versatile forward. From: USA Today.
Elsewhere, look out for shooter Zach Kocur.  The junior from Denver hit 47% of his threes last season, and can be flat deadly.  He has struggled a bit this month, as have his teammates, but, after Sunday's lackadaisical defensive effort on the perimeter, the last thing you want to see entering the gym is a shooter due for a breakout game; he could be in for a huge effort.  Down in the paint, look for forwards Zach Moer and Joe Tuss to see extended minutes above their averages, as the Falcons try to cope with CU's size under the basket.  Add to them 6-6 sophomore Ryan Manning, with his 4.3% block rate, and these guys are better defensively in the paint than they have been in recent years.

Look, no bones about it, this could be a very tough game for CU.  Turnovers and poor perimeter defense will kill you against Princeton-style teams, and these have consistently been Colorado's weaknesses this season.  I'm actually kind of glad, in that light, that the Buffs struggled on Sunday.  It'll give the coaching staff an opportunity to really focus on these areas with an attentive, captive audience in practice.  The team needs to show better from the guards on defense and in ball-handling situations, and I bet that exactly what we get tonight.  It'll certainly be difficult to sink any lower than they were against the Mavericks.

Given a better effort on the perimeter, I think the keys tonight come down to rebounding.  The Buffs can't allow second chances, and have to force the Falcons to live with their misses.  This is where the Colorado Springs duo of Josh Scott and Wes Gordon comes into play.  Scott has been getting all of the hometown-centric storylines this week, and with good reason -- both his parents were athletes at the Academy, and he has deep ties to the program, as a result.  But it's probably Gordon who can hurt the Falcons the most by clearing the defensive glass and erasing back-cutters that get away.  Scott and Gordon have never lost to Air Force, and I doubt we'll see them let this one slip away either.  Maybe some scary moments early, but the Buffs will pull away late, probably winning by about eight or 10 points.


Tip-off from the Coors Evens Center is set for 7pm this evening.  When in the stands, have a look over to the Buff Basketball Band situated in the southwest corner.  It's the first of four scheduled Alumni Band nights, so you'll get to see yours truly in action -- I'll be the fat one in the back with the tubas.  If you can't make it to the CEC to root on both myself and the Buffs, you can watch the action Pac-12 Networks, or listen on AM 760.


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