Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015-16 CU vs Cal Basketball Preview #1 - Poker, and its Rising Price

A happy New Year to you all, and welcome, finally, to Pac-12 play!  We in BuffNation have had to endure a drawn-out nine-day gap between games, as the Buffs have rested up following their trip to Las Vegas.  With the first taste of losing since opening day stuck in everyone's craw, I'm sure the entirety of the program, from players to coaches to fans, is eager to get back on the court.  First-up: a trip out west to the Bay Area, and the Cal Bears.  As Coach Boyle is fond of saying, the price of poker is about to go up.


Hype Music for the Evening: "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga Eric Cartman

Did I sing this last night during the annual New Year's Eve Rock Band-a-thon?  You betcha!


Tip-off from Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, CA is set for 9pm this evening.  If you're not still too hung over from your New Year's revelry, or swamped with bowl action, why not click over to Pac-12 Networks, where you'll find the broadcast (how novel).  More of a radio call person, now with the experience of the classically presented Penn State game in your back pocket?  Well, Mark Johnson's got you on... well, I'm not sure since none of the stations have it listed.  Uhhhhh... 850?  Yeah, I'll say 850.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

The Buffs seemed to have a lot going for them in last season's lone tilt with Cal.  For the first time in the calendar year 2015, every eligible scholarship athlete was available, they were playing a 'beatable' team on friendly hardwood, and even 'The Mayor' Spencer Dinwiddie was in attendance.  Yet still, Colorado struggled on both ends of the court, playing a tentative brand of offense and leaking like a sieve defensively. They manged to spin up a faint chance to steal the win late, but striking distance was as close as they would get, with CU slumping to a 68-61 final.
Rare photo: Tad trying to take a time out.  From: the BDC
This one was endemic of a season fraught with frustration. Perimeter defense was typically porous, with Golden Bear shooting specialist Jordan Mathews allowed numerous undefended looks at the basket.  He would finish with 19 points, buoyed by 4-of-6 shooting from three (overall, the Buffs allowed Cal to go 10-22 from beyond the arc).  The defensive woes didn't just stop there, however. With the Buffs clinging to life down the stretch, the Bears scored or got to the line on seven of eight possessions from the fourth minute onward. That's how you lose a close ballgame, and that's what Coach Boyle means when he talks about the importance of defending on every possession.

Beyond just the defensive issues, however, the loss was particularly painful because the Buffs were still playing tentative and inefficient basketball on offense.  Looking back on the flow and rhythm with the basketball last season, it's startling how stilted and awkward everything was.  Against Cal, CU was held under 37% from the field, to only 3-of-10 from beyond the arc, and continued to pass up open looks to hit a cutter or shoot. The result: another slow, drawn out affair with Colorado scoring under one point per possession -- somewhat of a common occurrence in '14-'15.  For the record, the Buffs were 13-4 last season when they scored over that Mendoza line, 3-14 when they didn't.  This season: 11-0 over, 0-2 under. The proof is in the pudding; sometimes, you just need to score some fucking points.
Josh fought through lingering back pain for a nice night, but he was mostly alone.  From: the BDC
Back to the task at hand, Colorado still had a chance to win the game in the final minutes.  A clutch three pointer from Askia Booker (hey, a Ski reference!) with 1:43 to play made it a two-point ballgame, in fact. The Buffs wouldn't score again, however, as a Josh Scott baseline jumper on the next possession rimmed-out, deflating sails.  A few turnovers later, one each from Ski and Xavier Johnson, and the fate was sealed. Hopefully, we're in for better returns this evening.

Star Players - 

The big news in Berkeley this season was the arrival of two bona fide blue-chip recruits in the forms of swingman Jaylen Brown and power forward Ivan Rabb.  The pair, along with fellow freshman Roman Davis (taking a redshirt), formed a shocking top-10 recruiting class for the bayside Bears, one that raised eyebrows across the country, and made them a national player overnight. Breaking down the particulars of how the duo ended up at Cal is best left up to others, but it should be noted that Brown paid his way on lone visit to the school, something that ain't exactly normal. These kids wanted to be Golden Bears bad, and it helped reinvent the narrative of Bay Area basketball in the post-Mike Montgomery era in an instant.
The arrival of Brown has everyone in Bekeley excited.  From:
Brown is the more heralded of the two, coming out of high school ranked as one of the top-three players available.  A 6-7 wing from Marrietta, GA, Jaylen has all the athletic gifts God could spare packed into his frame, and catches the eye every time he steps on the court. Destined for the NBA, he can do almost everything with the basketball at an elite level, and even defend and rebound a little off of it.  He's capable of playing a number of positions (mostly oscillating between the '3' and the '4' right now), and is at his most terrorizing attacking the rim off the dribble -- the word explosive is an apt descriptor here. As a result, the Bears have almost given over the entire focus of their offense to him, as he's involved in 32% of all possessions and takes 30% of available shots.  Maybe not the most efficient player, yet, as he's struggling with making his jumper a consistent threat (20.9% from mid-range), his 15/6 averages are nothing to scoff at. An interesting defensive challenge for Wes Gordon, here.

Not to be outdone, Rabb, a 6-11 power forward from Oakland, has been making the more impressive statistical impact this season.  A massive upgrade over what the Bears have featured in the post in recent years, Ivan is a rim protector defensively and a reliable offensive option in the paint.  He's not going to cause too much damage away from the rim, but, when he's got the ball and is in close, he is a terror.  Overall, the young Rabb is averaging 12 and 9 while posting a 125 ORtg and nice rebounding rates (top-25 nationally on the offensive glass).  He knows his role, and uses his weapons strategically.  I would imagine Josh Scott pulls the assignment here, which may prove vital if he can pick up a quick foul or two on your youngster.
Ivan Rabb is also making an immediate impact as a freshman on the Bay.  From:
But, lost in the shuffle of fresh faces, it's important not to forget the steady hand at the head of this bunch of Bears.  He's the point guard who got away, and one of more unique talents in the country: Ty Wallace. Standing at 6-5, 205 lbs, the senior from Bakersfield still reminds me of the great Alec Burks in a number of ways.  He's faster than he looks, is simply slippery attacking off the dribble, and extremely versatile overall. One thing that has never come around for Ty, though, is his outside jump shot, as he's down around 30% for the season from behind the arc; his mid-range game remains strong, and he uses that threat to open up better looks for his teammates.  

Most importantly, though, is that he has a nose for the moment, and is the guy the Gold Bears really rely on in crunch time.  While Brown and Rabb grabbed the offseason headlines and add the scoring flair Cal has often been missing, it's Wallace who will be in charge of getting the team to where they want to be this winter. It's easier now, with Colorado's point guard situation seemingly settling down, but, for a while, the recruiting miss on Wallace was a back-breaker in Boulder. Even still, he would look tantalizingly good in Black-and-Gold.
Ty Wallace is still as dangerous as ever.  From: USA Today.
Elsewhere on the starting line, shooting specialist Jordan Mathews is exceedingly dangerous; in fact, Coach Boyle called him one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12.  As mentioned above, he knifed CU in Boulder last season, and is back to his old tricks this year, hitting about 42% of his outside jumpers.  Most of those makes last February were uncontested, though, and Colorado could help themselves by doing a much better job running the 6-3 junior off the line.  Also on the wing, junior Jabari Bird is another quick, athletic guard who can be a menace in transition and while attacking the rim.  His numbers are starting to climb off of previous baselines, and he might finally be starting to live up to the promise of his high school profile.

Past the starting five, Cal's quality drops off a bit.  This is probably a seven man rotation, at best, in league play, with Sam Singer and Kameron Rooks getting the first calls off the bench.  Singer, the backup point and a spot starter last season, is in the Dwight Tarwater mold (does a lot of different things, not all of them well), while the 7-0 Rooks adds size in the paint when Rabb or Brown come off.  Junior forward Stephen Domingo can also feature, but, like Singer and Rooks, won't be winning any sixth man awards anytime soon.

The Golden Bears in '15-'16 - 

Once, back at the start of all this mess, the Bears were a sexy pick to win the Pac-12 in '15-'16.  With a four-year-starter at the point, that eye-opening pair of incoming freshman stars, and an all-around package built around length and athleticism, it was easy to project good things for the Berkeley Boys this winter. SBNation even tabbed them as the 'closest thing to a NBA team in college basketball.' Now, however, a lot of people (including myself) have gone back to sleeping on Cal, passing them over for brighter starlets like Arizona and Oregon. This though process was helped along by disappointing early season performances against a bad San Diego State team, an even worse Wyoming squad, and an average bunch from Richmond. With the benefit of hindsight, they're still a good team, but maybe without the ceiling once thought.
As talented as they are, Cal has not been immune to some hiccups.  From: SD Union Tribune
However, all of us hitting the snooze button on Berkeley headed into conference play may want to re-think things.  This team is still damn tough, and a legit contender for the top of this stacked heap. The thing you notice right away when looking at their profile is balance.  They're as good offensively as defensively, and don't rely on a single player or aspect of the game to get their wins (compare with CU and their three-point shooting).  While 10-3 isn't the way they envisioned entering league play, it's understandable when considering that their best offensive piece (Brown) isn't firing on all cylinders yet.  Throw in some strong numbers across the board, and they loom as a very dangerous threat in the Pac-12.

What really makes them elite is their interior defense.  Top-50 in FG% defense at the rim, #3 nationally in FG% on two-point jumpers (24.8%), they do not allow easy looks inside.  The reason?  Length and athleticism.  They got size everywhere (7th nationally in average height), they can all recovery quickly, and hands seem to come out of random angles to disrupt.  As a result, it can take a bit to find a quality look against these guys, evidenced by the 18.3 seconds opponents are averaging per possession this season. Colorado has leveraged their advantage inside this season, using it to open up looks on the perimeter, but that may just not be there tonight.
The freshmen have made it tougher to score inside against the Bears. From: CSN Bay Area
The big question here is transition.  CU relies on it (28.9% of all attempts on the break) while Cal is one of the best in the country at limiting it (18.6%, 6th nationally).  It comes back to tempo. Colorado has been at their best this season when the action is up-and-down.  The Bears, like SMU and Penn State, will not allow that to happen, averaging under 69 possessions per this season, and holding opponents to some of the longest trips in the land (that 18.3 seconds per trip is the 26th slowest, nationally).  The Buffs have to find a way to open up the action, and get some easy two point looks.  Letting Cal set up every opportunity just isn't going to work.

Offensively, they get a lot off of basic penetration from Wallace, Bird, and Brown, using it to open up quality inside looks for Rabb and back-breaking open outside looks from Mathews. CU has routinely proven to be susceptible to this brand of attacking guards off the wing, and that should be the weak point this evening. Helpfully, outside of Mathews, this is not a particularly strong 3-point shooting club, but the paint, and avenues into it, is really where this battle will be won and lost.  If ever an opponent called for a pack-line, it's this one.

Coaching - 

Head Coach Cuonzo Martin returns for his second season, having quickly turned the Golden Bears into a national entity.  Run out of Tennessee by some real yokels, the Cal faithful have to be happy with the caliber of coach that seemingly fell into their lap.  Sure, the 18-15 record in '14-'15 was nothing special, but the recruiting speaks for itself -- in this last class, Martin was the only coach in America to sign two players in the ESPN top-10, a feat usually reserved for the Calipari's of the world.  Momentum moves quickly in the hoops world, and it all seems to be trending upwards in Berkeley.
Martin has the Cal program headed in the right direction.  From: Vice Sports
The trick for Coach Martin, now, is capitalizing on the positioning.  Just getting the talent in place is only the start, he now has to back that up with some wins.  With the recruits, the headlines, and the momentum come expectations, and I don't think anyone in that program would be satisfied with an early offseason this March. The Bears have to show some leg in the left column this season, and it starts with a strong drive in Pac-12 play.  With a strong, balanced mix of talent, I have faith that they will do just that.

Prediction - 

My record last year: 11-9. Against the spread: 11-9. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -2.05 pt/gm)

Lines as of Thursday @ 8pm - CU +4.5, O/U 144.5

A lot of this one comes down to what happens up front.  CU's post duo of Josh Scott and Wes Gordon have the experience, but Rabb and Brown are NBA stars in the making.  On the opening day of Pac-12 play, that experience advantage up front is very enticing.  The X-factor, however, is Ty Wallace. The kid is a unique, tenacious attacker.  If he's opening things up in penetration, Colorado could get in real trouble real quick.

In the end, I really do believe this comes down to transition.  Do the Buffs get the flow opened up, or are they stuck in the muck in a 67 possession game?  I'll say, on the road, the pace stays where we saw it in Las Vegas, CU again struggles with offensive rhythm, and Cal gets enough off the dribble to squeak out a close win.  Nothing shameful, though, should be a good game.

Cal 74 - CU 70


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