Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, January 8, 2016

2015-16 CU vs Utah Basketball Preview #1 - A Big One in Boulder

Let's talk about what's at stake this evening when the Buffs and Utes get together.

For Utah, this is just shy of a must-win.  Having dropped their first two Pac-12 games in Northern California, to go down three straight to start the campaign, and three behind Cal, would be a death knell to any faintly remaining conference title hopes, and put a lot of their larger post season aims in jeopardy.  Even as early as it is, they will be desperate for victory, coming out firing, and surely giving Colorado their best shot.

For the Buffs, it could be the start of a really nice month of basketball. After this one against Utah, CU will host two games against the Oregon schools before heading up to the Pacific Northwest to play the Washingtons (which had been projected to be the 'easiest' road trip in conference play), and returning to host Stanford and Cal.  According to Kenpom, CU is either out-right favored (sometimes barely) or a 50/50 proposition to win each and every one of those games.  Nothing in this league is easy, but there's a decent chance that, with a win over the Utes, Colorado could springboard to an 8-1 or 7-2 start to conference play. Think about that for a second.

But, I will tell you right now that none of that is going to happen if the Buffs drop this one to Utah.  They need it for morale and momentum (read: swagger) sake. Let me put it this way: whoever wins this game will be all right.  The next month will be rosy, filled with wins, and a gateway to a NCAA Tournament berth.  The loser, however, could very well find themselves tossed from Dance contention before we even hit the year's second month.

For that reason alone, I'm begging all of BuffNation to get to the CEC for this one. The team needs a true home court advantage this evening!  I don't want to hear excuses, and I don't care about the weather or that the students are still on break.  Fill up the keg!


Hype Music for the evening: "Big Bear and the Hour of Chaos" by Unearth

No real reason for this one, just really enjoy the track.  The kind of song I want to hear on the way to a big damn basketball game.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the Coors Events Center is set for 7pm this evening.  This is a big one.  So big in fact, that they've called up the Alumni Band for some instrumental support.  Yep, yours truly will be in the back of the band, laying down the beats on the tuba.  If that's not worth the price of a ticket, I don't know what is. For those not interested in the sharing of my musical gift, televised coverage can be found on Fox Sports 1.  The radio call is on AM 760.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Back on New Year's Eve, 2011, CU played their first ever Pac-12 basketball game against a very un-Pac-12 opponent.  Facing off with fellow conference neophyte Utah, the Buffs thrashed the rebuilding Utes 73-33.  It wasn't even that close.  Colorado flat embarrassed their neighbors to the west, rubbing their nose in the realities of high major basketball. Snide jokes were made, I proclaimed it a statement win, and everyone rejoiced.
Josh Scott's healthy return was about all the positive you can take from last year's home tilt with Utah.  From: the BDC
It took them just over three years, but Utah managed to return the favor, and there's no laughing now.  A listless and indifferent CU squad was upended at home by the visiting Utes last February, suffering through a 79-51 humiliation on their own floor.  Nothing went right, from injury and discipline woes playing with the starting lineup, to the horrendous offensive performance (under 30% shooting for the game), and the effortless defensive letdown (Utah shot 58% from the field, 59% from deep).  There was one team on the court that night who looked like a Pac-12 squad, and it certainly wasn't the one with 'COLORADO' splayed across their chests; the narrative had flipped.  In turn, I called it the low-point of the Tad Boyle era.

The one bright spot in white that evening was the return of Josh Scott.  After almost two months of reduced performance and extended absence, the big fella was back in the paint for Colorado, on the road to recovery from lingering back issues.  Over 23 minutes of action, the Young Fundamental would come off the bench to chip in 10/7 -- pretty solid, but not great, numbers.  But, his guards couldn't get him the ball in good spots enough times, and he received little to no support from running mate Wes Gordon, who started the game on the bench for missing shoot-around.  Dom Collier also had a nice game, putting up 11/4, but much of that came in garbage time.  None of it was near enough to counter Brandon Taylor's 6-9 shooting from deep or Jordan Loveridge's 11/10 double-double.
Without Ski, the backcourt was a mess.  From: the BDC
That's because, beyond the pair of Scott and Collier, CU had nothing going for them.  Askia Booker was out (hip pointers), and the starting guard trio of Jaron Hopkins, Xavier Talton, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher was only able to combine for 12 points and no assists over 69 total minutes in his absence.  This, then, makes for an informative moment in the difference between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 editions of Colorado Basketball. College hoops is built around guard play, and the Buffs just didn't have enough of it last season to register a pulse with Booker on the bench.  Replace Fletcher, Talton, and Hopkins in the starting lineup with Collier, Josh Fortune and George King - three clear offensive entities, when on their game - and you have a viable entity.  Sure, the shots aren't always going to fall, and #TadBall remains important, but the Buffs are an entirely difference animal this season because of improvements on the wing.

That's why tonight's game with the Utes makes for such an interesting proposition.  Colorado is in a much better position to compete with a good Utah program, especially on home hardwood, than they were a year ago.  As a result, we all should see a good, competitive game throughout this evening, which should tell you exactly how far in the rearview last season's results are.

The Utes in 2015-16 - 

It would be impossible to start off my review of the Utes without mentioning what is no longer on the Utah roster: the incomparable Delon Wright. A JuCo transfer, Wright played just two seasons in Salt Lake City before matriculating to the NBA, but he, almost single handedly, made Utah what they were the last two campaigns, crafting into relevancy what was once a door mat.  Wright was a two-time All-Conference selection, the winner of the 2015 Cousey award for being the best collegiate point guard, one of the most impactful two-way players I've ever seen... and the Utes are missing him desperately this winter.
Wright was absolutely fantastic.  From:
On the surface, it's nothing glaring.  Utah is a top-50 club offensively, top-70 defensively; nothing to be ashamed of there.  They even went 11-2 in non-conference play this season, including a statement OT win over Duke, and seemed to still be in position to contend for the Pac-12 crown entering January. But, in the midst of all of those wins, something has been off since their first game of the season against Southern Utah tipped off.  Compared with '14-'15's Sweet Sixteen squad, the Utes are allowing about .08 extra ppp this season, while offensive efficiency is down about .03 ppp.  That's over a full tenth of a point of efficiency that evaporated overnight, taking them from an elite ballclub, clearly one of the nation's best, to just another good team.  That tenth of a point?  That's Delon Wright.  The Utes are simply missing that special something that separated them from the pack, and there's no way to get it back.

You could really see it this past weekend in the Bay Area, where they lost both games to Stanford and Cal. The first, a come from ahead loss to the Cardinal that was enabled by four free throw misses in the final 19 seconds, was eye opening if simply for the way the team collapsed.  Against the Golden Bears, the loss was much more conventional, with the 13-point loss building throughout the 40 minutes of play.  Utah just didn't have a killer instinct, a true facilitator, a possession stopper, or a bucket-getter when they needed it, and are 0-2 to start Pac-12 play, as a result.  Wright was all those things, and more.
Not a good look for the Utes, getting swept by the Bay.  From:
Now, let's be clear, they're not a bad team, by any means, and they have yet to lose to a team outside of the KenPom top-100.  Most groups, when compared to where the Utes were a year ago, would take a back seat, and two losses do not a season make; Utah could still very well be in the top-four by season's end. Hell, I still like the way they play possession basketball, and few can matchup to them in the front court. They get to the rim at a top-20 clip, and really own both ends of the court from 15-feet in by allowing only 41% shooting on all two-pointers. But they're no longer a challenger for the Pac-12 crown in '15-'16, and are far from invincible away from the Huntsman Center.  In many ways, they're exactly where Colorado was a few years ago, missing a beloved point guard and searching for solutions.  Here's to hoping they don't find any before Saturday morning.

Star Players - 

In Wright's absence, the timbre of the team has moved completely inside.  All told, Utah boasts one of the deepest, most versatile forward corps in America, one that is really going to push Colorado.  Maybe not as tough of a nut to crack inside as Cal, but they're no joke as both a top-10 offense and a top-20 defense inside of the arc.
Poeltl is one of the best true centers in America.  From: Rant Sports
Of course, it all starts with the next lottery pick from Salt Lake City, true 7-0 center Jakob Poeltl.  The recruiting result of some of the best money ever spent on a plane ticket to Vienna, Poeltl is an exceptionally gifted post, capable of dominating close to the rim.  With the best PER in the country (36.2), he's shooting close to 69% from the field this season, with 85% of all attempts coming at the rim, all while posting a top-100 block rate and strong rebounding numbers (24% defensive rebounding rate).  The Austrian native is both a devastating target in the pick and roll, and a terrifying presence at the heart of a staunch defense. Jakob's 18/9/2/2 averages say it all -- he's the next great professional big.

Tonight's affair has been billed all week as a matchup between two of the best centers in America, Poeltl and CU's Josh Scott, and it's a battle that should be worth the price of admission.  The real trick of it is whether Josh can defend the European import without fouling.  Poeltl is drawing nearly seven fouls per 40 minutes played, and gets to the line about six times per game.  J40, on the other hand, is one of the best in the country at defending the paint without fouling, only garnering about two whistles per 40.  The game could very well turn here, on whether Poeltl can get Scott into quick foul trouble.
Loveridge doesn't often venture inside, but he can stroke daggers.  From: USA Today.
Beyond just Jakob, however, the Utes also feature the burgeoning Kyle Kuzma and the nationally underrated Jordan Loveridge in their starting front court.   A product of the tough-and-tumble city of Flint, MI, the 6-9 sophomore Kuzma is long, gritty, heady offensive piece that is a great scoring counterpart for Poeltl inside. While still a little bit of a defensive liability, Kyle has improved, and has dipped under four fouls per 40. Through two Pac-12 games this year, he's getting the ball on an obscene 42% of possessions, and is sure to have a lot of face time tonight (as long as he plays).  Probably the more dangerous of the two, however, is the 6-6 senior swing forward Loveridge.  Now moved to more of a true '3' after early years spent as a power forward, Jordan is the versatile go-between that facilitates the activity inside.  Most dangerous as the outside shooting threat (42% from deep) keeping opposing defenses honest, an open kickout to Loveridge usually ends up as three points for the Utes. He's not much of a factor off the drive or at the rim, though, as only 11% of all his attempts are at the rim; doesn't really need to get inside with Poeltl and Kuzma generating inside, however. Their subs, Brekkott Chapman and Chris Reyes, are similarly skilled, and seem destined to frustrate Colorado's oftentimes short up-front depth.

The backcourt is where things get weird.  Senior Brandon Taylor was one of the deadliest three point shooters in the country last season, hitting 43% of 183 attempts on the year.  It was no fluke that he hit six of nine attempts in Boulder last February (the only shots he took that night), as he was a fiery-hot knockout artist behind the line.  This year, however, tasked with more ball-handling and creative responsibility with Wright in the NBA, his shooting numbers have plummeted, and the 5-10 Taylor has hit just 17 of 71 three-point attempts this season (24%). That's a devastating drop in production that is really undercutting what Utah is trying to do offensively.  Oh, he's still dangerous, and will probably take advantage of CU's notorious perimeter-D to get back on track this evening, but Utah's long-term projection is limited without Brandon finding a way to knock down those jumpers on a consistent basis.
Where has Brandon Taylor's shooting touch gone? From: NBC Sports
Taylor's running mate Lorenzo Bonam is more of an enigma, starting in the first year of his D-I career after going the JuCo route at tiny Gillette College in Wyoming.  He's got a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover rate and is a strong three-point shooter, but largely takes a back seat to the other four starters.  His primary backup, senior Dakarai Tucker, is an old nemesis, a good shooter, and a versatile option off the bench. Sophomore Isaiah Wright will also feature, but struggles with turnovers, and is more of a tertiary figure.

Coaching - 

There may be no better coaching magician in America than Utah's Larry Krystkowiak.  The turnaround he has engendered in SLC is just shy of miraculous, and something more akin to a Hollywood story. Remember, in his first season at the helm of the Utes (2012) they were probably the worst Power 5 team ever (297th in KenPom); there was next to no talent on the roster, and pretty much everyone west of the Mississippi took turns punking them.  From those lows to the Sweet Sixteen in just four years?  Are you serious?
Krystkowiak has performed miracles in SLC. From: USA Today.
The magic man's latest trick, however, vanishing his squad from their yearly series with BYU, reeks of chickenshit.  Rivalries are chippy, you say?  I do declare!  Having seen what really bitter basketball rivalries look like (Xavier and Cincinnati springs to mind), I can't help but chuckle at Larry's questionable reasoning.

But, while I can argue with his scheduling policies, there's no arguing the results the other Coach K is getting. With him, it's all about defense.  At their height last season, trying to score on them was like trying to gnaw on glass.  The keys are similar fundamentals to those espoused in #TadBall: man-to-man, no easy baskets at the rim, control the glass.  While the overall picture isn't as rosy this season, they still really limit activity inside, and force you to think outside (34.3% of all points scored against them are from three). This means it'll be a similar story this evening to what we've seen over the last fortnight -- if the outside shots fall, CU will be in a good spot, if not... yeah.

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 2-0. Against the spread: 0-1-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +5.5 pt/gm)

Lines as of Thursday @ 8pm - CU -2.5, O/U 147

The result against Cal and their front-line has me scared off this one a little bit.  The Bears completely limited Colorado inside, and it stifled everything offensively for the Buffs.  While I'm not all that impressed by Utah this season, and find them an enticing target without Wright, I think a little difficulty in the paint will be all that's needed to throw CU off their game.

This won't be like last season, however.  The Buffs will compete, and keep it within reach throughout.  A big game from Fortune or King wouldn't surprise me here, with some perimeter looks coming open.  In the end, though, while Utah will try to give it back in the final minutes, as they have been wont to do this winter, they still manage to escape the Foot of the Flatirons with a season-saving win.

Utah 63 - CU 61


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