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|
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 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: Pac-12.com|
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: SFGate.com|
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|
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.|
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|
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.|
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.
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
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME WRONG, AND BEAT THE UTES!