Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Tuesday Grab Bag: Salvaging a Split by the Bay

Last night, I missed what may go down as the greatest regular season college basketball game of the modern era.  Out in Lawrence, KS, the #1 KU Jayhawks and #2 OU Sooners did battle for 55 minutes of action, playing to three overtimes and the beatific adoration of the entire college basketball consuming universe.  The final - a 109-106 victory for Kansas - is one of the most intriguing lines I've seen in a while.  In defeat, Sooner Buddy Hield was so good, posting 46/8/7, that even the Jayhawk fans had to recognize, and they payed homage with a standing ovation after his post-game interview.  The whole thing was truly a game for the ages; just remember that they'll meet again in Norman on February 13th.
Kansas survives in a thriller against OU.  From: CBS Sports
I may have missed the action for a good cause - a scheduled alumni band performance at the CU/WSU women's game - but I will cop to being a little dismayed at missing this epic affair.  To make up for it, I'm carving out a block of my evening to watch the replay.  If you need me, I'll be in the Rumblin' cave, getting my DVR on.


Today in the bag, I'm talking the men's win over Stanford, the rest of the action around the Pac-12, and some women's hoops.

Click below for the bag...

Buffs hold off charging Cardinal - 

It was ugly.  It was highly stressful.  It caused a twitter meltdown.  But the one thing that Colorado's Sunday night battle with Stanford wasn't: a loss.

Looking to bounce back after a horrendous outing in Berkeley against the Cal Bears, where nothing went right, the Colorado Buffaloes took to the hardwood of Palo Alto in search of a 5th-straight win over Stanford. For a time, at least, everything was going swimmingly.  CU shot 50% from the field in the first half, held the Cardinal to just 28% from the same, and took a 10-point lead into the break.  It was a picture-perfect display of ball movement, quality shooting, defensive intensity, and one-sided rebounding that had the home team completely befuddled.  Stanford even tried to mix things up on defense -- they played a few versions of a 2-3 matchup zone, tried out some press, and tinkered with a double-team trap -- but CU was simply better over the opening 20 minutes.  The offensive mojo lost over the past few games was back!

Then, the second half started.  While the lead would quickly expand to a game-high 16 points, some cracks in the foundation began to show.  The shots that had been falling suddenly started drawing iron (32% from the field, 8.3% from deep).  The ball movement of the opening period devolved into stagnant passing around the perimeter (only three assists after the break).  The ancient bugaboo of wanton turnovers reared its head (10 turnovers in the final frame).  Accordingly, Stanford began to creep back into the proceedings.  That 16-point lead quickly became 11... 9... 7... 3... 1... what the hell?!  The lead was dwindling, and the Buffs had simply stopped scoring. All told, Colorado would collect only four points over the final 9:53 of the action, leading most in BuffNation to turn to Samuel L. Jackson for inspiration.
Say it with me: 'a win's a win.' From: the Ralphie Report.
But, and this is a testament to the grit and determination of the Buffaloes (at least on the defensive end), Stanford never earned a lead.  They came close, gave everyone a good scare, but the defense held.  The rebounding held.  #TadBall held. A Josh Scott layup with just under a minute to go scraped out some breathing room, and a lucky bounce in the corner after a desperation three-point attempt allowed CU to muddle up the end-of-game dynamics enough to leave Stanford with only a half court chuck to steal the win. It went well wide (*whew*), and the Buffs claimed their 56-55 victory.

The tale of the tape was in the paint.  Down their primary reserve forward in Tory Miller, Coach Boyle was forced to shorten his bench, and wound up playing starting posts Wes Gordon and Josh Scott 71 out of 80 available minutes.  That, however, didn't seem to phase either of them, as the pair each had strong performances.  J40 posted a resounding 14/14/3/2 that left everyone wanting more (paint touches, that is), and Gordon played to 6/9 numbers, but completely canceled out Stanford's best offensive weapon, Rosco Allen (finished with 7 points on 2-10 shooting).  Behind the forwards, clearly relieved to no longer be matched up with Cal's extensive up-front corps, Colorado was +14 on the boards, and really stifled the Cardinal's offensive attack.
Wes Gordon and Josh Scott had to really battle in the paint.  From: Yahoo Sports.
On the offensive end, it was a tale of two halves.  In the first, behind Thomas Akyazili and his five assists (including a no-look beauty from five-feet), CU was in the chance-creating mode we had grown accustomed to in the first part of the season.  It looked great, it was wonderful, and it seemed like the Buffs were on their way to a blow-out win.  In the second, even Thomas slowed down, and movement stifled.  It didn't help that even good looks weren't falling for Colorado, and that they were missing what free throws they earned (2-5 over the final half), but static possessions begat turnovers far too often.  There was a lot of timidity on offense, and the whole thing looked a lot like last year.  It's in those times that you wish CU would look inside more, but that's not always easy, especially when the point guards are running scared from pressure defense, and were having trouble completing even the simple passes.  Without a point guard capable of driving into the lane with an eye to score, it's going to be very had to break open determined Pac-12 defenses in hostile territory over the coming months.

But, negativity aside, the Buffs can claim after the first weekend of conference play to hold what rivals for the league hierarchy Oregon, UCLA, and Utah are currently without: an in-conference road win.  I'm not going to pretend that everything is rosy in Buffs-ville.  Their last two wins came by a combined total of two points, and a number of awkward questions about point guard play and general offensive competency have been re-raised at a damn inconvenient time.  However, you can't argue with the win-loss column, and CU got a very important notch in it on Sunday.

Around the world of Pac-12 Basketball - 

Cal 71 - Utah 58 -

Ooooooh, Cal looks good.  We all know what they did to our Buffs in their conference opener, but they were similarly able to push around Utah on Sunday.  Ivan Rabb was the goods this time, putting up 19 points and 10 boards to power the Golden Bear attack.  Jordan Mathews, again, shone in the second half, scoring 12 of his 14 points after the break.  There are other teams in this league entering Week 2 with a perfect record, but Cal has the best pair, as both CU and Utah project for top-half finishes.  If the Bears can keep this going, maybe they will claim that Pac-12 crown many of us had predicted before the season started.
Behind Ivan Rabb, the Cal Bears are one of the best teams in the country.  From:
For the Utes, who come to Boulder this Friday for what is shaping up to be a must-win for both teams, Jakob Poeltl had a strong 19/10 line.  But, abysmal second half defense (Cal shot 52% from the floor over the final 20 minutes) spelled doom.  Utah really struggled in this trip westward, blowing a late lead in Palo Alto, before flagging late in Berkeley.  Winning on the road is always difficult, but the Utes continue to go through the season missing... that special something.  Delon Wright, where have you gone?  Oh, that's right, the bench in Toronto.

Washington 87 - USC 85 -

If it weren't for Cal, Washington would be my Week 1 winners.  After needing overtime to dispatch UCLA, they came all the way back from 22-down to clip the Trojans at the post.  UW senior shooter Andre Andrews was back to his old tricks, pouring in 24 points, including the game wining shot with just seconds left in regulation.  He earned a big win for his team, as they continue to look to upend dour pre-season projections.

It was a tough loss for USC, who were on the verge of making some serious noise in the Pacific Northwest. They had soundly beaten Washington State on New Year's Day, and seemed headed for a perfect 2-0 start to the campaign.  Painful loss aside, they are still far eclipsing the marks set in previous seasons, and strike a more than competitive pose at the start of the Pac-12 race.  I'm starting to believe in 'Dunk City' West, at least as far as a mid-table finish.

Washington State 85 - UCLA 78 -

At least USC earned a split up north.  Crosstown rivals UCLA headed back to the City of Angels winless in their opening weekend, thanks to a Sunday evening loss in Pullman.  Formerly an entrant in the national polls, the Bruins are now 9-6 on the season, and have to take on the task of hosting a typically strong Arizona team this week.  Suddenly, a promising season in Westwood, one that had previously featured wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, looks rocky.
UCLA went and made Josh Hawkinson angry.  From:
The Bruins Isaac Hamilton put up a strong 27/6, but it wasn't enough to overcome Wazzou and 20/10 from 'baby face' Josh Hawkinson. Ernie Kent's squad still projects to be a bottom-quarter finisher in this league, but Hawkinson is the real deal.  He's 2nd nationally in defensive rebounding rate, and top-50 in true shooting percentage.  Yo.

Oregon State 70 - Oregon 57 -

I'll finish this review in Corvallis, where the Beavers took a surprising win from the more heralded Ducks in the 345th edition of this classic rivalry.  OSU coach Wayne Tinkle made the controversial decision to start his walk-ons in the corresponding fixture last spring, and it may have cost him a postseason appearance.  No such rotational mishegas this time, though, as he ran out his normal starters from the opening tip to claim the solid win. The Beavers don't get much play outside of Oregon, but they could be a serious contender this winter.  They still play defense like they mean it, and Gary Payton II is having a Player of the Year type campaign.  One thing's for sure, it's going to be damn tough to get any wins in Corvallis.

Women's team continues to struggle; Jamee Swan is a badass - 

I touched on this a few weeks ago, but the women's team is not very good this season.  It's gotten so bad on that side of the CEC that head coach Linda Lappe could very well lose her job come spring spring, and probably should.  I was in attendance for last night's game with Washington State, a game which Colorado lost 74-66 to fall to 5-8 (0-2) on the year, and the team (which, granted, is getting heavy contributions from three freshmen and two sophomores) seems clearly headed for a bottom-basement finish in league play. By a combination of athleticism, skill, execution, and composure, the Buffs are miles behind their Pac-12 competition, and ugly results should continue to pour in.  It all reminds me of the football program, circa 2012, to be honest.

What did catch my eye, however, was the play of all-world warrior Jamee Swan.  Clearly the best player in Black and Gold, and usually the best player on the court regardless of uniform, the 6-2 senior from Arizona combines all the necessary attributes with an evident desire to rise above.  She is tenacious, she is driven, she is the definition of gritty.  Never has this been more plainly displayed than last night.  Late in a game that was quickly getting out of hand, Swan fell to the floor after a rebound scrap under the WSU basket.  As she got up, it became clear to me that she was suffering from a series of lower back spasms, with pain so severe that it was moving her to tears.  But, fighting through the pain, she stayed on the court, and Jamee continued to scrap to help her team try and comeback.  Rebound after rebound, shot after shot, you could see the pain affecting her, but she stayed on the floor, and continued to try and give it her all; her teammates needed it, after all.  It was some truly inspiring shit, and she finished with a team high 17/8.
Jamee Swan is one of the toughest basketball players you will ever see.  From: the BDC
With just over a minute left in the game, though, the scoreline remained bleak, and the Buffs down 10.  As the Cougars broke out of the backcourt press, Swan went diving after a long pass, only to careen out of bounds into the courtside folding chairs.  It was immediately evident that Jamee was hurt, potentially injured at this point, and the training staff (but, curiously, not Coach Lappe) rushed to her side on the far sideline. As the hushed crowd looked on, Jamee was eventually helped into the locker room for further evaluation.  It's still unknown the extent of her injuries, or if she will be out for an extended period, but she earned my undying respect Monday night.  Even down late, and almost assuredly heading for a loss, she was willing to sacrifice for the team.  Just absolutely stunning.

I don't know where the women's basketball program is going from here.  I don't know if they'll ever regain the glories of the recent past.  But I do know this: Jamee Swan is a warrior, and I hope I get to see more of her playing in Black and Gold before this season ends.  Get well soon, Jamee!

Happy Tuesday!

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