Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2015-16 CU vs Arizona Basketball Preview: Tad Still Wants to Fight Somebody

Before the preview, a few required readings/listenings for your Wednesday...

First, if you haven't already done so, do yourself a favor and spend some time consuming Ted Chalfen's piece on Colorado Basketball's attendance rollercoaster.  It's a well thought out ride through the last few years of the program, examining the hows and the whys of a successful program with a suddenly absentee fanbase. Very much deserving of your time and attention.

Secondly, I was on a podcast!'s Adam Butler and Spencer Smith had Ryan Koenigsberg and myself on their always excellent Podcast of Champions Monday night, and the resulting hour-plus of content is a great listen.  The four of us cover topics ranging from thoughts on the CU/Arizona game to the role of 'Blackout' games in college sports.  I even get a White Sox mention in, cause I'm weird like that.  Once you're done reading Ted's piece, give it a listen.

Now, with the plugs done (both shameless and otherwise), let's get to it!


Hype Music for the Evening: "Paint it Black" by The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones have a great idea of how to properly prepare for a Blackout game (or, a 'wear black game,' if you're lame -- as if the kids aren't going to drink anyways, LOL).  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 7pm this evening. Get your ass to the gym before tip, and remember to WEAR BLACK!  Coverage for those lost souls not able to attend can be found on the Deuce, ESPN2, with the radio call on AM 760.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

This was that game.  You know the one I'm talking about.  The utter dismantling of the Colorado Buffaloes that lead Coach Boyle to lose his damn mind, and go thrashing about the microphone in the post game press conference in search of a word-laden crutch.  Need a reminder?  Well, try these quote-bombs on for size:
It’s February 26th and we’re not executing offensively. We’re not doing the things we’re supposed to do, we’re not making plays and we haven’t gotten any better. If you look at the teams that I’ve had here as a head coach, I feel that each team, outside of my first year, had progress and got better throughout the year. I don’t feel like that with this team. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten any better. We’re still making the same mistakes that we did in November and we’re not any better, offensively or defensively.
The fact is that we didn’t execute. Arizona had a lot to do with that, they’re the No. 7 team in the country and don’t beat themselves. Coming into the game, we knew we had to make shots, but then we couldn’t make a shot. Even passing and catching the ball was in hard whether it was in transition or the half court. It’s just not there right now. 
Ball screen defense was a big part of the game tonight. [Arizona] made plays offensively and they tore us up. We didn’t make plays and didn’t execute. Games like this in February and March are won by the team that execute and Arizona executed offensively and defensively. We didn’t and that’s why we lost the game, but what’s frustrating is that I see us execute in practice against ourselves. When the lights come on for some reason, we don’t. I don’t think that there is one guy that I can look at and say that he played well tonight. Not one. Not one guy. Usually we have one or two guys and if it’s good we have four or five. Looking at Arizona, they had five guys in double figures, we had one. We don’t have guys making each other better, our team just hasn’t improved. That’s on me, that’s the responsibility of the head coach and I haven’t done a very good job. 
There has to be some fight in the locker room and right now there isn’t. It’s like a submissive, beat us now while you can kind of mentality. That’s embarrassing. These guys are young men and they haven’t been through what they’re going through before. They’re finding out a cruel life lesson: life isn’t going to give you anything. Division one athletics teaches you that it’s a very humbling and unforgiving arena. If you want to step into that arena you had better be willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win and we aren’t willing to do that.” 
I’m tired of this, I am. I want our players to know it, our fans to know it and our officials to know it. I want to fight somebody, I really do, but I know you can’t do that and I won’t do that in the locker room. I’m sick of the way we’re playing. The world doesn’t owe us anything, we have to go out and get what we earn. Right now we’re not earning the scholarships we’re on or the paychecks we get. We have to go out. It’s our pride, intensity, will to win, will to prepare to win and the will to do whatever it takes to get it done. If we play well, play hard, execute and get beat I’ll be the first one to shake our opponents hand and say, ‘You beat us tonight.’ I don’t like teams that beat themselves and we beat ourselves tonight.”
I feel badly for the players that have come before this team - and some of the members of this team were a part of those groups. It's disrespecting what they've done over the last four years, and that's disappointing, I would think that there would be more pride amongst our team, and I don't see that. That's disappointing. That's something that needs to be addressed.

That tirade of #KeepingItReal came just minutes after an embarrassing 82-54 home defeat.  It wasn't even that close, with Arizona owning the action from tip to final horn, only extending their lead in the final minutes.  They owned the glass, the action in the paint, and held CU to just 31% shooting in the first half.  For their own accord, the UofA shot near 53% from the field, and were able to get essentially any shot they wanted as they wanted it.  Never has the word 'defeated' more aptly applied to a team and a fanbase then at this moment. It was a low-point for the 2014-15 squad, and, indeed, a low-point for the program.

And that's all I have to say about that.

The Wildcats in 2015-16 - 

Arizona has been the grand poobah of Pac-12 basketball for the last few years.  They won the league each of the last two seasons, were finalists in the Pac-12 tournament in three of the first four offerings, and have carried the conference's banner into the second weekend of the Dance every trip since 2013. Basketball success in the West has thusly been defined by their exploits, and their fans are very eager to let you know it.  Until someone else wrests the title from their grasp, they are the reigning champs; the gold standard by which other Pac-12 programs are being measured.  Essentially, Arizona has been the team you dream of beating, if you're a squad trying to make a statement in the waning weeks of the basketball season.
Maybe not the Giant Death Robot of recent years, this is still a strong basketball team.  From:
This year's vintage seems to be holding up to those modern standards, too.  Even with the departures of high-profile contributors like Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, and, most importantly, TJ McConnell, the UofA has continued to roll in the 2015-16 season, bullying their way back to the top of the league's heap.  They enter tonight's affair 22-5 on the year, locked in a first-place tie with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12, and seemingly destined for another Sweet Sixteen run.  The AP is so appreciative of their efforts that they've voted them a top-10 team for the first time since the first week of January.  Sure, the early road sweep in LA was ugly, and Oregon thumped them in McKale to snap that historic streak of theirs, but the rest of their profile tells a simple story: this is a damn good basketball team... again.

So, how, with all that roster turnover, are the Wildcats still so strong?  Well, they continue to rely on the one metric that has sustained them through each of the last four seasons: defensive rebounding. Offense comes and goes. So does overall defensive efficiency (Giant Death Robot v3.0 they are not). But, what sustains a program, as I'm sure Coach Boyle would agree, is a tenacity on the glass. Whereas Colorado focuses on rebounding out of want, Arizona clutches at boards the same way a suffocating man lurches out for gulps of oxygen; they need them to live (or, as I wrote in this week's Grab Bag: what defensive line play is to Alabama in football, rebounding the damn basketball is to Arizona in hoops).  Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats continue to be the best defensive rebounding team in the conference, a distinction they've claimed since 2013, coincidentally coinciding with their resurgence as a power program.  They lead the country in defensive rebounding efficiency for the second year running, grabbing 78% of opportunities, and are a full two percentage points ahead of the Buffs when isolating Pac-12 play.  If you get an offensive rebound against this team, take a picture, because it's a newsworthy event.
Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds.  From: USA Today
Even outside of rebounding it's a rosy picture, particularly on the offensive end where they prove to be very deserving of a lofty series of rankings. 17th nationally in overall efficiency, they're scoring and adjusted 1.17 ppp, and feature in the top-50 of most major categories. Not a voluminous three-point shooting team, they do most of their damage inside of the arc and at the line (#12 nationally in FTA/FGA ratio). Weirdly, for as efficient as their profile is, Arizona does take an abnormally large amount of two-point jumpers (38%, even more than UCLA), but it has yet to come back to haunt them. Defensively, they've taken an overall step backwards without McConnell and Hollis-Jefferson, slipping from lofty perches of legend to just plain great, but still boast the second best defensive efficiency in the conference (to California).  These guys may no longer be the GDR, but it's still a very comprehensive package, especially as they do a decent job of limiting transition attempts (top-60 nationally).  The one knock: forcing turnovers.  They just don't do it enough, featuring dead last in the league in defensive steal rate, and only 10th overall in turnover percentage (though I suspect a game against the Buffs will help them here).

But, the important thing to remember is, while I can throw a lot of other metrics and measures at you, the #1 thing that makes Arizona a great team and program - the single aspect that makes them neigh-unbeatable from a Colorado perspective - is their ability to eat up nearly every defensive rebound available.  CU needs to get second looks and opportunities to beef up their offensive attack, particularly inside the arc, and they just won't be able to get them against the Wildcats.  Feel free to be worried.

Star Players - 

Of course, to be a dominating team on the glass, you have to have at least a few world-class rebounders on your roster, right?  Absolutely, and the Wildcats have two of the best in the country in Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski.
The big fella is back for one more romp through the league.  From: the Daily Wildcat
Zeus is the old hat here, a familiar face of numerous wars in the paint with Josh Scott.  The 7-0, 250 lbs four year starter has been a dominating force in this league for a while, and now, in his last go around, is as omnipresent as ever.  He missed a whole month earlier this season with a series of injuries to his left foot, but has been playing in, and owning, the paint for the entirety of conference action. With him, it's not so much the scoring - though he can knife you with some powerful interior moves - but the rebounding and positioning that kills you.  He's got great numbers on the glass (highlighted by a top-20 defensive rate) and eats up acres of space down low.  It was funny this past week to see multiple Arizona State Sun Devils try to stand up to him on the glass, flailing away at rebounds they had no chance of earning.  Tarczewski, then, poses the size problem.

The skill problem from the inside duo comes courtesy of Anderson.  A senior transfer from Boston College (who you may remember from some such previews as this one from the 2013 Charleston Classic), Ryan is a walking double-double.  Averaging 16/10 this year, he is everything you want in a power forward, capable of both stretching and bulldozing opposing defenses.  If anything, his rebounding numbers (top-25 defensive rate, top-75 offensive) are even more impressive than Tarczewski's.  The trick with him is fundamentals.  Every time I watch an Arizona game he seems to be in perfect position, and continually makes those backbreaking plays - clutch offensive rebounds, and-ones, inside tie-ups - that tilt momentum in key moments.  He will earn every foul call available (almost seven drawn per game), and you will hate him for it.  Both blessed with a high basketball IQ and obvious athletic gifts, Anderson is clearly one of the Pac-12's best individual talents, and will be a serious test for Wes Gordon.
Anderson is one of the better players in the country.  From: USA Today
But, more than just that inside one-two combo, the Wildcats also boast one of the better backcourts in all of college basketball.  While they don't have a 'true' point guard in their starting five (although reserve Parker Jackson-Cartwright is knocking on the door), it's a unit that has proven to be more than effective, particularly over the last month of play. Lead by fourth-year senior Gabe York, they will cause Colorado's guard corps fits, particularly when Arizona has the ball.  York, who has come a long way from his freshman season, is one of the more 'clutch' players in the conference, if that word still holds any meaning.  When Arizona needs a big bucket - to cap or stop a run - he's who they go to, and he usually answers the bell.  Gabe leads the Pac-12 in three-point makes, and should be expected to go off tonight from the perimeter; something like 5-8 from three, or better.
York is the fiery heart of this team.  From:
Playing off York will be the tandem of transfer Kadeem Allen and freshman Allonzo Trier.  Allen, the 2014 national JuCo player of the year, redshirted last season, leaving him two years to show his skills. Playing the role of point guard in this lineup isn't easy, and it's not a perfect fit for him, but the 6-3, 200 lbs junior has still proven to be a versatile combo guard who can run the show for stretches. Trier, a more traditional scoring wing, was a top-20 recruit out of high school, and has backed up that praise by dropping near 15 points per game.  He's a scintillating attacking threat, capable of earning calls off the drive that others (*cough* Dom Collier *cough*) just can't seem to warrant.  If he comes back for a sophomore campaign, the 6-6, 210 lbs gunner could win the scoring title.

Elsewhere, keep an eye out for Mark Tollefsen (who you may remember from such other previews as this one from last year).  The rangy, 6-9, 205 lbs swing forward, who transferred to Tucson from the San Francisco Dons, can be a matchup nightmare when engaged, and boasts excellent efficiency numbers (132 ORtg, 60% eFG) now with the benefit of not having to carry a mid-major program.  The aforementioned Jackson-Cartwright, coming in at a diminutive 5-11, 170 lbs, is an interesting prospect for the future.  He should be afforded the reigns to the team next winter, and already stands as a spunky spark plug off the bench.  Rounding out the rotation is backup center Dusan Ristic.  A true seven-footer from Serbia, he's an excellent understudy for Tarczewski, though I have doubts as to how truly tough he is.

Overall, this is an explosive bunch built around a veteran, tested core, one that can be relied upon to make the smart, winning plays that you would expect from this program.  Maybe not the headline-grabbing talent of years past, but nonetheless a dangerous series of prospect to see on the scouting report.

Coaching - 

What else can I really say about Sean Miller at this point?  He's clearly the best coach in the conference (with all apologies to Dana Altman, the asshole, and Larry Krystkowiak, the virtuous), and is deserving of all the success at his disposal.  Arizona took a bit of a risk seven years ago, when they plucked him away from Xavier, but it has paid off in riches for an already wealthy program.
Miller continues to rule the roost in the Pac-12. From: the Tucson Citizen
If you're wondering to yourself, "couldn't anyone coach a program like Arizona," just look at the job done by Kevin O'Neill before him, or Steve Alford at UCLA.  Coaching at a power program ain't easy, or for the faint of heart. But Coach Miller has really taken to the role, and is quickly becoming a regional icon.  He's got four Elite Eights under his belt already (three with Arizona), and is really only missing a Final Four bid from his resume; something that kind of separates from the gentry-elite of the coaching world. While this edition of the Wildcats may not be as obviously talented as the last two, it's still a daunting post-season entity.  Maybe not capable of finally carrying him over the second week threshold, and onto the nation's grandest stage, but certainly a dangerous out headed into the month of March.

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 12-3. Against the spread: 8-6-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -0.07 pt/gm)

Lines as of Tuesday @ 8pm - CU +6, O/U 144

Simply, the Wildcats do a lot of things that limit Colorado's opportunity to shine.  They defend the interior, make you work offensively, and rebound the crap out of the ball.  If CU can't attack the offensive glass, getting stuck with one-and-done's on each trip and still coughing up those damn turnovers, while at the same time being forced into desperate shots from the wing, this one will be over in a hurry. I actually think I'm generous here, saying the Buffs keep it within 20.  ASU, up next, becomes a 'better-win' game.

UofA 80 - CU 63


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