Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, March 17, 2016

2016 NCAA Tournament Preview: Colorado vs UConn - West Coast Bias

Let me state this off the bat: I did not watch one UConn game this season.  Why would I?  Their games are usually played at uncomfortably early times against regional opponents I don't care about on a channel I may or may not get (CBS Sports Network, or something).  They don't even hail from the Big East anymore, coming from something called the 'American Athletic Conference;' is that even a real thing?  More like C-USA-plus, if you ask me. Pshaw, essentially, I am too knowledgeable of a fan, and my time far to valuable, to spend my free hours watching any of that stuff.

Look, if those on the East Coast can use lethargy and regional bias to limit their understanding of the great game of college basketball, then so can I.  And so, I'm bringing my great West Coast Bias to bear on the problem at hand.  That's right, with ignorance as my guide, I'm going to blithely predict victory for our Buffaloes without even looking at KenPom; Buffs win 84-52.  Ha ha!  My shortest preview ever!

... Naw, I'm totally kidding.  Yes, of course I've seen UConn play this season.  Not only are they a good basketball team, easily on par with everyone short of Oregon that CU has seen this season, but I have oodles of respect for their program and their capabilities.  I'm going to give them the full preview treatment today, and they fully deserve it.  Don't be scared, though.  Unless you're a top-four seed, these are the kind of opponents you're going to face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament; it's a sign of the position Colorado has put themselves in this season.  Veteran, capable groups, ones equally as talented and dangerous as you are, are going to be your draw, and that's the way it should be.  The time comes, though, that you have to stop looking at the name on the front of the jersey, and start beating the names on the back. That's how you get Big Boy basketball swagger.  Time for the Buffaloes to earn their share.


Hype Music for the Day: "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats

This beast, from Canadian one-hit-wonder group Men Without Hats, is an iconic New Wave hit from the 80s. I think it strikes a good message. Since we're going Dancing today, might as well do it safely.  Also, this song will now be stuck in your head for the rest of the morning.  You're welcome!


Tip-off from the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, IA is set for 11:30 AM MT today.  Never heard of 'the Well' before?  I'm not surprised, 'cause the teams that play there are exclusively minor league: the NBADL's Iowa Energy, the Iowa Barnstormer's of the Indoor Football League, and the Iowa Wild of the AHL.  Also, it's in Iowa, which is the state equivalent of stale white bread (I can make these jokes, being a native Midwesterner).  The building is still a standard, modern, multi-purpose facility, however, and a fitting place to play a first round game.

Televised coverage can be found on TNT, with the radio call on 850 KOA.  The game can also be followed through CBS' March Madness on Demand website and app, giving you plenty of opportunity to spike work in favor of watching the game.

Click below for the preview...

When last we Danced - 

Colorado has never met UConn on hardwood.  Accordingly, in lieu of some historical dumpster diving, I'm looking back to the last, painful trip to the Dance, and that fateful meeting with Pittsburgh.

I knew it was likely that CU would lose to Pitt in their first round game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, I had readied myself for that eventuality.  What I was decidedly not ready for was how completely unprepared the Buffs were for the stage.  From the opening tip you could tell the team was just happy to be there, and at no point throughout the 40 minutes of 'action' were they even slightly competitive.  And so, a season of interrupted promise came to an end in far off Orlando, Florida by an incomprehensible 77-48 spread. The Buffs were out of the Dance before the fashionably late even know what was happening.
The Buffs got worked two years ago.  From: the BDC
If you didn't watch, it's hard for me to convey exactly how throttled Colorado was that day.  Not only did they never hold a lead, they didn't even threaten for one.  It was 13-0 before CU finally got on the board with a Wes Gordon three-pointer, 30-7 before Xavier Johnson and Askia Booker finally found the stat sheet, and 46-18 by halftime.  If there was ever a time for a rage-quit reset, it was this game.  From the onset, the Panthers swarmed, pouring on bucket after bucket, while not allowing a single moment of offensive competence to blossom out of CU's abbreviated sets.  Pitt ripped 12 steals out of 17 Colorado turnovers, turning the lot into 24 quick points.  They also dominated the paint, leading the Buffs 44-14 in interior scoring.  As thoroughly as they were beaten on the margins, it almost doesn't matter that CU struggled from the floor (36% for the game), or that they left the sieve open on defense (51%).  Almost.

The resulting questions were natural, childish, and insolent.  Where were the adjustments to the double-teams in the paint we all knew were coming?  Where was the rotation and ball movement?  Why did the defense disappear, again, when it was needed more than ever?  Why did this team look completely unprepared for the stage in what was their third consecutive appearance on the Bracket?  But, as quickly as the questions flowed, the answers came far less freely, especially considering the caliber of talent across the Colorado bench.
This is not the way this season was supposed to end...  From: the BDC
It was just hard to consume - after all, it's not like CU went into that game playing bad basketball.  In fact they had a pretty solid tournament in Vegas that year before eventually succumbing to reality in a semifinal second against Arizona. Yes, absolutely, Pittsburgh in 2014 was a good team, and they played a fantastic game, but I just never felt that CU was ready or willing to put in the effort required to counter the talent they were faced with... which is... weird. I know that team was better than what they showed.  I know Coach Boyle is a better game manager than he showed.  Colorado is a talented, veteran program too, damnit, and I refuse to believe that 2014 team was 29 points worse than an also-ran ACC squad.

The trick will be tossing those memories into the dumpster.  That scoreline hung like an albatross around the neck of this program for over a year, but now, finally, is an opportunity to truly erase it.  I'm not even saying a win is required here, just a competitive 40 minutes of basketball from a team we all know to be supremely talented.  C'mon Buffs, bring the thunder.

The Huskies in 2015-16 - 

Eerily akin to that matchup from 2014, the Buffs have again been slotted against an eastern power this afternoon.  It's, of course, the Connecticut Huskies this time, who went on to win that very Tournament in '14 as an upstart 7-seed. While I would argue the soul of the program is somewhat lesser than they were back then, now a full three years removed from membership in the mighty, archaic Big East, they are still a battle-tested blue-blood, with a pride and tradition that rivals any modern hoops juggernaut.
UConn is primed and ready, once again, in March.  From CBS Local.
The current edition of UConn won 24 games this season, three of those less than a week ago as they swept through to the AAC tournament title in Orlando, FL.  Prior to that winning spree they were probably still in the Dance, possessors of a high enough RPI and a deep enough profile, but the trio of victories at least ended all doubt on Selection Sunday for a team that finished 6th in KenPom's 7th-best conference.  And, really, that's where discussion of this bunch begins, in the fact that they did not live up to expectations this winter. Most 'experts' had them competing with Southern Methodist for the league crown before the season began; instead they nearly bottomed out, proving incapable of all but one victory against the league's elite. Their list of wins that I would call 'quality' is rather short, comprising almost entirely of a road win against Texas (back before Shaka Smart had the roster figured out), and at home against SMU (when they were running out of reasons to keep playing hard).  There's a reason, after all, that they are a 9-seed; just as there is a reason, after all, that Colorado is an 8.

UConn's overall statistical profile is strong, though, no doubt about it.  Top-65 in offense and top-15 in defense (according to KP), they've got some game, and did a great job this season making opponents work for whatever they got.  Overall, they rely on some elite interior defense, holding opponents under 42% shooting from two-point range, and just barely over 50% at the rim.  These numbers are indicative of a style that forces opponents outside (32% of points against come from deep). The Huskies are simply tenacious shot blockers, getting a piece of 14% of all attempts against them.  This is where I begin to worry, as Colorado has often struggled against teams like this (see: Cal, Oregon, Washington) who can erase good looks inside with overwhelming athleticism.  The Buffs are a humbling 336th nationally in two-point rate -- something you wouldn't think off off the bat, considering Josh Scott patrols the paint.  With the Huskies' skill inside, it could be a long afternoon in terms of scoring if outside shots aren't falling like they usually are.
The Huskies will scrap with you, that's for sure.  From:
However, one area that UConn is decidedly not elite in is on the glass.  Middle of the road both offensively (194th nationally) and defensively (140th), there is some room for Colorado to leverage their ace in the hole; Coach Boyle doesn't preach defense and rebounding for nothing, after all.  Holding the Huskies to one look on the defensive end, while getting two... three... maybe even four bites at the apple with the basketball on the other is where CU finds their path to victory. The Buffs will have to dominate the glass, the way they have all of 2016 (just one team in the Tournament has more total rebounds than Colorado, and that's Michigan State).

Elsewhere, UConn does an astonishingly poor job of leveraging strong free throw numbers.  They've number-one in the country in raw free throw percentage (nearly 79%), but just 332nd in FTA/FGA ratio. This is glaring, and paints the picture of a very static team offensively -- indeed, they're one of the slowest teams in all of basketball, averaging just 66 possessions per.  It holds their offensive efficiency back, something that hurt them throughout the season. Finally, an issue near and dear to the hears of all in BuffNation: turnovers. Breathe easy, they're middle of the road, forcing one on about 18% of all defensive trips.  CU will gift a few, sure, but UConn is far less likely than others to turn it into a major issue.

Star Players - 

Focusing on personnel, UConn features a balanced attack that has four players averaging over 12 points per game.  Among equals, though, their best all-around player is rangy 6-7 wing Daniel Hamilton.  The versatile sophomore from Los Angeles is the team leaders in points, rebounds, and assists, averaging 12/9/5 this season; if he ever learns to get to the line like an elite play should, he could become one of the best single pieces in the country.  A nightmare matchup for almost every team they face, he can play a number of positions, and take guys out of their comfort zone.  Sounds like an assignment for Tre'Shaun Fletcher, if you ask me...
Hamilton can do it all on a basketball court.  From: CBS Local
Playing off Hamilton in the backcourt are a pair of talented, veteran guards: Rodney Purvis and Sterling Gibbs. Purvis, a one-time transfer from NC State, is capable of some major offensive explosions, but struggled with consistency since they hit conference play.  Gibbs, a premier graduate transfer from Seton Hall, hasn't exactly been the point guard rock that most expected him to be this year.  Both are quick, capable talents, however, and both are lights-out three-ball experts, knocking down a total of 359 outside shots between them.  Colorado's backcourt will struggle to keep up with them, as they have with many good guards this season, making containing them on the perimeter a paramount task.

An X-factor in the guard corps is 6-3 freshman sub Jalen Adams.  After averaging just seven points per in the regular season, the young Massachusetts product burst onto the scene last week, scoring 22 -- including this miraculous heave to force quadruple overtime -- against Cincinnati in the AAC tournament.  A dynamic threat, he could very easily drop a wallop on the Buffs this afternoon, if they're not careful.  However, while promising, he's not to ascend to the level of Shabazz Napier or Kemba Walker... yet, and he's got some development due him in the coming years.  Remember the name though, both for today's game, and Tournaments in the future.
Brimah can be a scary deterrent inside.  From:
Up front, UConn is anchored by towering Ghanaian import Amida Brimah.  The true seven-foot junior is a world-class shot blocker (13.7% rate this season), and deadly should he get the ball anywhere close to the rim on offense.  He missed 11 games in the heart of the season, though, with a broken finger, and can sometimes find himself in foul trouble against scoring forwards.  Much of Connecticut's defensive skill inside is predicated on his presence deterring action at the rim, so it'll be on Josh Scott to see if he can fix up a few quick fouls on the big man.  Brimah is paired up front with Ohio product Shonn Miller.  One of the best interior scoring threats around, his will be a key matchup with Wes Gordon.  The 6-7 forward boasts a TS% near 64%, and will work Wesley if the Colorado Springs forward is switched off.

Coaching - 

On the bench in Storrs is Kevin Ollie.  Taking over for a hall of famer is never easy, but Ollie, a program legend as a player and long-time NBA grinder, has done just that with aplomb.  He was anointed the head coach at UConn after the retirement of Jim Calhoun in 2012, just over a year after the program won the national title, amid a storm of doubt.  At the time, the Huskies were still serving a post-season ban for sanctions earned under the Calhoun administration.  As if taking over for a program-defining name like Calhoun's wasn't enough, to have to wade through that NCAA-fueled mishegas would've proved too much for a large number of good coaches.  But, in short order, Kevin had Connecticut back at the top of the pile. After finishing his first season at the helm with no postseason play, he shocked the basketball world by leading his charges on that miraculous run to the 2014 title.  At that point, barely 40 years old and with the most minimal of head coaching experience under his belt, Ollie had already accomplished what so few have done: drag a program to not only a Final Four, but a national championship, as well.  Astonishing stuff.
Ollie is on an incredible post-season run.  From:
He's only continued to double-down on that positive postseason run since.  True, UConn missed out on the Dance last season, but not for lack of trying.  They ended up in the finals of the AAC in 2015, backing it up with the aforementioned tournament title last week.  That means, in three years of eligibility, Ollie and the Huskies are an insane 14-3 in postseason play.  Yo.  Of course, there is something to be said about a program that continues to languish in the middle of a second-tier conference, but there's no denying the magic Coach Ollie and his troop can weave once they hit March.  And, when it's all said and done, that's really what matters, isn't it?

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 14-4. Against the spread: 9-8-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.5 pt/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 8pm - CU +3.5, O/U 132.5

I know most of the non-Charles Barkley pundits out there think Colorado is in deep water today, but I'm not so sure.  They can out-rebound this bunch from Connecticut, can defend with them, and the raw talent gap isn't as large as you might think.  The key, as always, will be limiting turnovers and hitting outside shots.  If CU does those both, with their advantages elsewhere, they will win today.  If they don't, it'll be a tough grind.

Having seen this team this year, though, I know Colorado has the callous competitiveness needed to battle in this kind of atmosphere.  The Buffs are going to come out guns blazing today, not shying away as they did two years ago, and build up a nice lead at some point.  From there, it'll all be about maintaining what they have.  They let so many leads slip away from them this year, but on this, the first day of the Tournament, I'm not going to bet against CU.  I'll say they hold onto that late lead, finding just enough in the final seconds to secure victory.

CU 68 - UConn 64


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