Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tuesday Grab Bag: It's March!

No time for idle chitchat.  IT'S MARCH!

Today in the bag, I'm talking the win over ASU, how the rest of the Pac-12 fared, and what's at stake over the final week of conference play.

Click below for the bag...

Buffs bring their lunch pail in 'workman-like' win over ASU - 

Following up on their joyous win over Arizona, the Colorado Buffaloes were never going to surpass expectations against the lowly Arizona Sun Devils.  It was almost destiny that they would 'disappoint' in some way against the 11th-place team in the Conference of Champions.  But, on a day designed to celebrate the achievements of the 2016 senior class, the Buffs did what they have done so many times with those seniors on the court: win. It may not have been pretty, it may not have been the type of win BuffNation 'wanted' to see, but it counts as much as any, as Colorado closed out their 2015-16 home schedule with a solid 79-69 win.

Right away you could tell that this was not going to be a blowout victory.  As short-handed and out-of-sorts as the Sun Devils have been of late, they still have a core of serious talent at their disposal, and they brought it to bear on Colorado.  Over the course of the game, ASU would scratch, claw, and fight their way to six lead changes and three ties, including one early in the second half.  They surprisingly won the points-in-the-paint battle 30-18 (sticking three defenders and a cheating wing in the area every time CU made an entry pass helped here), and shot well overall (48%).  But, when push came to shove, they couldn't keep the Buffs of the glass (CU +10), couldn't defend Colorado on the perimeter (CU shot 11-21 from deep), and eventually ran out of steam.
Josh would not be denied on his senior day.  From: Bleacher Report.
Of course, what those of us in attendance came to see was Josh Scott in his final run on home hardwood. The Big Fundamental did not shy away from the spotlight in the sendoff, dropping in 15 points, highlighted by a runaway jam that was vintage Jelly -- out on the break, with the guards, sprinting down the court for offensive position.  Scott would only grab six boards to go with two assists, but it should be noted that he was doubled, even triple-teamed, every time he touched the ball. He needed to pass out of most situations, and worked to make the Sun Devils pay when they brought the heat.  That's partly why Colorado was so successful with their three-point shooting.  Josh was drawing so much attention down low that it was almost impossible not to find open shooters outside. The quartet of Dom Collier, George King, Josh Fortune, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher were only far too eager to take advantage, and went 11-16 as a group.

Elsewhere, Wes Gordon was a goliath on the glass, ripping six offensive rebounds, and otherwise making ASU look foolish on their box out attempts.  He tired a bit down the stretch, and lost some effectiveness on the defensive end late in the game, but damn it if he didn't look fantastic on those boards.  Josh Fortune, who continued his run of composed, turnover-averse play, stayed away from hasty stretches of dribbling, and stuck to shooting thunderbolts.  His 17/2/4/3 performance (with no turnovers!) may have been his best this season, and is a version of his game that could take Colorado quite far this month. Dom Collier also put in a nice effort, working inside-out with the forwards and chipping in another five assists.  As a team, CU had 18 dimes on 25 made baskets, which is the stuff dreams are made of; especially when combined with a satisfyingly low eight turnovers.  Essentially: good, solid, focused team basketball was on display offensively. A few little lapses on 'D,' sure, but nothing worrying when you remember exactly how good this team can be at shutting down their opponents. All-in-all, nothing to really complain about.
Maybe not pretty, but effective.  From:
For the other seniors, Xavier Talton didn't have the best of games.  He struggled with foul trouble for much of the afternoon, mostly a result of pace issues when defending spunky guards like Tra Holder. Saddled with the fouls, he never found a rhythm, and missed the few jumpers he attempted; we haven't heard the last from him, however.  Eli Stalzer and Brett Brady also got so see some (brief) action at the end of the game, getting their due as the Buffs finally put the affair to rest in the final seconds.  Eli even got a shot off, although I bet it's one he wishes he could have back.  Maybe not the most effusive of senior day performances from the group, but enough, and they earned the hearty applause from those in attendance.

With the win, Colorado is now securely in the NCAA Tournament.  Make no mistake, they could lose their next two (even one against Washington State) and still hear their name called on Selection Sunday; end of sentence.  What remains to play for, besides a second conference championship in Las Vegas, is seeding.  Right now they are probably worthy of anything between a 9- and a 7-seed, with the profile leaning seven.  A couple of more wins, however, and they could creep up into 6-seed territory, which would be incredible.  Oh, and the team is also a win over the Utes away from the all-time program record for dubs in a regular season.  So, no, the campaign isn't over, yet, even if they won't be seen in Boulder again until November.  To that end, the Buffs will get to enjoy a few days off before prepping for the season finale in Salt Lake City.  What they do from there, however, is all gravy.

Around the world of Pac-12 Hoops - 

- Utah 70 - Arizona 64 -

Much like Colorado, Utah was able to complete the sweep this weekend, taking a solid win from an Arizona team that seems to, suddenly, be less than what we had assumed. Brandon Taylor was the star here, as the pseudo-point guard went for 19 points and five steals.  This wasn't an isolated incident for the senior, either; as Adam Butler pointed out in his weekly power ranking, Taylor has been on a tear recently. As a result, the Utes, who had stumbled out of the block in conference play, are the talk of the league with just one game to play.  They may not have much hope, if any, of even earning a split-share of the conference title, but they are, clearly, the second-best team in this conference.
The Utes swarmed Arizona late.  From: FOX Sports.
For the Wildcats, they really struggled in their Ski Trip.  From the game with the Buffs, where only a frantic comeback (and typical Colorado struggles) over the final six minutes prevented a double-digit defeat, to this one, where they spiked five separate leads in the second half, their performances took a lot of the thunder out of their menace.  This is still a deadly team, however, headed into Las Vegas.  I don't doubt for a second that they'll claim a first round bye, and will then be able to bring their rebounding and fan advantages to bear on a 'neutral' court.  Anyone counting them out at this point is a fool.

- Cal 87 - USC 65 -

The Bears continue to roar down the stretch.  Their effort this weekend, pasting both the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans on their home floor, was damn impressive.  Remember, this Cal team has yet to lose since the return of Ty Wallace, and seem to finally be the dominant force everyone was expecting to see back at the start of the season.  One true test remains, though, and that's a trip to McKale and the UofA on Thursday.  If they win that one, securing a top-four seed and making a massive statement, we're talking a seriously dangerous team headed into postseason play.
Wallace is back, and has his team rolling.  From: Cal Golden Blogs
The Trojans, on the other hand, are really struggling.  With this loss, they've now dropped five of six (only one loss at home, though), with the lone win coming against the Buffs after being down 15 with just nine minutes to play. They simply are not a good basketball team right now, a shadow of the bunch that was grabbing headlines just a few weeks ago.  The big issue seems to be the absence of Darion Clark, who has taken a huge chunk of their rebounding capability with him to the bench.  With no word, yet, on his return from a separated shoulder, I can't help but wonder how long this USC team can stay in a funk, and still make the NCAA Tournament.

- Oregon 86 - Washington 73 -  

Poor, poor Washington.  Just a month ago they were fighting for the conference lead, and playing fun, exciting basketball.  Now they sit needing a win in their final regular season game against the Washington State Cougars to avoid a losing record in Pac-12 play. Their fall from grace was capped this weekend by an up-and-down loss to the Oregon Ducks in Eugene. UW had no answer for Elgin Cook, who put up 26/7 to lead the way.
Elgin Cook was impressive for Oregon this weekend.  From: ESPN
With the win, the Ducks have the Pac-12 title all but sewn up headed into the final weekend.  They would have to lose both games this week in LA to even give the Utes a shot at taking it from them, something that I just don't see happening. What I will say, however, is that they do not look like the strongest team in the conference, right now.  UO has certainly proven to be worthy of a league championship over the last two months and are playing good basketball, don't get me wrong. Both the Bears and the Utes, however, are striking stronger poses headed into the conference tournament. That may not mean much, but it does mean that I will not be betting on Oregon next week.

Sizing up the final week of Pac-12 play - 

With a lot left up in the air to play for, let's take a look at the current standings in the Conference of Champions:

  • Oregon - 12-4
  • Utah - 12-5
  • Cal - 11-5
  • Arizona - 10-6
  • Colorado - 10-7
  • USC - 8-8
  • OSU - 8-8
  • Stanford - 8-8
  • Washington - 8-9
  • UCLA - 6-10
  • Arizona State - 4-12
  • Washington State - 1-16

... and the travel pairings for the final week of Pac-12 play:

  • NorCals @ Arizonas
    • Biggest Game: Cal @ Arizona, Thursday, 7pm MT, ESPN
  • SoCals @ Oregons
    • Biggest Game: USC @ Oregon, Saturday, 2pm MT, Pac-12 Networks
  • Ski School Rumble in SLC
    • Biggest Game: Colorado @ Utah, Saturday, 7:30 MT, ESPNU
  • Apple Cup Battle in Seattle
    • Biggest Game: N/A, but WSU is @ UW on Wednesday, 7pm, ESPNU
The big one is right at the top, Cal vs Arizona.  The only way Colorado can wind their way into a top-4 seed is with some help from one of these two teams (and a win over the Utes, of course).  The most the Buffs can hope for, after all, is 11 wins, so anyone getting a 12th is safe in a bye slot.  That would mean Cal would have to get swept this weekend, while Arizona would just have to lose once, to stay below 12 wins.  The most likely scenario is the 'Cats winning at home, and Cal beating the Sun Devils over the weekend, so the odds are long against CU, but it can still happen.  In the event of a head-to-head tie, CU would get in over either Arizona or Cal (Buffs' win over Arizona breaking the tie in both cases).  In the unlikely event of a three-way tie at 11 wins ('Zona beats Cal, both lose over the weekend to lesser competition), Colorado would also hold that tie-breaker (CU 2-1 vs the other two; Arizona would be 1-2; Cal 2-2), netting them 3rd place.  In case you were wondering, in the most likely scenario where Arizona defends their home court and Cal beats ASU, Cal stays in third, thanks to their win over Oregon this month.

Up at the top of the table, all Oregon needs to do to claim the de facto conference crown is win one of their games this week in Los Angeles.  Even with a win over Colorado, Utah can only get to 13 total, and they lose a head-to-head tie-breaker with the Ducks; Oregon would have to drop both, combined with a win by the Utes in SLC, to see the title move eastward (shared titles are for losers).  Cal, similarly, could get thrown into this discussion with a pair of wins and some losses by the Ducks and/or Utah.  With 13 wins and a pair of UO losses, they would be champs, thanks to Utah's two losses to Oregon.  Cal, however, loses a head-to-head with Oregon (Oregon's wins over Utah loom large); and only wind up second in a three-way tie to the Ducks.  If EVERYBODY loses, then Arizona could join at least Oregon and Utah, if not all three, at the top line with 12 wins, but that would be so chaotic as to not be worth my time.

Elsewhere, USC could leap-frog CU into 5th with a pair of wins and a Colorado loss (if you don't want to be on the same side of the bracket as Arizona, this may be the only way out); Stanford and OSU, however, are out of luck.  ASU is locked into 11th, and WSU is locked into 12th; congrats to both!  The tradition unlike any other, Washington Wednesday, will continue, as the Huskies are also locked out of the running for a bye slot.  The muddled middle is, as always, a complete mess.  If you're looking for an interesting subject for a thesis, the many combinations of outcomes that can emerge from the 5th through 10th grouping would make a doozy.

Got all that?  No?  Well, neither do I, really.  What is for certain, however, is that this is going to be a damn interesting weekend, and Las Vegas is going to be a trainwreck.  CAN'T WAIT! Bring on the madness!

Happy Tuesday!

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