Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016-17 CU vs Utah Basketball Preview #1

Well, finally, at long last, we have arrived at conference play.  The distraction of an extra month of football season now pushed aside, with some great pain, the way is clear for basketball to take center stage, once again.  Some of you who haven't been paying close attention could be very confused by what you see.  The Buffs are exactly where I expected them to be in the standings, 10-3 overall.  They have a KenPom profile in the top-70, a similar RPI ranking, defensive efficiency in the top-50 of the country.  Looks OK, right?

Well, for a team that has been winning at the expected clip, Colorado has been doing anything but living up to expectations.  The basketball on display, night in, night out, has been stilted, frustrating, and largely un-entertaining.  This is where what the eye sees contradicts the raw numbers. While they have been winning basketball games, and only really losing one that they shouldn't, the whole narrative of the season has been a dour slog.

The inevitable question is: so, what's the problem?  There is both the tangible and the intangible answer. Tangibly, the twin issues are hitting shots and rebounding.  CU was top-25 nationally last year in 3-point shooting, hitting near 39% as a team.  This year, they're dipping under 34% from outside, a number which seems better than what we actually endure every game.  Everyone wants to blame this on the absence of Josh Scott, as the phenomenal forward got to be very good at kicking out to open shooters last year. The problem with that excuse is that the players are still getting open attempts -- they've just biffing them. Indeed, Colorado's offense continues to look great when the shots are falling, but when good shooters like George King are down 15 percentage points from their efforts the previous year, inconsistency persists, and the overall product suffers.  As for rebounding, we knew it was potentially a troublesome spot, with the lack of depth up front, but the rates are so pedestrian (middle-third around the country) in an area the team systemically relies on that it's hurting results.  The BYU loss alone can be chalked up to this issue.

Then we come to the intangible.  Something is just... off with this roster.  The mix of backcourt veterans that was supposed to lead with heady experience is not playing to expectation.  They just don't seem to have a feel for each other, and I get the general sense that they don't even really want to be there every night.  Now, a lot of that is projecting, and it's hard to be all bubbly and smiling when working your tail off to come back from a near-20-point deficit against Eastern Washington, but the lack of intensity, focus, and determination from the tip is glaring.  This is the result of something I did not expect to deal with this season; a lack of leadership.  Maybe a result of having too many chefs in the kitchen, maybe the result of the natural vacuum left behind J40 when he graduated, regardless, Colorado is in dire need of someone on the team to step up and take charge.

All those frustrations expressed, it is helpful to note that the team has had over a week to exorcise some demons and reset the mindset.  While not a true fresh start, because every game counts, I can't help but view the holiday break as a chance to effectively wipe the slate clean.  Maybe, just maybe, the threat of conference play, combined with a cleared head, will shake off the rust that has been holding the team back.  Maybe, just maybe, we'll finally get the Buffs we were expecting when the ball tips in Salt Lake City.  We'll all just have to wait and see...


Hype Music for the evening: "Auld Lang Syne" by Robert Burns

The New Year's traditional hymn 'Auld Lang Syne' is an adaptation of Scottish poet Robert Burns' 228-year-old stanzas.  Set to the tune of a popular folk song from the 18th Century, it has become the de facto incantation of the New Year for most of the English-speaking world.  I have as much of an idea of what it means as you do, but I mumble through it, none-the-less.  When the clock strikes midnight this evening, belt this one out, and bless the arrival of a fresh set of 365 pages on the calendar, that we might do some good with them.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the Huntsman Center in SLC is set for 4:30pm on Sunday.  ESPNU will have the broadcast rights, and may even bother sending their announcing crew out to Utah for the game.  If they don't, however, mute their in-studio garbage, and turn up the radio call on 760AM.  Mark Johnson will actually be there, you know.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Colorado held a 14-point lead with just over seven minutes to play in their 2015-16 season finale against the Utah Utes, but proceeded to bleed it out under the pressure of a tough road atmosphere. A 16-0 run for the Buffs immediately turned into a 19-0 run for Utah; a decisive counter that spoiled a strong second half start.  To outsiders, it was shocking. To us in BuffNation, it was just another day at the office. This is what the Buffs did all throughout last season: cough up big leads late. In the end, CU took the hard loss, this time by a final score of 57-55.

The shame of it, up to the point of the Utah run, was that CU had been playing a near-perfect half of basketball.  They were owning the glass in the second half, had been staying away from turnovers, and playing a typically intense brand of defense.  While the offense was spotty (and had been spotty all game), the Buffs were winning in the margins, and seemed to be on their way to a typical #TadBall brand of grind-it-out win.
Tory had a good game against the Utes, last season, but it wasn't enough.  From: the SL Trib
The big damn hero was Tory Miller.  The sophomore forward came alive in the second frame, putting up a huge 7/6 line that fueled the run.  Combined with some timely first half shooting from Tre'Shaun Fletcher (remember him?) and some scrappy early second half plays from Josh Scott (who had an otherwise rough game), it was enough to get the Buffs going.  Then, the team simply turtled the minute the Utes showed a second half pulse.  Factors compounded.  The refs swallowed their whistles, every break went to the home side, and no one in Black and Gold could make a winning play.  It was a complete, total momentum shift. To my surprise, Coach Boyle even called timeouts (twice!) in an attempt to forestall the run, but it didn't work. The players simply didn't, couldn't get it done.

It's a painful opportunity lost.  CU missed their chance at a record-setting 22nd regular season win, a chance to make a profound statement about the resilience and resolve of this program.  It also marked five-straight games that the Utes have beaten Colorado.  With Utah a little down after years on the front foot, now would be a perfect time to return the favor, end the streak, and pay UU back for all the trouble they caused last winter.

The Utes in 2016-17 - 

Two months into the season, Utah is still struggling to cope with the massive number of defections that hit them after the end of last season. In addition to the graduation of stars Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, and the professional aspirations of Jakob Poeltl, four other talents, all of whom were expected to contribute this winter, bolted out of SLC.  Isaiah Wright, Kenneth Ogbe, Chris Reyes, and Brekkott Chapman are all gone, leaving a massive hole in the roster in their wake. As such, the Utes are off their pace of recent years.  They're still 9-3, but have yet to beat a team in the Kenpom top-200, and have generally looked a step or two slow.
Not entirely sure why players like Chapman decided to leave the program.  From: the SL Trib.
Their non-conference schedule this season is a sham.  There's the two traditional games against D-II opponents (Northwest Nazarene and Concordia), a trio of games against teams destined for the RPI 300+ (Coppin St, UC Riverside, and Prairie View A&M), and other mid-level detritus that doesn't really deserve mentioning (Montana St and Utah Valley).  Just a smorgasbord of cupcakes that would make a pastry chef blush.  There were a pair of marquee games in this mix (home against Butler and on the road against Xavier), but, combined with the losers bracket at the Diamondhead Classic in Honolulu (Hawai'i and Stephen F. Austin after a loss to San Francisco), Utah has played one of the softest Power 5 schedules in the country this year.

For our purposes, that result in Cincinnati against Xavier - a 77-69 loss - is probably the most informative.  The Musketeers, fresh of their own loss in Boulder, used a strong first half to put the Utes in a double-digit hole at the break that they would never recover from.  XU got hot from outside, won the battle on the boards, and that was it.  Common opponent results can be a little misleading, especially with a change in venue, but it is worthwhile to note that, much like in this game, the Utes have struggled to defend the perimeter this season (318th nationally in 3-point defense), something good shooting teams can take advantage of.
Common opponent Xavier had little issue with the Utes in Cincy.  From: the Daily Herald.
At their core, though, you will see familiar style of play.  Even with the great Poeltl gone, Utah looks to get the ball inside, getting near 55% of all scoring from inside the arc, including 45% of all shots at the rim.  With all those good looks inside, it makes sense that they're putting up outstanding shooting rates overall.  They also rebound the basketball well, grabbing 35% of offensive and 75% of defensive opportunities, respectively.  It's an overall picture that should tell you one thing -- the Utes still thrive under the basket.

Star Players - 

What remains in Salt Lake City for the Utes, after all those defections over the offseason, is largely led by swing forward Kyle Kuzma.  One of the best individual talents in the entire conference, he has that scintillating mix of inside-outside play that can cause so many matchup issues at this level. Kuzma is the kind of player who can provide 20/10 each night, when on his game, and can be electric off the drive and in transition.
The big question is whether or not Kuzma will be able to play.  From: the SL Trib
The 6-9 junior out of Flint, MI has been struggling with his outside shot this season, however (just 3-21 to start the year), and has been out the last two games with an ankle injury.  While Utah is 'hopeful' to have him back for CU's visit (and he's still wearing an ankle brace), it's anyone's guess how effective he will be.  Regardless, Colorado had better be ready for him to be in the game -- seems like the perfect assignment for XJ.

After Kuzma, the next best player on the roster is point guard Lorenzo Bonam.  You will, no doubt, remember the 6-4 senior best from his last-second shot to beat the Buffs in Boulder last January; the only home loss CU would suffer in 2015-16.  Bonam may still not be an outside threat (shooting just 22% on 3s this season), but he's an excellent attacker in isolation, and one the Buffs have a proven difficulty in checking at the top of the arc.  If he's getting into the lane and creating in this one, Colorado will be in a lot of trouble.
Bonam knows how to get to the rim.  From: the SL Trib
The rest of the roster is full of fresh faces.  The most interesting are probably David Collette and Sedrick Barefield.  Both recently eligible after the end of the first semester, the pair of transfers are now entrenched starters, and bring a lot of scoring to the table.  Collette comes to the Utes from nearby Utah State, where he put up strong numbers for the Aggies.  The 6-10 junior center now takes on the role that had once been filled by the great Poeltl, playing active basketball around the rim.  A big challenge for Wes Gordon, David has been averaging 16/6 since finally hitting the court a few weeks back.  Barefield arrived in Utah fresh from SMU, where the now sophomore saw very little time as a freshman.  He's the shooting specialist the Utes need, and Sedrick has hit 10 of 19 three point attempts in four games.  Colorado will need to check him on the perimeter; lazy shows from the bigs or guards going under screens will only end in made jumpers.

Rounding out the expected starters is freshman guard Devon Daniels.  Another Michigan product, the 6-5 wing picks his spots well, and has posted some really good efficiency stats (66% eFG, despite not being a big three point threat).  He's adept at getting to the rim, where he takes 61% of his attempts. He's a slasher, in the mold of Bonam, and one the Buffs need to keep out of the lane and off the free throw line.

Coaching - 

Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak has been one of the most successful coaches in the game since arriving in Utah.  Having inherited one of the worst rosters in all of D-I, he's reformed the Utes into a consistent climber up the ranks, increasing his win total each and every season in Salt Lake City.  The last three campaigns have been his best, going 74-30 since the start of 2013-14, and finishing in the NCAA Tournament each of the last two seasons.
Why is Larry always putting his program behind the RPI 8-ball?  From: the SL Trib
He does his program little favors with his scheduling practices, however.  After a few years spent trying to add some spice to their soft-serve history of non-conference scheduling, Coach K went back to the sweets factory this year, loading his team's plate up with RPI 250+ marshmallows.  Maybe there's a bit of strategy here, knowing that, with so many fresh faces, a softer schedule would at least put some wins on the board.  Still, the point remains that Utah enters Pac-12 play having exerted themselves against essentially no one, with their best win being [ERROR DATA NOT FOUND].

They'll be hard pressed to continue their upward trajectory this fall, as 28 wins seems like an impossible task with this bunch.  Additionally, with their non-conference schedule as weak as it is, they're a long-shot to make even the NIT.  Still, give him some time, and Coach Krystkowiak will have this program back on the right track.  I'm through doubting him, at this point.

Prediction - 

My record last year: 14-5. Against the spread: 9-9-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.5 pt/gm)
Lines as of Saturday @ 12pm - CU +5, O/U 146

Looking at the Utah profile, there's a lot of danger signs.  Good activity at the rim, great rebounding numbers -- this is a team built to give CU fits in the paint. Yes, they haven't beaten anyone, and Xavier was easily able to clip them just days after the Buffs had done the same to XU, but Colorado will get into plenty of trouble against any team with the fight and tenacity to take the game into the paint.  Any early foul trouble from Wes Gordon, and this could get ugly.  As it is, even with him playing the whole game, I think Colorado will be a long-shot to win this one away from home.  Give me the Utes by a handful.

UU 70 - CU 63


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