Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Air Force Wrap and 2016-17 CU vs Eastern Washington Basketball Teaser

Coming off what Coach Boyle called the most disappointing win of his tenure at Colorado, an ugly 10 point result over D-II also-ran Ft Hays State, the Buffs tuned around to follow it up with... another ugly win over an inferior opponent.  Monday's 75-68 scalp of Air Force, however, was significantly more palatable, quieting, for the moment, the pestering voices from the back of the hall that warn that CU is not yet ready for prime time.
The return of Dom Collier is a welcome sight for the Buffs.  From: USA Today
We saw a number of positive things in the Springs on Monday. After a rough start, Wes Gordon proceeded to put together one of his best all-around performances of the year, recording 10/9/3/5.  He was a force in the paint through the heart of the game, scaring off shots from Falcons, and calmly collecting loose rebounds.  He didn't finish strong, and could've had so much more offensively, but it's still the most we've seen from him in a while.  Further, the continued blossoming of Deleon Brown can no longer be overlooked.  Following up on a career-high scoring performance against the Tigers over the weekend, the freshman guard from Michigan recorded another solid game with 10 points and four assists in 24 minutes.  He's not flashy, but Del makes smart plays, shoots well, and, above all else, plays defense.  There's no more debate, he needs to be stealing minutes from some of the starters who continue to slump, if not outright burst into the starting five.  Finally, the return of Dom Collier from multiple foot fractures was very well received.  Clearly still not 100%, Collier was still able to cash in a trio of three-pointers, then drawing the defense away from their entrenchments around the rim.  The more he can do to open up the court, especially against the pack-lines in the Pac-12, the better for the Colorado offense.

All that said, this was far from a perfect effort.  The Buffs committed 16 turnovers (most of them in the opening 10 minutes), allowed 15 offensive rebounds, and threatened to pull a 2015-16 late (i.e., cough up a solid lead).  The rebounds are probably the most baffling.  There's just no reason to play -5 on the glass to a team like AF, especially as they were missing a lot of shots.  15 offensive boards to a team that largely plays the Princeton is awful, and, combined with what we saw in Provo and against FHSU, is only worrying.  Colorado survived this fault by playing quality defense (36% shooting allowed), and hitting their outside jumpers (42% from deep), but, as we've seen this season, when either of those categories slumps, the rest of the package isn't enough to earn wins.
How did the Falcons get so many rebounds?  From: USA Today
Still, at the end of the day, a win is a win, and no road dub comes without a hearty pat on the back. While not a 'hostile' environment, the trip to Clune Arena is not 'easy,' and the Buffs did well to ward off another RPI disaster.  In fact, with the result the Buffs are just one win away from being pretty much exactly where I expected them to be at the end of non-conference play: 10-3.  I'll leave you to ponder how I can disappointed with this team on the verge of tallying the exact record I predicted while I turn my attention to Eastern Washington.

The Eagles went and did a very neighborly thing this week -- they went on the road to Xavier on Tuesday night, giving me an opportunity to scout against a common opponent. The result didn't go well for EWU, either.  After some fireworks early, they settled into steady suffocation at the hands of Xavier, eventually tapping out at the end of an 85-56 drubbing.

The big thing that really jumped off the screen for me is how much they rely on isolated dribble penetration in their offense.  Not entirely sure if that's a key for head coach Jim Hayford every night, or just in this particular case against Xavier, but it didn't really strike me as an effective strategy, long term.  Simply, EWU doesn't have the skilled dribblers to pull that off every night, and it'll lead to a number of turnovers as quality teams adjust.  In fact, in this game the Musketeers quickly started bringing delayed traps to the dribbler at the top of the key -- sure enough, turnovers soon followed. Elsewhere, I noticed standard man-to-man defense, but one that got into a lot of trouble against hard cuts and quick passes; poor recovery overall.  Coupled with the fact that the Eagles don't have a true rim protector or a major rebounding threat in the paint, and this is a team that can give up buckets of points.
Xavier blitzed EWU on Tuesday.  From: the Charlotte Observer
Most of these observations are supported by their statistical profile.  Eastern Washington is 295th nationally in assist rate, tying into their isolated dribble-drive.  They're also 340th in defensive efficiency (giving up about 1.14 points per adjusted possession), and among the bottom-third in the nation in rebounding rates.  Really, the only thing that doesn't hold up is my comment about rim protection.  EWU is 28th nationally in defensive block rate, buoyed by the performance of senior forward Jacob Wiley underneath (11.3% individual block rate, 39 on the season).  The eye test, however, didn't really lead me to believe that, but what do I know.

Speaking of, Wiley had a strong game against Xavier, dropping 16/6/4/5.  The 6-7 senior grad transfer was All-America at his NAIA school last winter, making his a story akin to Derrick White -- coming up from a lower level of play to run with the D-I bigs.  He's averaging 14/8 so far for the Eagles, and really shines as an impact player on both ends.  It'll be interesting to see how Wes Gordon matches up with him.  'Good' Wes should have no issue, but 'Bad' Wes could get burned.

Working with Wiley up front is Aussie swing-forward Felix Von Hofe.  Hailing from Melbourne, he's more of an outside threat, as Alex looks to get up about 8 three point shots per game (40%). Colorado better be ready to defend him all the way to the arc, and hound him off open looks.  Still, Von Hofe can be a liability on the other end of the court, and highlights a major vulnerability in this roster -- just one player is listed over 6-7.  While there are no 'undersized' players, per se (no one listed under 6-3), they just don't have the bigs CU is used to playing.
Bliznyuk is the Eagles' best.  From: the AP
The best player on the roster, however, is clearly point guard Bogdan Bliznyuk.  I say point guard, as he dominates the majority of on-ball action when in the game, but the Ukranian product is much more of a point forward in the Kyle Anderson mold.  He's got great size for the spot (6-6, 215), and has the glidey, paced attacking style of UCLA's former square peg.  In some ways, he even reminds me a bit of the aforementioned Derrick White -- his speed and athleticism isn't going to 'wow' you, but he brings a lot to the table, and makes for an awkward matchup for many teams.  Bogdan is a prolific scorer, to boot.  He has seven games of at least 20-points this year, four of which were of at least 30.  It goes along with the theme that the Eagles really key off him; Bliznyuk eats up near 31% of possessions and 30% of shots.  Trapping off his dribble-drive, especially as his back turns, seems to be the way to counter him, however.

Long story short, this is a team that CU can plot a path to a solid win against, if they come out with focus and intensity.  The Buffs should be able to score as many as they want, while owning the glass, and taking advantage of the dribbler-focused offense of EWU.  Assuming nothing gets stupid, I'm anticipating a big win to close out the non-conference campaign.


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 6:30pm MT Thursday night.  Coverage for those not coming up to Boulder can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 AM.


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