Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, December 9, 2016

Xavier Wrap and 2016-17 CU vs BYU Basketball Teaser

It's amazing how good everything looks when shots fall.  Going into the game between the Colorado Buffaloes and the #13 Xavier Musketeers, I had postulated that anything short of a blazing-hot shooting performance would end in defeat for the Black and Gold.  Colorado got exactly what they needed in the second half, shooting 15-27 from the floor, including 5-7 from deep, to fuel a stunning, come-from-behind upset over XU.  68-66, season saved... for now.

Even from the tip, there seemed to be a different energy from the Buffs, as compared to the last time we saw them on home hardwood.  There was no slumping shoulders, no lackadaisical body language. The team, particularly the starters, came to play Wednesday night, and brought some of the best intensity seen so far this year.  Outside of a few defensive breakdowns, some stretches of action where both Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon were sitting with foul trouble, and the final minute when XU was allowed to make it interesting, it's the closest we've come to seeing the team play to their capability.
D-White went off again.  From: the AP
Of course, even as positive as the play was throughout the night, it all would've been for naught without the timely scoring touch of Derrick White in the final frame.  The senior point guard put up 18 of his team-high 23 points in the second half.  Derrick was dropping daggers from the top of the arc, gutting the musketeers with a pair of threes and long two that were simply cold-blooded. It was the kind of activity I've been begging for from White -- commanding scoring leadership with the game on the line.  Not a perfect game, per se, with a bizarre turnover bug still plaguing his contributions, but the exact kind of lead guard play this team needs down the stretch against good opponents.

Beyond just White's efforts, though, I was impressed by the performances of a number of players that had been hit-or-miss this season; guys who you go into games wondering if their switch will be on or off.  For George King and Wes Gordon, their switches were decidedly in the 'on' position Wednesday. King put up an excellent 16/10, again proving he has it within himself to provide on both ends of the court.  I still saw some defensive lapses, fewer in the second half, but he played off Gordon and Xavier Johnson particularly well on the defensive glass.  For Wes, it was easier to see his impact when he was off the court.  Colorado really struggled to both rebound and defend with him on the bench (he played with persistent foul trouble for most of the evening, eventually fouling out), and I kept noticing the little moments he would bring to the game.  Against the smaller XU front-court, he had a very strong performance, even scoring on a pair of post-up moves and chipping in five assists.
Uh, George?  Maybe just stick to the jumpers.  From: the Post
Finally, I really liked what Xavier Johnson provided.  Along the same lines as Gordon, his absences from the court made you realize just what he meant to the team, as the Buffs had nothing behind the pair in the paint.  You could see the Musketeers really struggling to match him up defensively, as he put up 18/7, including 3-4 from deep.  And, every time a Buff hit a big shot, there was X, leading the cheers, and air-planing his way back down the court.  The fiery heart of the roster shone bright in this one, and the modest-sized, if still bellicose, crowd roared with delight.

The win goes some distance in repairing the damage left in the wake of the CSU disaster, especially from the resume perspective.  With Texas struggling to start the year, the Buffs needed another big non-conference win to hang their hat on, and the team delivered against Xavier.  The work in that department is not yet done, however.  Colorado can claim another juicy RPI prize this weekend in Utah against Brigham Young.  It won't be easy, though.  BYU is a strong team in need of a big win themselves, and playing them in Provo will be the single toughest environment CU will face prior to the trip to Tucson in a month's time.

The first thing you notice when looking at their profile is that BYU plays fast; capital F-A-S-T fast. Getting nearly 80 possessions per game, and completing them in an average of under 14 seconds per, the Cougars love to score early in possessions.  They're 11th nationally in percentage of all shots taken in transition, and will not hesitate to get out on the run.  Probably the biggest challenge yet for Colorado in terms of competing on the offensive glass, yet still keeping an eye on stymieing leak-outs.
Dave Rose has his Cougars running a lot this year.  From: Getty
The all-out running attack does leave them open to some subpar efforts, though, like against local rival Utah Valley over Thanksgiving weekend.  The Wolverines game into the Marriott Center and put up 114 (!) over 96 (!) regulation possessions in a 13-point win over the Cougars.  Games like this one, along with high-scoring losses to Valpo and USC, show you that getting into a shootout with them is not necessarily the worst thing in the world... if you can keep up.

There's a lot of turnover in Provo, though.  Head Coach Dave Rose was tasked with replacing the Kyle Anderson-esque talents of Kyle Collinsworth (graduated) and the scoring touch of Chase Fischer (transfer), among others, this offseason.  In total, there are five fresh faces expected to see significant playing time this year, making this a young, if still explosive, bunch.
Emery leads a very effusive attack in Provo.  From: the SL Trib
The principal returner is feisty 6-2 guard Nick Emery.  You may remember him from last season as the 'guy with the sleeves,' as he wears long sleeves on the court to help with circulation issues stemming from a compression of nerves and blood vessels in his upper joints.  What I most remember him for, however, is an elite scoring ability, paired with a nasty-streak that has lead to on-court blowups. When not throwing punches, Emery is usually flirting with 20-point games, as he combines a quick first step with a solid outside shot to tickle the twine.

Giving the Cougars a dimension they didn't have last year, though, is big 6-10 center Eric Mika.  The sophomore is back from a two-year mission trip, and filling it up.  He's averaging over 21 points per night, to go along with nearly nine boards per game and a block rate over 7%.  Key to his performance so far has been his ability to draw contact -- he's #1 in the nation with 10.2 fouls drawn per game, which is grotesque.  It has led to 84 free throw attempts in just nine games; for comparison, no one on CU has more than 55 this year.  Keeping him off the line will be a serious concern for the Buffs, making it vital that Wes Gordon keep a clean sheet in defense of the Alpine, UT product.
Mika has the scoring touch this season.  From: the Deseret News
Elsewhere, TJ Haws came to BYU with a lot of fanfare.  The younger brother of program-legend Tyler, he set all kinds of high school records, and is a capable, versatile scoring threat. The coach's son, LJ Rose, is the heady senior point guard, setting the pace and steering the ship.  He has 48 assists against 14 turnovers in the early going.  Senior forward Kyle Davis will probably come off the bench, if at all, while still recovering from a knee injury. He provides good depth up front, though, assuming he's near 100%. Transfer Elijah Bryant was supposed to play a big role this year, but is fighting with a meniscus injury at the moment.

All told, a good team capable of running you out of the gym if you aren't careful or attentive defensively.  I think Colorado will hold their own on that front, though, as defense is always a focus. Sure, there'll be some Cougar runs that'll make my blood boil, but I just don't see BYU being able to hang a hundred on them, or anything silly like that.  So, to win in Provo, the Buffs will need to score. No amount of defense seems capable of holding BYU under 70 points, and Colorado will need to rollover their hot shooting from the second half of the Xavier game if they hope to win in Utah. Figure 80-85 points to have a shot.  Not easy to walk into an unfamiliar gym and put up those numbers, but BYU has given up at least 91 in each of their three losses this year.

I'll say CU puts up the requisite points, keeping them in the game late.  The problem then becomes front court depth.  With extra possessions and opportunities allowing Mika to earn his whistles, how long can Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon really be expected to stay out of foul trouble?  Past them, Colorado's strength up front disappears, and it'll be difficult to finish without the pair on the court. This will be where the game breaks - in the foul column - and I just expect BYU to get the calls they need at home.  The Cougars hit their free throws, and eek out a high-scorer.


Tip-off from the massive, 19,000-seat Marriott Center in Provo, UT is set for 8pm on Saturday.  I'm taking the trip out for this one, so expect some lousy photos from the town's lone bar post-game.  For those not following me out west, ESPN2 will have the television coverage, with the radio call on 850 KOA


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