Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Arizona Basketball Preview

Ouch, this one stings.  Locked in a seesaw battle with nemesis Arizona State, the Colorado Buffaloes were playing some of their best offensive basketball of the season.  Shooting 46% from the field for the game, and scoring about 1.15 ppp on the road, CU was putting the points up that you should against a mediocre defense.  The problem was, they were also surrendering points at a roaring clip. ASU was allowed to shoot 47%, including 5-12 from deep in the final frame.  The result? a game where the last team with a full possession would probably win.  The Sun Devils enjoyed that privilege here, and, while their last shot from the field went wanting, they were able to secure the short rebound, got some help from a home whistle, and rode a pair of final free throws to the win. 78-77, more than deserving of a heartfelt *sigh*.

The final possession by the Sun Devils will stick in my craw for some time. Clinging to a one-point lead with the clock ticking towards zero, Colorado did well to force a long three from wing Torian Graham.  It's a shot the transfer scorer can make (and had made earlier in the evening), but, given the circumstance, it's a shot I was comfortable with, coming some 24' from the basket.  It went long, which should've meant victory for CU.  The Buffs, however, failed to box out the smallest dude on the court -- Tra Holder.  The 6-1 junior point guard knifed his way to the ball, and was awarded a foul call for his efforts on the put-back.  That he went on to hit his free throws was perfunctory, at that point.  Colorado, in effect, lost by one rebound.  For a program that prides itself on defense and rebounding, it's a knife to the heart.
DWhite was on fire in the second half.  From:
The worst part is that the loss covers up an ethereal performance from Derrick White.  The senior point guard went wild in Tempe, dropping 35 points on 20 shots, buoyed by a perfect 12-12 night from the stripe.  His final line, 35/5/5/3/1 in 36 minutes, is incredible, but still belies what he meant to the team Thursday night. Derrick was the primary defensive specialist, rotating around to put a hand in the face of whatever Sun Devil guard wanted to shoot in a given possession, and was the primary offensive focus for the entire second half (25 points scored after the break). His layup with 16 seconds to play almost earned the team a much-needed win, and, even with turnover issues rearing their head again (six for the game, half of CU's total), White deserved to get carried off for carting the team on his back all evening.  Unfortunately, it wasn't to be.

The Buffs needed Derrick's efforts because of a dust-up in the first half, one that cost them the services of star forward Xavier Johnson for the majority of the game.  After a whistle, XJ tried to finish a dead play at the rim.  ASU freshman forward Jethro Tshisumpa wasn't interested in seeing that, and put a hard challenge on Johnson well after the ref had blown the play dead.  The pair tumbled to the ground, locked together, eventually colliding into the stanchion.  As they each tried to right themselves, words were exchanged, Tshisumpa threw a shove into XJ, and a minor tussle broke out.  No punches were thrown that I could see, but the refs still awarded both players a flagrant-II ejection.  How they came to that conclusion, I have no idea, since this was miles from a 'fight,' and there are other remedies in the rule book for frustrated arguments between players.  For the Sun Devils, losing Tshisumpa wasn't that big of a deal; he's a reserve forward who rarely gets minutes, even with ASU managing a short bench these days.  For CU, however, losing XJ for the second half was injurious, gutting the Colorado front court, and depriving the team of a primary scoring and rebounding threat.  Johnson was even enjoying a good performance Thursday prior to the ejection, putting up 13 points in just 15 minutes.
Buffs could've used XJ in the second half. From: AZDesertSwarm
Regardless, I think CU did well in playing without their senior swing forward.  Early in the second half, it was a little rocky, with the Sun Devils expanding their lead to nine points at the 16-minute mark, but the Buffs continued to fight on through to the finish.  There's no room for moral victories, but I still slept easier that evening having seen Colorado battle for 40 minutes.  While a defeat in the books, it's probably the most 'heart' the team has shown since the Xavier game.

Attention now turns to the Tucson leg of the Arizona road trip... and that's the underlining circumstance behind the loss to ASU -- the losing streak isn't likely to end at just two headed into McKale.  Colorado is, in all likelihood, headed for a beatdown this evening. Prepare yourself accordingly.


Hype Music for the evening: "Brick House" by Commodores

*clang* I'll cop to getting a little tired of all the open threes flying off the cylinder for the Buffs this season. When the rims start ringing out, all I can hear in my head is this classic funk anthem by the Commodores.  Yes, I know that's not what the song is about, but CU could build a whole neighborhood with their bricks from the last month.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the very shiny McKale Center is set for 7:30pm on Saturday.  Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

There was a moment early on in last year's game between Colorado and Arizona that the hair on my neck stood straight up.  The air was thick with anticipation, the packed student section was frothing, and the home crowd in South Campus was jumping at every opportunity to make their presence felt. The CEC was alive in a way it hadn't been throughout 2015-16, and really not since the Oregon game in early 2014. Blood was in the water, and BuffNation, like a once dormant shark, had woken up with a ravenous hunger.  It startled me.  Sure, this was a big game, and a big time crowd was to be expected, but this was more than that.  There was an anger in the tone; a fan base not willing to take any shit that particular night.  Every time the patches of Arizona fans spoke up, they were quickly shot down. Every time the refs blew a whistle there was a ravenous bellow.  The fans in attendance were playing for keeps; it's a club I didn't think we fans still had in our bag.
The Buffs met Arizona at the top of the mountain, and sent the champs tumbling back down.  From: CBS Sports.
It's an energy that fed and informed the proceedings.  After a minute or two of tentative start, the Buffaloes snapped into a fiery activity that stood up for the rest of the action.  They hounded the mighty UofA on the boards, playing to a draw while snatching 14 amazing offensive rebounds against the best defensive rebounding team in the country.  They dug in and played spirited defense, running shooters off the perimeter, and forcing 11 turnovers.  And, more importantly, they played composed offensive basketball, keeping the rock in their own hands (only nine turnovers) to forestall any ugly fast break opportunities.  There were some familiar struggles, of course, with the team scoring just two points in the final six and a half minutes of the game.  But, with an old-school crowd at their backs, the Buffs would not be denied.  In the end, both the team and the denizens were rewarded for their efforts with a 75-72 win over the #9 Wildcats, a victory that seems to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament for CU.

The Big Damn Hero for the evening was Josh Scott.  In his penultimate home game as a Buffalo, he was everywhere on the court, playing with a hungry intensity that you didn't always see from the calming forward. He would finish with a mighty 26/9/3, as the Colorado native carried the team on his back, particularly in the second half.  On one stretch, from 10:07 to 6:36 of the second frame, he scored on five of six possessions to help keep Arizona at arms length, a stretch that proved to be decisive.  Overall, J40 would finish with 12 of the team's final 14 points, playing an oversize David to 'Zona's Goliath. He was supported in his efforts by his running mate, Wesley Gordon.  The lanky power forward from the Springs continued a burgeoning run of stellar play, chipping in 8/12 and a whopping total of six assists.  This was a forwards-first performance from the Buffs, and Scott and Gordon lived up to their billing as one of the best front court duos in America.
Josh Scott would not be denied.  From: the BDC
Of course, the only thing anyone could talk about in the days following this win was how the students rushed the court in the happy moments after the game.  Arizona head coach Sean Miller made sure of that, using his platform to complain about the lack of security, and concern-troll over the potential for reactionary violence by one of his players that feels threatened. The interesting thing to me, however, is that Miller, for all his protestations of worry for his charges, did absolutely nothing to help get his team off the court after the game.  He just stood there in a stupefied, simmering silence, seemingly too frustrated to do anything normal like direct his team while the kids continued to pour onto the court. He didn't even move to go and shake Coach Boyle's hand, he just... stood there.  Maybe he was frustrated with himself for blowing all four of his timeouts before the nine minute mark of the second half, leaving his team with scant opportunities to re-group in the key possessions of the end game sequence.  Maybe he was disappointed with himself for taking a tech early in the second half, costing his team two points that they would desperately need later.  Maybe he was searching for a ref to yell at, 'cause that's what coaches do.  And, finally, maybe he was really just angry at the C-Unit for acting like students, and the semi-professional security staff for doing nothing to prevent it.  All I know is this: Sean Miller was as contributory to his players uneasy circumstance as anything.
Such a cool scene, I don't really care what anyone else thinks about it.  From: @B_Brynestad and @CUSnowBuff

However, I am particularly tired of this ground, and it distracts from what was, otherwise, a very entertaining basketball game.  Was it the most well-played exhibition of the sport ever put on? Certainly not.  What it was, however, was a high level experience for all of those willing to make the commitment to show up.  As the team struggles this year, and the home crowds assuredly start to shrink, it's an evening I will continue to hold in my heart.

The Wildcats in 2016-17 - 

There was some thought coming into this season, a thought that I bought in to, that Arizona could struggle a bit to play consistent basketball in 2016-17.  They were losing a lot of veteran talent from the year before - seniors Gabe York, Ryan Anderson, Kaleb Tarczewski, Mark Tollefsen, and Elliot Pitts - and would be relying on a lot of fresh faces to get their production.  While their incoming recruiting class, as always, was the thing blue chip dreams are made of, there seemed to be a strong possibility that the 'Cats could take a step back this winter.  The truth is, however, that Arizona, despite some protestations, has been rolling along just fine.  14-2 overall, and perfect, so far, in conference play, they've returned to the standard of where they want to be, at the head of the Pac-12. Their lone losses, on neutral floors to quality opponents Butler and Gonzaga, are highly excusable, and really more about postseason positioning, than anything else.  Nope, the Wildcats are back, and Elite Eight worthy, once again.
No shock here, the 'Cats are good.  From: Arizona Sports.
The real surprising thing, and the factor that really fuels this squad's resurgence from an... off year last winter, is their defense.  While I won't go so far as to say the Giant Death Robot is back, they're top-10 in defensive efficiency, and top-15 in both three-point shot percentage defense and defensive eFG%.  No opponent has managed to notch 70 points on them this year (something no other team in the country can claim), and Pac-12 competition has been averaging less than 60 through three games.  As always, they make you work for open looks, leveraging the packline to great success. Arizona gives up just 25% of all looks at the rim, forcing opponents into jumpers away from the basket.  If you can't hit those shots you can find, as Utah didn't a few nights back, you're going to be in trouble.

What surprises me, however, is that, for the first time since 2012, Arizona is not a top-15 defensive rebounding team.  This is something that has really fueled the last half-decade of Wildcat basketball, but the team this year is simply 'good' at crashing the glass, rather than outstanding.  The defensive rate hovers near 27%, making for 64th nationally, and the offensive rate of 34% is only clocking in at 59th in the country.  Again, these are good numbers, but not the quality you expect from those in the desert, especially with them possessing some of the best across-the-board height in America.  While this isn't something I think CU will be able to take advantage of, with the Buffs struggling with their own rebounding issues this season, it might be a factor that artificially lowers the Wildcats' ceiling as the year continues.
Arizona will make you work for your shots inside.  From: the AP
On offense, they're kind of a mirror of their defensive structure.  There's a surprisingly low percentage of shots at the rim, with the team taking 39% of all shots as two-point jumpers -- remember, in the collegiate game, you generally look to avoid these, as they're high-risk, low-reward shots. As the UofA also doesn't get a lot of their points from deep (323rd nationally in percentage of scoring from three), they're highly leveraging an inefficient aspect of the game.  Maybe some vulnerability against good defensive teams, though it hasn't shown up yet.  They're still getting an adjusted 1.13 points per possession, good for top-40 in the country.

Really, all that's needed now is the calendar to fly by, and get to Jan 21st, when we get to see them head to Pauley to take on the scoring-mad UCLA Bruins.  Those two teams are the class of the league, and I'm eager to see what the result will be when they're thrown into the hopper. My money will be on the team that plays defense (Arizona), but we'll just have to wait and see.

Star Players - 

So... Allonzo Trier.  The preseason All-America candidate, and next-level starlet in the making, was supposed to be the thrust behind Arizona's might this season.  He averaged 15/3 as a freshman, and seemed to only be capable of more in his sophomore campaign.  Problem is, Allonzo hasn't been playing. Sidelined since the start of the season, and not for any injury that has been made known, he's been watching the games fly by in street clothes from the bench.  He's been at practice, and still seems engaged in the goings-on in the arena, Trier's just suspended... and no one seems to want or be able to talk about it.  The assumption is eligibility, and there have been plenty of rumors regarding when, and if, he will be able to return this season.  Some in Tucson have even been speculating that his return will happen tonight, as this game will mark the start of the second half of the season, but nothing is anywhere close to official.  Regardless, without Trier, Arizona has been going through their schedule with essentially one offensive arm tied behind their back.
The only shots Trier has taken this year have been pregame and in practice.  From:
In Allonzo's absence, the Wildcats have been getting most of their scoring punch from Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen.  The 7-foot stretch-four is an impressive combination of shooting skill and size, who some say is the second-coming of Dirk Nowitzki.  That comparison is a little lazy, and mostly based on the fact that the young forward is European and can shoot, but it doesn't change the fact that the kid can play, and is an incredibly tough matchup.  He has been posting an offensive rating above 130 so far this season, including a 43% rate beyond the arc, as he takes on the mantle of the team's leading scorer. As strong as those numbers are, however, Lauri possesses a fade-away mid-range jumper that is impossible to defend, making his 15.5 points per game actually seem like an undersell of his abilities. Simply, Colorado will struggle to find anyone on the roster who can guard him this evening, and I expect him to have a big game.
Markkanen is a matchup nightmare.  From: AZDesertSwarm
Elsewhere, freshman wing Rawle Alkins looks to be another star in the making, and has been averaging 12/6 so far this season.  Good versatility, good size, good physicality, the 6-5, 220 lbs frosh can bully his way around the court, making mincemeat of defenders who can't match his strength and speed.  He pairs well with another freshman wing, Kobi Simmons.  While a leaner threat than Alkins, the Georgia product possesses a good jump shot to compliment plus-athleticism.  The pair combine for about 25 points each night, making this team freshman-forward in Allonzo Trier's absence.

At the point, Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright split time handling the rock.  Neither will take many shots (though Allen has the ability to fill it up if needed), but both are effective game managers, capable of putting their teammates in good positions to score.  The senior Allen is the normal starter, and can knife you with a three (47% from deep), if you aren't careful.  PJC, who did suffer an ankle injury earlier this season, is a smooth handler of the ball who has posted a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio on the year.
Allen is the primary point in Tucson.  From: Arizona Sports.
Up front, I'm surprised to see Dusan Ristic amount to something.  The 7-0 junior from Serbia doesn't act at the rim, taking just 39% of his shots from up close, yet still plays as an effective center, getting 12/6 each night.  I still see him as a massive drop off from old Kaleb Tarczewski, but you can't argue with production, and Ristic has been putting it up.  Dusan is also the best rebounder on the team. He's backed up by sophomore Chance Comanche, who is really the only player on the roster who can play consistently as a traditional back-to-the-basket center.  60% of his shots are at the rim, and I like his upward trend.

Coaching - 

I want to make something very clear.  My constant mockery of Arizona coach Sean Miller for his whining about court storming after last year's loss in Boulder has nothing to do with any disrespect I hold for the man.  In fact, I perceive Coach Miller as one of the 10-best program heads in the country. The reason I keep picking the court storming scab, however, comes from my frustration with the man in the moment.
Sweat, Sean, sweat.  From: CBS Sports
In the loosing press conference last February, rather than praising Colorado for winning, or talking about what he liked or didn't about his own team, he made sure the spotlight was shining brightly on himself.  He only wanted to talk about the nits he wanted to pick, stroking his own ego, and making sure everyone remembered who really mattered in the stadium that evening: him.  Way to steal back those headlines, Sean!  What a horse's ass.

So, that's why I continue to make fun of him to this day for that moment.  That's why I bathed so heartily in the schadenfreude that was his wardrobe calamity in the NCAA Tournament.  Still, he wins over 75% of his games, hasn't won fewer than 23 in a season since his first trip around the sun in Tucson, and recruits like a madman.  His resume is impeccable, and Sean Miller is, undoubtedly, elite.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 1-1. Against the spread: 1-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +5.5 pt/gm)
Lines as of Saturday @ 8am - CU +13, O/U 132

It doesn't matter that XJ will play tonight, dodging a suspension for Thursday's session of anger management.  It doesn't matter that Derrick White is an incredible production machine.  It also doesn't matter that Allonzo Trier might still be out of action for Arizona.  Colorado just doesn't have the shooters in form to take on these Wildcats in their own gym.  They also, certainly, can't rebound with them, or defend their forwards.  Nope, CU is out of their depth this evening, and it will show on the scoreboard.  Give me the 'Cats by 20 -- let's hope it isn't any worse.

UofA 75 - CU 55


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