Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, January 5, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Arizona State Basketball Preview

Of the opening five game run-of-terror for conference play, this fixture, against the Sun Devils, had always been circled as the best win opportunity of the bunch.  Now that we're staring it in the face, however, I can't help but view it as a game the Buffs better win; an effort to forestall what could end up being a five-loss streak to begin Pac-12 action.

Now, ASU is not a cupcake (though they have their issues), and always play Colorado tough, but I have a mind to favor CU this evening, even in light of the recent form of the team.  We'll just have to wait and see if my faith will prove to be well-invested.


Hype Music for the evening: "Robot Hell" as performed on Futurama

Did you watch Futurama?  I hope you did.  Simply fantastic show, with some of the smartest humor around.  The show could also, from time to time, stretch out its musical legs, such as it did here with "Robot Hell."  Enjoy!


Tip-off from Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe is set for 7pm on Thursday.  Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with radio coverage on 760 AM.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

On a day designed to celebrate the achievements of the 2016 senior class, the Buffs did what they had 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 counted as much as any, as Colorado closed out their 2015-16 home schedule with a solid 79-69 win over Arizona State.

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 were towards the tail end of last season, they still possessed a core of serious talent at their disposal, which 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, losing 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 a late-season 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 of last season.  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.
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.  Eli Stalzer and Brett Brady also got to 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.

The Sun Devils in 2016-17 - 

Arizona State has taken some lumps this season.  A 19-point loss to Northern Iowa, a 46-point loss to Kentucky, and a 33-point loss to Purdue, all on neutral floors, highlight their non-conference rap sheet.  That's on top of more pedestrian defeats to Davidson, New Mexico State, and Creighton. Throw in their 16-point loss to Cal last Sunday, and this is a team that has learned some rough lessons throughout the 2016-17 calendar.  Still, and you have to hand this to them: they've earned their losses. Each and every one of them has come against a team of some value, the product of a schedule that shied away from exactly no one.  Compared to the puff pasty buffet gobbled down by Utah, I tip my cap to the Devils for taking some risks, and putting themselves out there.
Teams like Kentucky have shredded ASU this season.  From: Coach
Still, just one of their eight wins have come against a team in the KenPom top-100 - on the road against dyspeptic San Diego State - and they seem destined for a rocky performance in league play, as well.  It's all a product of a defense in search of consistency.  These guys can score, that much is for sure (they've averaged 95 points in each of their wins this season), they just can't seem to keep their opponents from doing the same (88 points per allowed in their losses).  Now, there are some outlier performances across their schedule, but it paints a picture of a team caught up in shootouts, unable to gets stops or control the pace when needed.  ASU allows the 6th-fastest defensive possessions in the country (15.5 seconds per), and gives up an adjusted 1.06 ppp.

Most of the defensive issues pop up inside the paint.  They're surrendering near 56% shooting inside the arc -- one of the worst marks in the nation.  This includes 66% shooting at the rim, despite good block numbers.  The x-factor?  Transition.  Arizona State is allowing opponents to get 27% of all looks on the break, the 4th-worst mark in the country.  It's not the result of turnovers, either, as ASU is 9th nationally in offensive turnover rate.  No, they're just letting opponents wreck them in the counter, as everyone playing them seems to find good looks early in the shot clock.  This, combined with opponents taking, and making, a lot of three-pointers (35% of all opponent scoring comes from deep), and the point totals against continue to rise and rise.  It could all be the result of fatigue issues, as a short bench leaves the starters to eat up nearly 80% of all available minutes, but the stats don't lie.
Good Lord, this is still a thing?  From:
Offensively, it's a prettier picture.  The Sun Devils are a top-50 squad in efficiency, getting an adjusted 1.11 ppp.  The key here is taking care of the basketball; State boasts a top-10 turnover rate, enabling them to make the most of their possessions.  Indeed, this is a group that, largely, gets the most of their opportunities -- the product of a veteran core taking the vast majority of minutes available.  They're top-40 in free throw shooting, and take 43% of all shots from deep.  This is a dangerous offense that CU could struggle to keep up with.

Overall, ASU is a team still looking to find themselves.  A year after essentially self-destructing under the tutelage of a fiery new coach, they can still best be described as a 'work-in-progress,' battling roster turnover, a lack of program-fitting talent, and a number of defensive issues.  While I still like some of the pieces in Tempe, the complete picture isn't what it could be, suffering from the inconsistency generated by their scatter-shot defense, and a very short bench.  As a result, while they will score some points, and play in some exciting games this year, they will eventually settle into the third-tier of the Pac-12, when all is said and done.

Star Players - 

The big shock here is that I'm not featuring the seductive freshman talent of wing Sam Cuncliffe in this preview.  The blue-chip recruit, arguably the best to pledge for the Sun Devils since James Harden, made the abrupt decision to leave the program after just 10 games on campus, gutting the second unit in Tempe.  While the coaching staff claims his transfer 'was not completely unexpected,' it is, none-the-less, a blow to both team and program.  He had started each of those first 10 games, and took solid 10/5 averages with him out the door.
Tra Holder is the best single talent in Tempe.  From: Arizona Sports.
Cuncliffe's departure leaves a core of five veterans to eat up essentially every minute played each night.  Headlining that bunch is junior Tra Holder.  The 6-1 star out of LA is an electric combo guard possessing a good outside shoot, nasty moves off the dribble-drive, and a nose for offensive production.  He's been tabbing over 17 points per game this season, and is capable of some huge nights.  The Devils are further blessed to pair Holder with another solid backcourt option at the head of the offense, 6-1 transfer Shannon Evans.  Following his his current head coach westward from Buffalo, Evans is a great shooter who also averages near five assists per game.  The duo, though a little undersized, form one of the most productive, exciting backcourts in the league, and rotate as the 'true' point guard.

What scoring Holder and Evans can't come up with usually involves wing Torian Graham.  Another transfer from Buffalo, the senior leads the team in points per game with 18.3.  One of the most consistent ball handlers in the game (top-15 turnover rate), he loves to fire off three pointers from looks generated by the point guards.  Graham has chucked up 110 attempts for deep so far (roughly half of all of his shots), and hits at a solid 38% clip.  Don't look for him to attack off the dribble too much, though; he's earned just 24 free throw attempts on the year.  He pairs on the wing with versatile junior guard Kodi Justice.  The Mesa, AZ product is another good outside shooter, making for a 4th perimeter player that CU will need to guard out beyond the arc.
Graham brings a lot of scoring to the table.  From: Centre Daily Times
Rounding out the starting five, and, really, the rotation, is forward Obinna Oleka.  The senior from DC is often left as the only true forward on the court, but makes up for a lack of support with a ferocious, unending motor.  He has posted a top-60 defensive rebounding rate, and manages to find a number of ways to get to the rim and the free throw line.  While not the shooter of the other four starters, even Obinna will step out and attempt a three from time-to-time.  Colorado can't fall asleep on the perimeter this evening.

Off the bench, there's not much.  6-8 freshman forward Ramon Vila is the only other player currently on the roster with nightly minutes over 10 per (by comparison, CU has six bench players averaging at least that many), but even the Spaniard is mostly absent from the court. Beyond him, the pickings are even slimmer, unless you really care about the eight-ish minutes per night you'll see from Congolese center Jethro Tshisumpa.  Really, what you see in the starting five is what you get.

Coaching - 

Defections are starting to define ASU's head coach Bobby Hurley.  By the time they hit Boulder last winter, after discipline issues and transfers, they were down to just a handful of players.  That trend has only continued this season with the outward transfer of Cuncliffe, only further hamstringing the already short rotation.  Hurley simply doesn't have enough talent, yet, at his disposal.  That's not to say that the players we'll see on the court this evening aren't good, just that there aren't enough of them.
Coach Hurley doesn't have the pieces, yet.  From: NewsOK
Overall, you can kind of see what Hurley is trying to accomplish in Tempe.  After years of malaise under former coach Herb Sendek, the Duke legacy is looking to push his charges forward, playing fast, up-tempo basketball that could eventually put some butts in the seats.  Until he gets some depth, however, or gets his players to play some defense, the inconsistent performances will continue to pile up, along with the losses.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 1-0. Against the spread: 1-0. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +9 pt/gm)
Lines as of Thursday @ 8am - CU -1, O/U 153

Arizona State is a completely different challenge than either that of Utah from the past weekend or that of their Tucson cousins from the weekend to come.  They're significantly more perimeter focused, with fewer options to hurt Colorado inside. They key then becomes taking advantage in the paint.  Wes Gordon has to have a monster game, both in terms of scoring and defending the rim.  If he can stay out of foul trouble, and bring his 'A' game, CU has a good shot to win.

From there, it's all about defending the perimeter.  Of all the issues that have popped up this year, defending the three isn't one of them.  CU boasts a top-25 three-point shot percentage defense, holding opponents under 30% for the year.  If the Buffs can play to form, and limit ASU from deep, the Sun Devils could struggle to score.  After that, it's all about getting their own points.  CU should be able to get enough against ASU, particularly with Derrick White and Dom Collier holding decisive size advantages over the players who will be guarding them.

As such, I give the Buffs a better chance to steal the win on the road than you might think, given the recent run of play. I'll take the Buffs in a squeaker.

CU 77 - ASU 74


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