Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 28, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Oregon Basketball Preview #1

Ladies and gentlemen, the streak is over!  After their first seven tries against Pac-12 competition this season ended in failure, the Colorado Buffaloes finally entered a notch in the left-hand column with a 85-78 win over the Oregon State.  Never mind that the performance itself was far from perfect, never mind that the Beavers are one of the worst, most talent-starved teams in the nation, any win at this point looks sweet.  I'll take my sundae with three cherries on top, if you don't mind.
Plenty of new faces in the starting lineup on Saturday.  From: the BDC
The biggest story to come out of this game, beyond the simple fact of the schneid-busting first league victory, was the starting lineup.  In an effort to send a message to his charges, Coach Boyle went with five new starters, all of them underclassmen who had previously been averaging fewer than 15 minutes per game.  When the names were first read out - Thomas Akyazili, Deleon Brown, Tory Miller, Bryce Peters, ad Lucas Siewert - most fans, myself included, thought it was error or awkward joke. None but Brown had started a game this season, how could this be?  But, no, Tad was serious:
"That move was more a way to honor and to reward the guys who come to practice every day and who don’t get the minutes or haven’t gotten the starts.[...]  Other guys have had their opportunities and I thought it was time for those guys who hadn’t to get their chance. [...] It’s not anything against the guys who have been starting but it was more because the guys who haven’t been starting deserved a chance, and I thought that they handled it well." -link
I'm not sure the unorthodox starting five paid huge dividends, with the Beavers sticking with Colorado, both off the opening tip and at the start of the second half, but the idea of a fresh look makes a certain bit of sense right now.  The deck has cried out for a re-shuffling since the start of 2017, and this dramatic lurch, with five fresh faces getting their names called to start the game, was a quick way to accomplish that.
Nothing is ever easy with this bunch.  From: the BDC
Bryce Peters certainly seemed to answer the call.  In his first collegiate start, the spunky freshman combo guard went for 15/4/2 on 5-6 shooting.  While not the most effusive player in Colorado colors Thursday evening, he was the most efficient, and really seemed to lead the charge with the reserves on the floor.  Since he will head the next generation, it was good to see him step up when called.

CU was led on the evening, however, by an otherwise normal starter: George King.  The junior scoring guard lit up the board with 24 points, most of it in the first half, fueling the Buffalo attack that boasted 52 points off the bench. His performance was highlighted by this thunderous tomahawk jam off a steal, which was one of the most exciting plays of the entire campaign. He would cool off in the final stretch into the halftime break, and some hasty shots darkened an otherwise brilliant evening. Still, this is just the latest in a string of games where we've seen King return to the form of last season in a way Colorado has been desperate for.  In conference play, he's been the 16th-most efficient offensive performer in the Pac-12, with an ORtg near 120, an eFG over 61%, and a three-point rate of about 46%.  A few more weeks like this, and he could wind up earning some conference honors when all is said and done.
George King, y'all.  From: the BDC
But, of course, what we saw on the court from CU against the Beavers was far from perfect.  OSU is a terrible basketball team, remember, adrift without their full compliment of stars, and seemingly destined for worst-in-Power-5 status.  Yet, their offense, which struggles to walk and chew gum at the same time, was allowed to put up 1.15 points per possession, and their largest overall point total since a 93-90 home overtime loss to frickin' Savannah State. Drew Eubanks (27 points) and Stephen Thompson (26) were able to rip up the Buffs, with little to no defensive answer from those in white. Hell, the Beavs even out-rebounded CU.  If not for some head-scratchingly bad turnovers in the second half, they could've won this game!  Yes, a win is a win, but the faults we've seen all season are still there, and Colorado is still a fatally-flawed basketball team.  I hope for the best, but the victory here does little to instill any new-found confidence.

So, attention now turns to... *sigh* the 10th-ranked Oregon Ducks.  Raise the shields, because this one is going to be rough.


Hype Music for the Evening: "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" by Elton John

I turn today to British rock-and-roll.  Sir Elton went in an interesting direction with this track from his '73 album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," kicking in a roaring American-style hard rock anthem about getting lit at the local bars.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 7:30pm MT this evening.  Televised coverage can be found Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850AM

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

The Buffs did little to help themselves in Eugene last season, as they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot against the high-flying Ducks.  Turnovers?  Yep, 14 total, eight in the first half, turning into 21 points for Oregon.  Missed free throws?  Uh-huh, eight of 14 sent wide. Poor shooting on open looks? Sure, CU shot under 34% for the game, and 30% on three-point attempts.  All told, Colorado did not bring their A-game with them to the Pacific Northwest, and it showed throughout a perfunctory 76-56 loss to UO.

It was another case of a cold start, but, unlike the home game against Cal the previous weekend, there was no declarative answering run to shift the tide.  Through the first 12 minutes of the ballgame, CU had more turnovers (five) than field goals (three), and found themselves down 24-7 on the scoreboard, as a result.  They would eventually counter here, though, and scored nine points in four possessions to claw back within 10.  But, any hopes of a lead-trimming run into the half were short-lived.  Oregon would respond, going on a 14-5 sprint into the break, which sealed the deal on a 19-point halftime advantage.  While Colorado would briefly compete midway through the second, cutting the deficit from a ballooned 22 down to 11, the Ducks eventually regained their footing, and the Buffs settled back into their 20-point margin of defeat.
The Ducks swarmed an under-performing bunch of Buffaloes.  From: the Register Guard.
Duck Chris Boucher was the difference here.  In the first fixture against the Ducks last winter, he had been foul-limited to just 15 minutes of action in Boulder, which artificially cut into Oregon's overall performance. Given a full 35-minutes in this one, Boucher controlled much of the action.  Only seven points scored, but he also tallied 12 rebounds (helping UO trim CU's +14 rebounding margin in the first game down to only +4) and six blocks.  Josh Scott and Wes Gordon each seemed to fear Boucher's lurking athleticism, even when he was away from the play.  On a team of talented game changers, the JuCo transfer from tiny Northwest College in Wyoming may be the most unique. Oregon needed him as Dillon Brooks struggled, again, with foul trouble against CU, fouling out with only 10 points and a single rebound.

For the Buffs, Scott led the way with 17/7.  George King was right behind him with 16 points, but needed 19 shots to get there.  Xavier Talton had an interesting game off the bench, recording five assists, but those were canceled out by a rough effort from Josh Fortune, who turned it over five times.  Overall, not a great effort from anyone in Black and Gold, certainly not what you would've liked to have seen in a game between the first- and second-place teams in the Pac-12.  The Ducks threw everything off with a combination of trapping press and switching half-court defense, and the Buffs just never got comfortable attacking it, as they had in Boulder.

The Ducks in 2016-17 - 

Back before the season, I couldn't restrain my excitement for this Oregon team.  After an Elite Eight run a year ago, one which showcased some of the most entertaining ball in the entire country, they were returning almost all of their talent.  The case many around the nation (myself included) were making was that the 2016-17 Ducks were a Final Four contender, maybe even a dark horse candidate for a national championship run.

It's with that in mind that their rocky start to the campaign was met with shock and horror.  After a blowout win over Army on opening night, Oregon turned around to get crushed by Baylor in Texas. They would suffer further embarrassment the following week in Hawai'i, where they got upended by a particularly indifferent Georgetown in the opening round of the Maui Invitational.  After four games, the Ducks were 2-2, and seemed to be completely off their game.  Panic engulfed the streets, and national writers started penning mournful pages of opportunity lost.  Everyone seemed to agree to forget about Oregon.
After a rough start, the Ducks have rebounded for 17-straight wins, including a big one over UCLA.  From: Fansided
Any reports of their looming demise, though, were greatly exaggerated.  Part of the issue early on was that their great point forward, Dillon Brooks, was out with a foot injury.  Suffered earlier in the summer, it would go on to cost him months of playing time and the first three games of the year. Once healthy, however, his return calmed the waters in Eugene.  UO quickly recovered in the islands to salvage two wins in the Invitational, and, indeed, haven't lost since.  While not a perfect machine, they have made good on their pre-season promise, and are back on track for a second-consecutive 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, along with continued post-season glory.

The key this season has been their defense.  A top-15 unit, in terms of efficiency, it's easily the best defensive core that Colorado has seen in various shades of green and yellow since moving to this conference. They are tenaciously aggressive in weak and help-side attacks on the ball, posting the best block rate in the country (20%), while holding opponents to down around 0.92 points per possession.  This defensive efficiency is the biggest reason behind their 17-game win streak -- you have to work for what you get against this bunch, and most collegiate teams just don't have that kind of patience.  Taking into account the rounding error that is having to play the UCLA Bruins, Oregon has allowed just a tic over 60 points per game since the loss to Georgetown, and have held teams under 50 as many times (twice) as they've allowed over 70.  I can't go so far as to knight them as the second coming of the Giant Death Robot, as their rebounding numbers are merely average (70% defensive rate), but they are, none-the-less, a terror defensively.
Oregon doesn't give up anything easy inside.  From: Getty
With that in mind, the typically scatter-shot Buffs could be in some serious trouble with the ball this evening.  My big worry is in the paint.  Oregon is #1 in the country in blocking shots at the rim, sending back over 23% of all attempts (my head hurts just looking at that number).  I envision a Colorado team stuck around the perimeter, settling for outside jumpers and inarticulate passes into closing gaps.  If the shots aren't falling, which they never do for very long, I just struggle to come up with a scenario that CU can keep pace for very long.  Maybe some home whistle shenanigans, but you can only rely on that so much.

Back to the matter at hand: as strong as the defense has been, Oregon has taken a small step backwards offensively from a year ago.  It's not, however, one that I can really get too deep into dinging them for.  43% of all attempts are at the rim, with less than 20% from mid-range, making them very efficient.  They could stand to get to the line more (average in the country in FTA/FGA ratio), but with their defense holding opponents in check, their 80 points per game is more than enough.  Honestly, I expect Oregon will either win or come second in this league, and probably repeat as conference champions once all is said and done in Las Vegas.  After that, they should be the last Pac-12 team standing in March, once again.  A very, very, very good basketball team, and one that is particularly fun to watch... assuming your favorite team isn't stuck playing them

Star Players - 

Where else could I start but will Dillon Brooks?  The powerful point forward is one of the most interesting, creative forces in the college game today.  Slowed by the injury to start the year, and hampered with nagging dings and dents throughout, the junior has, none-the-less persevered into putting together solid 14/2/3 averages on only about 20 minutes per night.  He missed the game against Stanford last week with a lower leg injury, but returned for a big 19/2/3/2/2 line in the win over Utah this week.  When healthy, he takes the Ducks to another level, one which is championship-caliber.
Brooks spends a lot of time on the floor.  From: Sporting News.
The most striking part of Dillon's game is his willingness to get into the lane and draw contact.  Like the boulder from Indiana Jones fame, he rolls into the paint like an unstoppable juggernaut, wreaking havoc as he goes.  He uses his 6-7, 225 lbs frame, first step, and a willingness to take a hard foul (6.3/40) to create for both himself and others, and it really keys the Oregon offense.  As such, the Ducks give him 32% usage, and essentially let him dictate the scope of their attack out of isolation and pick-and-roll sets.  Defensively, he's very active, achieving both positive and negative results. Positive: a 3.5% steal rate and an ability to guard both inside and outside.  Negative: Dillon can give up a number of fouls (Remember, Brooks fouled out of both games against CU last season) and can occasionally find himself looking foolish. Overall, however, he's one of the best players in the country, and one that Colorado will struggle to contain.

Backing up Brooks in the backcourt is the dangerous duo of Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey.  The 6-2, 195 lbs Ennis is a grad transfer from Villanova who missed almost the entirety of last season with a broken foot,  So, not only did he miss the opportunity to be a part of a national title winner, but he also missed the year he moved to take advantage of.  Granted a medical redshirt and a second chance at a final run at collegiate ball, though, he has been making the most of it, averaging 12/5/3 as the primary ball handler when Brooks is otherwise engaged.  Dylan is also averaging 55% shooting from deep in conference play, making him a deadly shooter to go under a screen against.  Dorsey, or KEYSER SOZE as I referred to him as during the recruiting process, is an electric scoring guard with a knack for the dramatic.  He loves to take and hit dagger jumpers, the kind opponents never recover from. He's capable of putting up monster lines, but is averaging just 12 points per in the balanced Oregon attack.  When the call comes, however, expect the 6-4, 195 wing to answer with aplomb.
Dorsey is fun to watch.  From: Oregon Live
The frontcourt is where this team really gets interesting, though.  The combination of swing forward Chris Boucher and center Jordan Bell is one of the most daunting lines in the nation.  Last year was supposed to be Boucher's swan song, but the JuCo product from Montreal was granted an extra year of eligibility to the chagrin of every other team in the Pac-12.  As unique a forward as you'll find, the 6-10, 200 lbs pogo stick is as comfortable out on the perimeter as he is underneath.  He possesses great touch on his jumper, skilled moves at the rim, and versatility across the offensive spectrum. Defensively, he's top-10 nationally in block rate, and has the length and positioning to dominate the glass.  Maybe a little thin for the next level, he can be a dominant figure against college competition. Pairing him with Bell, another shot-blocking specialist and rebounding threat, is simply unfair.  The junior from Long Beach has a seemingly endless motor and incredible defensive intensity. Offensively, he doesn't have the shot of Boucher, but is nastier around the rim. All together, a pair of forwards to envy.
Bell can fly.  From: the Register Guard
Off the bench, The Ducks go a little deeper than they did a year ago.  There's the steady, veteran point guard Casey Benson, the powerful interior presence of Kavell Bigby-Williams, and the emerging freshman talent of Payton Pritchard.  Benson will be a familiar face, as he was the lead point guard throughout last season with Ennis injured.  What won't be as familiar is the turnover rate, in that he has one.  A sure-handed controller with the ball last year, Benson has been a little more error-prone this winter, but is still one of the most efficient back-up points around.  Bigby-Williams, an import from the UK, possesses great size, but can get into foul trouble.  Still, a strong backup behind Bell and Boucher.  Finally, Pritchard, a freshman from West Linn, OR, seems to be the point guard of the future, and has stepped in to run with one of the best teams in America for nearly 28 minutes per night.  Good facilitator, good shooter.  Overall, a better bench than they enjoyed previously, meaning you can't wear out the Ducks as easily as you could a year ago.

Coaching - 

My love/hate affair with head Oregon coach Dana Altman continues.  Love in terms of the product he puts on the court each and every night.  His teams play brilliant, composed, aggressive basketball, rarely taking possessions off, and competing at both ends of the floor.  Hate in terms of the fact that he's a slimy git who helped cover up a sexual assault scandal to allow the accused to power the Ducks into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.  The beautiful and the inexcusable.  And that's all I really have to say about him.
*shakes head*  From: Getty

Prediction - 

My record this year: 5-3. Against the spread: 4-4. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +0.75 pt/gm)
Lines as of Saturday @ 8am - CU +7, O/U 145

Yes, Tad Boyle teams have historically had success against Altman's Ducks, particularly at home.  In fact, his Tadness has never lost to Oregon in Boulder, going 4-0.  However, each of those teams laid down a road map to victory that I simply feel the 2016-17 Buffs are incapable of following.  In each instance, Colorado played consistent offensive basketball, avoided gut-wrenching mistakes, earned points in the margins with hustle plays, rebounded at an elite level, and, above all else, played defense.  This current squad can maybe come up with the rebound part. Maybe.  The rest?  Hell no.

As such, the Ducks are going to come in here and rip Colorado; no doubt in my mind.  No amount of Tad's black magic witchery is going to save CU this evening.  Give me Oregon by a boat-load.

UO 83 - CU 60


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