Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 21, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Washington State Basketball Preview #1

It is what it is.  What else can you really say after watching the Buffs blow a 17-point second half lead to eventually lose 85-83 in overtime to a dreadful Washington side?  If you were wondering, by chance, if things could get worse after an 0-5 start to conference play, the answer is an emphatic 'YES!'  It's 0-6 now, Colorado's worst start to conference play since I was in third grade.  It is what it is.
XJ's heroics were not enough in Seattle.  From:
I know I couldn't have been the only one at the half confident that the team in Black and Gold would find a way to spike their massive 15-point halftime lead.  Sure, others allowed themselves to get a little cocky, but there was nothing in me that felt that we were watching the exclamatory rout that the men on TV were describing.  Both teams were sloppy.  Both teams were showing their faults. Colorado was just scoring more points, that's all.  The missed three pointers that were knifing Washington (1-12 over the opening 20 minutes) weren't necessarily the result of perfect Colorado defense, just misses from the home team against a zone. Block out the score, and I saw an otherwise even, chaotic affair headed into the break.

So, of course, after halftime, that lead began to shrink in the most familiar of ways.  Defense slumped, shots were taken hastily, rebounding suffered.  Those threes that were missed in the first half suddenly started going in (7-13 after the break).  Us veterans in the crowd have seen it before, a carbon copy of those lost leads from a year ago.  I'll grant that the team showed good heart to fight off the demons and force overtime in the final minute, but the end of the game was simply boneheaded -- getting beaten back down the court for an open corner three.  The straw that broke the Buffalo's back, as it were.  Enough to make you wretch.
Fultz is an incredible talent.  From:
Sure, there are some bright spots here.  Xavier Johnson had the kind of game that will get mention by me in his senior profile, going for 24/11, and really pushing the Buffs in the final minutes of regulation and in overtime.  Derrick White also added a nice 23 points and eight assists to his totals, despite not getting a single call from the refs all night.  A hat-tip to Wes Gordon, as well, who provided five blocks, to go along with his 11 rebounds.  For those who like watching opponents get theirs, you also got to see 37 points of brilliance from Markelle Fultz.  Sloppiness aside, it was a fun game to watch, had I not been emotionally invested.

The problem, of course, is that I am emotionally invested, and that loss will sting quite a bit for some time.  In context, it's a result that means relatively little -- the season was in free-fall long before this trip to Seattle.  Out of context, though, this is one that will linger in the back of my mind for some time.  Again, enough to make you wretch.


Hype Music for the Day: "State of the Union" by Rise Against

Rise Against!  I've long been a fan of this band.  They check most of my boxes: punk, fast, their lyrics are there for more than just window dressing... oh, and they're from Chicago.  This track, which is pretty hardcore, kicked off their third studio album (and my personal favorite) "Siren Song of the Counter Culture."

As a side note, lead singer Tim McIlrath performed the national anthem at Sox opening day a few years back.  One of the more interesting renditions of the tune I've ever heard -- he's got a really unique voice to show off when he's not screaming.  Anyways, enjoy!


Tip-off from Beasley Coliseum in Pullman is set for 2pm this afternoon.  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, late in the first overtime of Colorado's eventual 88-81, double-OT win over Washington State last winter, that it dawned upon me that the Buffs might actually lose to the Cougars.  Even up to that point I was in denial; "No, certainly this is not real life.  Something will happen to forestall this crap," I thought.  "CU just can't lose to the worst damn team in the league!" Then WSU guard Que Johnson hit his and-one layup, free throw combo to stake his team to a 77-74 lead with only 21 seconds to play.  Suddenly, the loss seemed very real, and very damning.  An empty, cold feeling only deepened when the teams traded free throws over the next 13 seconds of clock to leave the Buffs down 78-75 with just eight ticks to play.  Sure, there was still hope, but it was no longer something that I could stomach to let live in my mind.

Then, George King went and did something ridiculous:
His shot came out of nowhere.  Every dribble to his right seemed to take him deeper and deeper into trouble against lanky Cougar forward Josh Hawkinson.  King was seemingly in no man's land, and was about to take the Buffs' post-season dreams down with him.  Even his release - off-balance, fading away - was awkwardly wrong.  Then the ball soared goalwards, and it was pure. Sure, Colorado would need to surge ahead in the second overtime, but that seemed mere formality at that point.  Win saved, season saved.

It was a moment of brilliant absurdity from an otherwise ugly, awful, forgettable game.  At home, against by far the worst team in the Pac-12, a good Colorado team struggled for most of regulation, eschewing the attacking play that had served them well in the opening minutes for a stilted, conservative style that got them nothing but contested looks at the end of the shot clock. Further, injuries to Josh Scott (didn't suit up) and Tre'Shaun Fletcher (played, but eventually sat), along with foul trouble from starting point guard Dom Collier, left the Buffs with a six-man rotation late in the game.  As a result, Washington State shot an asinine 55% in regulation against CU, who, in turn, missed almost everything in the second half (33% shooting, 0-5 from deep). The team looked tired, out of ideas, and on the ropes.

The King shot, then, exists as a moment of salvation.  Colorado deserved to lose that game, and bathe in the wrath of everything that comes with losing to a team outside of the RPI top-180 on home hardwood.  King said no, however, leaping at a chance to take the team onto his shoulders at a time when others on the roster were looking to pass out of open attempts.  That the '15-'16 Buffs would go on to make the NCAA Tournament only underscores the importance.

The Cougars in 2016-17 - 

Another bunch from the State of Washington, another dismal resume and statistical profile.  Is it something in the water up there?  Anyways, Wazzou is an awful team this year, but, then again, they're an awful team most years.  Slotted outside the KenPom top-200, they lost in non-conference play to heavyweights like Loyola-Chicago (go Ramblers!), San Jose State, and *gasp* New Orleans by 26 (!!!!!!).  Good gracious Lord, that's a train-wreck.  A loss like that should end your program, or at least kick you out of the Power 5.

Bask, then, in the miracle that is WSU's 2-0 start to Pac-12 play.  Sure, it was against fellow dregs Washington and Oregon State, but Colorado, an otherwise talented team, can't buy a win against anyone right now, so who am I to judge? Besides, any conference win is hard to earn, especially for a team as lackluster as the Cougs.  So, kudos.  Of course, they've lost every game since, including Wednesday's against Utah by 41, so don't think that 2-0 start meant anything outside of a scheduling fluke.
Washington State has two conference wins this year... why is this so damn hard, again?  From: the Olympian
Overall, this is an inefficient bunch.  The Cougars are under 1.01 ppp on offense, and give up an adjust 1.06 on defense -- both good for bottom-third nationally.  It's the sign of a team that under-talented and struggling to find an identity.  If I had to point to anything they do particularly well, it's free throw shooting.  WSU's top-10 in the country with a 78% clip from the stripe, which is outstanding.  Problem is, they're 240th in FTA/FGA ratio, so they're not really taking enough advantage of their talents there. Just keep them off the line and you should be fine. Similarly, on the defensive end, the Cougs do a good job keeping the opponent off the line, with the opposition getting less than 14% off all scoring on freebies.  I guess, call them disciplined?

Really, however, this is not the kind of team that should scare you.  They don't get second looks (346th in offensive rebounding), struggle in both scoring and defending, and are otherwise rather milquetoast (middle of the road in pace).  Colorado should be capable of running them out of the gym, but this year is one long treatise in bucking expectations.  Get ready for something weird and stupid.

Star Players - 

Hey, Josh Hawkinson is still around!  The baby-faced 6-10 senior power forward from Shoreline, WA is taking his swan song trip around the league this season, having powered Washington State for each of the last two years.  So remarkably consistent, he has averaged 15/11 since his sophomore year, playing at an All-Conference level for a team without anything else resembling that stature.  When you talk WSU hoops, you talk Hawk, no questions asked.
Hawk rules the roost in Pullman.  From: USA Today
Josh's calling card is his defensive rebounding rate.  The previous two seasons, he hauled in 31% of all opportunities, good for top-five nationally in each campaign.  That rate has slipped a bit this year, but his current 26.8 is good for top-30 in the country, which is not too shabby.  If an opponent misses a shot against the Cougs, chances are Hawkinson is hauling it in -- he's got 117 more total boards than anyone else on the roster.

Beyond just cool rebounding numbers, Josh is also a strong scoring leader for the team.  He leads the team in raw points, as well as free throws and attention paid by opposing defenses. When State needs a bucket, when only a big shot will do, the senior is usually the one the club turns to. The interesting thing, however, is that he largely likes to take jumpers, taking almost two-thirds of his looks from mid-range on out. Josh is a good shooter, though, boasting a TS% near 60%; no shame in seeing him pull up on the baseline.  A very interesting defensive and rebounding challenge for Xavier Johnson, then.
I like Ike, he's a fun ballplayer to watch. From: the AP
Past Hawkinson, you can only really look to Ike Iroegbu.  The spunky point guard hung 27 on the Buffs in Pullman last year, if you want to recall, and can be a nasty lead guard for Hawk and the rest of the team to play off of.  Despite being just 6-2, Iroegbu gets nearly half of his shots at the rim, as he shows off his fantastic speed in charging through the heart of the defense.  Colorado has to find a way to keep him in front of the defense today.

If you wanted to, you could then talk about freshman sensation Malachi Flynn.  The diminutive guard from Tacoma has transitioned well to the collegiate game, getting 12 points a game this year.  He's a good outside shooter, and interesting compliment to Iroegbu in the backcourt.  You could also talk about beefy 7-0 center Connor Clifford, who has had his own success against the Buffs.  The big crimson dog gets what action around the rim Hawkinson can't eat up, and Connor can push around a number of under-sized centers, surprising with slippery quickness.  You'd just be wasting your time, however, as no one should be looking that deeply into the WSU roster for anything other than the sake of idle curiosity.

Coaching - 

Yep, Ernie Kent's still in Pullman.  Best thing I can say about that is at least the position keeps him out of the television booth.  His rebuild at State has been largely indifferent; barely a blip on the radar, outside of a hilarious win over UCLA last season.  His offenses have even been slowing down over the last two campaigns.  I'm starting to lose interest, to be honest.  What had seemed like a potentially interesting pairing on the Palouse has turned... boring.
Kent is old school, and it helped the Buffs win last winter. From:
Still, gotta give him credit for not fouling on the possession that ultimately lead to King's game-tying bucket last winter.  Had the classically-minded coach found the modern strategy at the bottom of his bag of tricks, CU might've missed the NCAA Tournament last season.  So, thanks Coach Kent!

Prediction - 

My record this year: 3-3. Against the spread: 2-4. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.33 pt/gm)
Lines as of Tuesday @ 8pm - CU -5, O/U 140

Back in football season, I changed my posture on predicting games after the opening weeks to just picking Colorado in every game, as an acknowledgement that the team was kicking the crap out of the line game-in, game-out.  I think I need to take the opposite approach here.  CU is finding ways to lose right now, and my picking strategy should acknowledge that.  Therefore, and for no other reason, I'm picking Wazzou today.

WSU 75 - CU 70


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