Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tuesday Grab Bag: It's a New Year, but Buffs look the same

Happy New Year!  The Holiday schedule has left me precious little time for idle chit-chat, so it's straight to the action this afternoon.

Today in the bag, I'm talking a trio of disappointing losses to close the book on 2016: a rough collapse in Salt Lake City for Men's Hoops, a forgettable Alamo Bowl in football, and an awkward stumble from the Women's Basketball Team.

Click below for the bag...

Utes thump Buffs in conference opener - 

Sunday afternoon, in the first conference action for both clubs, the Utah Utes provided no quarter, pummeling Colorado for the vast majority of the 40 minutes of basketball on display.  Despite a solid start from those in Black and Gold, the familiar woes of focus and intensity reared their ugly heads, as an early lead soon vanished in a tidal wave of Ute points.  By the end, the 76-60 final was really the best CU could've hoped for, somehow forestalling a much larger margin of loss.
All smiles from the Utes.  From: the Deseret News.
The Buffs actually started out hot, forcing turnovers and getting out on the break.  By the time I tuned in, the team was already up a handful, and they would go on to force a timeout up eight after only two and a half minutes.  Once the Utes settled in, however, they would never look back.  From about the 17 minute mark of the first half to about the same of the second, Utah would out-score Colorado 41-19.  They were hitting shots, defending, attacking the rim, and forcing sloppy, lazy mistakes from the visitors.  By the first media timeout of the final frame you could see the shoulders slumping on the CU sideline, and any lingering fire was gone from the Colorado performance.  Game-set-match.

In my preview, I worried about the Buffs being able to defend a team dedicated to getting the ball deep into the paint, and what would happen if Wes Gordon got into early foul trouble.  We saw both issues dagger Colorado on Sunday.  Utah would end up getting 46 of their points in the paint, leveraging strong performances from forwards David Collette and Kyle Kuzma to eviscerate the Buffs down low.  It helped that cause, however, that Gordon picked up two quick whistles, right about the time the Utes found their groove in the first half.  Wes' fouls came on the same possession, and the difference in timbre in the aftermath was stark.  Without the threat of the versatile, athletic defender from Colorado Springs to ward off penetration, Utah went wild, and the game turned dramatically.  Collette and Kuzma were essentially able to get whatever look they wanted -- for the game, CU would allow 53% shooting from the field, which is a disaster in #TadBall terms. 
CU was out-muscled in the paint.  From: the SL Trib
 By the time Wes was re-inserted, at the start of the second half, momentum had already shifted, and Gordon was too cold to really affect the game in the ways we're used to seeing.  Derrick White tried to cover everything up with a solid 15/2/8/2, and George King finally started scoring in a new role off the bench (the first starting lineup shakeup for CU this season), but it wasn't enough.  This team simply can't score enough to make up for defensive inefficiencies, especially with shooters like Dom Collier and Josh Fortune whiffing from deep (1-6, combined, from beyond the arc).  

And with that, the streak is now up to six -- as in six straight losses for the Buffaloes against their travel partner from out West.  I really don't know what else to say at this point.  It has become crystal clear that the Buffs are not what I expected them to be, and are, in fact, destined for a painful conference run this winter.  If the last month was spent watching the plane plummet to earth, hoping that somehow, someway they'd be able to pull out of the crash, then Sunday was the first moment of impact.  Over the next two weeks, against good teams from Arizona, UCLA, and USC, I fully expect Colorado to get ripped apart.  The only thing left to do, at this point, is grit the teeth and lean into the wreck. 

Buffs blown out in Texas - 

Welp, that sucked.  Back in Big XII country, playing a familiar foe in the Oklahoma State Cowboys, the Buffs lost all the vim and vigor they had shown throughout the season.  They came out flat in the Alamo Bowl, stayed even flatter, and only barely managed to register a pulse towards the end of the game.  The 38-8 loss is a hard pill to swallow, only salvaged by the fact that they at least managed to not get shut out... like Ohio State did.
I'm just not used to seeing the CU corners get burned like that.  From: NewsOK
You could tell something was wrong right away.  Ahkello Witherspoon, the dynamic corner who breaks up passes like they're relationships, wasn't starting, and his tag-team partner, Chido Awuzie, was a step slow.  Suddenly, the devastatingly destructive Colorado defense looked pedestrian.  We would later learn that both Ahkello and Chido were hurt, which meshes with what I saw live, but it was still shocking to see the pair getting burned and abused in the passing game.  The Cowboys would go on to put up 338 yards through the air, which is a harrowing figure compared to what the unit is capable of.

Still, the banged up defense doesn't excuse the anemic offensive performance.  Faced with one of the worst units in the country, the Buffaloes managed to put up just 318 yards of total offense.  OSU was keying on the QB dive that CU had leaned on throughout the season, negating everything the Buffs look to do in short yardage.  From there, all it took was another injury to Sefo Liufau, and everything petered out.  Though Colorado would put together a nice scoring drive in the 4th, ending with a fitting Sefo plunge into the endzone, the game was all over by then.  Combined with the Utah and Washington games, the offense scored just 28 points in the final 12 quarters of play this season.
At least Sefo ended his career in the endzone.  From: the Times-Call
Thus, the magical 2016 season did not end in storybook fashion for our gold-helmeted heroes.  In fact, the ending reminded me just how far CU still has to go to become a truly 'good' program.  No shame in that, however.  No amount of points surrendered or squandered in December can take away the 10 wins earned over the regular season.  I'm still proud of what the Buffs accomplished, and thankful for the entertainment they provided.  While I can't truthfully say that I'm 'looking forward' to next season, I can at least say that I won't groan when the first fall camp stories start hitting my inbox. That, in and of itself, is a miracle.

Women's Basketball Team continues skid - 

JR Payne's squad, over on the other side of the CEC, had been doing wonders in the early going of the 2016-17 season.  Winning their first 10 games of the year, they had vaulted into the national top-15, and looked to be an echo of #TheRise on the hardwood.  Then, Wyoming came to town.  The regional bugaboo which haunted the men's team over a decade similarly upended the ladies' run at non-conference perfection, 82-75, back on the 21st of December.

'No big deal,' you would think, 'everyone's allowed a bad night.'  Certainly, mulligans are accepted practice, and rightly so.  However, the skid started that night against the Cowgirls has only continued into the New Year, with the Buffs losing their first conference games on the road against USC and UCLA.  The problem has been the combination of a bad run of shooting and a leaky defense.  Over the three losses, Colorado has allowed 48% shooting from the floor, while only getting 37% themselves. That's a steep disparity to overcome without some crazy activity in the margins, and a bad trend for the Buffs to fall into.  
Buffs continued their slide in Los Angeles.  From: UCLA Athletics
While the Bruins are a top-10 team, and losing to them in their own gym is hardly cause for a riot, I am concerned over the three-game skid, as a whole.  It has bounced CU from the rolls of the ranked; maybe they were playing a bit over their head to start the year, but still, you never want to see an extended slide like this take over the narrative of a season.

At the end of the day, however, losing happens; it's how you respond that counts.  Coming home this week, for games against the Arizona schools, it'll be vital that CU rebounds and earns the sweep.  I'll be up at the Keg for both games with the Alumni Basketball Band, looking to cheer on the team to victory. Hopefully, they can get back on track, and keep the dreams of a stunningly awesome season afloat.

Happy Tuesday!

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