Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Cal Basketball Preview #1

New coach, same result for the Stanford Cardinal against the Colorado Buffaloes: loss.  As has happened every time these two programs have met since February of 2012, the Buffs looked comfortable and composed against their red and white clad foes Thursday evening in Palo Alto. They controlled the glass, shared the basketball, and hit open jumpers, racing out ahead of the hosts at a pace the offensively challenged Cardinal couldn't hope to match.  By the end of the game, Stanford just looked out of gas, giving the Buffs an easy-ish ride to the finish of a solid 81-74 win.
Some weirdness aside, the Buffs were able to deftly slip past Stanford.  From: the AP
This was a different narrative from the Oregon game last weekend.  Colorado didn't show the same defensive intensity they had displayed against the Ducks at home, and were much looser with the basketball (23 turnovers, which... I don't know, man).  From a shot-making perspective, though, they were on their game.  CU was hitting 53% from the field, helped by 19 assists on 26 baskets.  It wasn't perfect offense, but it was effective.

The primary fuel for the performance, on both ends of the court, was provided in the form of Derrick White.  The D-II transfer was at his all-around best Thursday night, putting up 19 points on just eight shots, to go along with eight boards, eight assists, four blocks, and a pair of steals.  He was clearly a step ahead of any Cardinal who dared try to keep him in check, blanketing the game with his skill, particularly in the second half.  Please excuse me, but I couldn't help but think back to the days when the great Spencer Dinwiddie used to do the same at the head of the Colorado attack -- White was that good on Thursday, and the key difference between winning and losing.

But, I can't talk about Derrick's ability to make stat-stuffing look so easy all day.  I also have to  talk about the turnovers. Nearly a third of all Colorado possessions ended in one.  All 11 of the Buffs who saw action against the Cardinal committed at least one. Forwards Tory Miller and Wesley Gordon, the primary culprits, each had four to tie for the team lead.  The turnovers came in every imaginable shape: travels, wayward passes, offensive fouls, poor focus on the dribble; you name it.  Sloppy basketball to a 'T.'  Luckily, Stanford was incapable of making Colorado pay, as the Buffs kept canning shots whenever they managed to complete a possession.  I guess the basketball gods were asleep at the switch, with the game ending past 11pm, otherwise they would've dropped the hammer on CU for their malfeasance with the rock.
Good rebounding numbers made up for the turnovers.  From: the AP
Overall, though, a weird game, which is what I've come to expect in this series.  Beyond the turnovers, and the Cardinal's inability to turn them into meaningful offense at home, there was:

  • George King going all 21 of his minutes without scoring a point.
  • The first 10 minutes of the game going by largely unnoticed as the Pac-12 Network stuck with the double-OT Cal/Utah game
  • A foul being called on Deleon Brown for getting shoved in the back
  • The anemic-shooting Cardinal self-inflicting 19 three-point attempts
  • A kicked ball whistle late in the action when the ball touched no feet.  

Just some weird, wacky, wild stuff.  I'll assume peyote was involved.

Anyway, attention now turns to Sunday's trip to Cal.  Whereas the Buffs have done well against Stanford over the years, they have struggled to do the same against the Bears, particularly in Berkeley.  This will be a good test, then, to see how much mojo CU really has ginned up for themselves over their recent three-game win streak.  'Cause, if they can steal a win in this one, the schedule opens up a bit for them...


Hype Music for the Afternoon: "Telegraph Avenue ('Oakland' by Lloyd)" by Childish Gambino

From the edges of Silicon Valley, the Buffs now head up to East Bay.  And, forgive me Berkeley, but if you're talking East Bay, first comes Oakland.  Gambino, with an assist from Lloyd, has us here. Stick with the video til the end... it takes a turn.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from Haas Pavilion in Berkeley is set for 2:30pm MT on Sunday.  Your Super Bowl party can wait, so give the Buffs their due, and flip over to ESPNU to catch the action.  The radio call will be 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last year in Boulder, the Colorado Buffaloes looked to be caught on the wrong side of a brewing beat-down at the hands of the Golden Bears.  They entered the first media timeout scoreless (something I've dubbed 'the Patton.'), only had two points entering the second, and were shooting somewhere near 6% from the floor after eight minutes of play.  But, while CU was struggling on offense, the Bears were unable to take full advantage, only ever stretching the lead out to 12-3 before Colorado could respond.  And, respond they did, roaring out on a 34-11 run to close the half.  It was the only lead change in the entire ballgame, a decisive hammering of the home court advantage button.  While Cal would sneak back into the game with a strong second half, it was never enough to make it a one possession ballgame, and CU skated home with a 70-62 win.

The first half charge, and really the entire Black and Gold attack, was powered by the effective, calming play of Dom Collier.  Thethen-sophomore point guard had been quietly putting up strong performance after strong performance in weeks leading up to the game, averaging 3.7 assists and only one turnover per night over the previous six games. In this one, he stuffed the stat sheet for 14/4/3/3 without turning the ball over once, and dominated the key stretch where CU took control.  Simply wonderful point guard play.
Quick fouls on Jaylen Brown really helped matters.  From:
Dom helped the team pounce on a damning foul situation for Cal. Three starters - Kingsley Okoroh, Sam Singer, and Jaylen Brown - all picked up two fouls in the opening 10 minutes of play (Okoroh would pick up a 3rd before half, as well), shortening the already thin Bear bench past the breaking point.  Suddenly forced to play deep reserves like Stephen Domingo, Roger Moute a Bidias, and Brandon Chauca leveraging minutes at altitude, the preaseason dark horse pick for the Pac-12 crown stumbled around like a drunken sophomore.  Momentum turned, the large crowd of non-students piped up, and the game was effectively won before half.

What second half struggles there were were a result of Colorado settling for jump shots - many of them from forwards Josh Scott and Wes Gordon - without much rhyme or reason.  At one point, it seemed as if the team was even running a corner three set for J40, something which had me scratching my head in frustrated silence.  Maybe the team was trying something new with a big lead at home, or maybe they just lost focus given time and score.  Certainly Cal deserves some credit here, because they are a nightmare defensively in the paint. Regardless, CU forgot the fundamentals that got them to that point in the contest, and it started to show on the scoreboard.  Luckily, the ship was righted in time.  And Josh Scott? Well, he would wind up leading the team in scoring, yet again, with 18 points despite struggling a bit from the field (5-17).
The swarming Buffs had to survive a bit, but still claimed a big win.  From: The Post.
In the end, Colorado hit their numbers: held Cal to 35% from the floor, won the rebounding battle, limited turnovers to fewer than 10, and got to the line 30 times.  When a Coach Boyle-led team plays like that, they're long-shots to drop a home game; simple arithmetic.  It wasn't necessarily smooth, and, without those early fouls, maybe the game plays out completely differently, but it was a win.  A big, damn, needed win.  With it the Buffs improved to 17-5 on the season (6-3 in the Pac-12) and a startling 16-1 in all games that they score at least 70 points in (1-4 when they don't).

The Golden Bears in 2016-17 - 

Cal has, very quietly, been putting together a solid season.  Coming into the weekend at 16-6 overall, 7-3 in conference play, they have a resume that reminds me a lot of the one that Colorado boasted last March - no huge wins, but not a single bad loss on the docket.  Their best victories, from a KenPom ranking perspective, have come over the past month against USC (on the road) and Utah in double overtime on Thursday.  That pair is a thin argument for the Tournament, on their own. Their six losses, though, are highly excusable.  SDSU and Seton Hall on neutral floors, Virginia and Arizona at home, and UCLA and Oregon on the road.  Not a rotten apple in the bushel.  So far, they've been hitting their mark, winning the games they should, and not taking any eye-popping defeats.  As such, they're easily on the road to the Tournament with a month to go.
Good defense has Cal on the path to the Tournament.  From: the Salt Lake Trib.
Statistically, Cal is riding the wave of a strong defense. While they won't create a lot of turnovers, the Golden Bears are 12th nationally with an adjusted defensive efficiency under .93 ppp, as they strangle the life out of you underneath the rim, limiting easy looks, and gobbling up the misses.  Sort of a #TadBall dream, Cal limits opponents to just 42% shooting from two-point range (13th in the country), and rip away over 76% of defensive rebounding opportunities. Shot percentage defense and rebounding... a winning combination, or so I've been told.

The weird thing is, teams keep trying to attack them inside the arc.  Just 31% of all shots are taken from deep against them, in the bottom-10% nationally, meaning opponents keep trying to find shots against the interior of their defense.  That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, overall.   Cal has a trio of lurking veteran forwards who can turn away would be shooters; I would think the stats would show a preference away from the tin, as a result.  But, the shots keep coming from up close.  And the Bears, while not as strong in this area as Oregon is, keep sending them back -- 17% block rate on shots at the rim, 9% on two-point jumpers.  If I were the Buffs, I'd be looking to create with my outside jumper, rather than running headlong into those forwards.  I know the formula usually works inside-out, but I distinctly remember the Haas-edition of this series from last year, where a home whistle and those same tall trees made it a nightmare in the paint for Colorado.  Starting with the jumper, then looking inside might me more profitable on the road against these Bears.  In a few weeks, in Boulder, that's when you attack inside, when you have a home whistle at your back to pile up some fouls on that front-line.
Shooting is not their strong suit.  From: Cal Golden Blogs
Anyways, the Golden Bears are largely pedestrian on offense.  Top-third nationally, but not much better.  They play slow, measured possessions (over 18 seconds per), and rarely cough up the basketball (top-15 nationally in turnover rate). Their shooting numbers, however, are really ugly, meaning they aren't making the most out of those possessions.  Just 34% shooting from deep and 48% from inside the arc (both solidly below the national average), I would assume there will be plenty of rebounding opportunities this afternoon.  Even when they get to the line, Cal struggles -- they're 329th nationally in free throw percentage, hitting just 64% of the time from the charity stripe. Just not a strong shooting team.

I'm interested to see, then, what kind of defensive intensity the Buffs will bring with them this afternoon.  If Cal is hitting their shots in bunches, there will be big problems.  CU needs them to be taking inefficient trips and struggling with the rim.  Otherwise, I just don't seeing a path to victory if Colorado is forced to out-score the Golden Bears in their own gym.

Star Players - 

The big pleasant surprise for Cal over the offseason was that super-star freshman forward Ivan Rabb would be returning to school for his sophomore campaign.  An East Bay product of near-by Oakland, Rabb looked to me to be ready for the next step, from a production stand point, after just the one season. Certainly, he would've had a strong case for lottery pick status after averaging nearly a double-double as a frosh, even if his 6-11, 200 lbs frame still needed a bit of growth and seasoning. But Rabb, nonplussed, was willing to wait on the millions and the spotlight. "At the end of the day, the NBA isn’t going anywhere."  To each their own, I guess.
Rabb returns as the class of Cal.  From: Cal Golden Blogs
So, lo and behold, the great Rabb is back, and is still a monster in the paint.  A do-it-all kind of power forward, Ivan is averaging a 16/11 double-double this season.  He's explosive athletically, composed both with the ball and without, and a step-ahead of most of the guys who are tasked with guarding him.  The really scary thing is that he's still developing, too.  Cal will look to him to pace their offense, pull down tough boards, and make the big plays, on both ends, down the stretch if the game is tight.  A huge challenge for Xavier Johnson, et al.

Rabb tag-teams with a pair of towering centers, headlined by junior Kingsley Okoroh.  A true seven-footer from the UK, he can dominate the action under the rim, particularly on the defensive end where he is posting a block rate over 11% this season.  Kingsley will also eat up what rebounds Rabb can't, especially on the offensive end, and generally clog up the paint.  His backup, Kameron Rooks, is of a similar mold.  The 7-1 junior from San Marcos, CA doesn't get huge minutes, but he can be just as daunting defending the rim as Rabb and Okoroh.  He missed 10 games earlier this season, however, with a knee injury, and still looks to be getting back into the flow of things. Combined, the pair was able to shut down CU in the Berkeley fixture of this series last year, and it wouldn't shock me if they did the same this time, either.
Okoroh can be a nightmare to score against.  From: the AP
In the backcourt, Cal was gutted by the graduate transfer of Jordan Matthews (who routinely killed the Buffs over three seasons), and key recruit Tyson Jolly asking out of his NLI (eventually ending up at Baylor).  With them out of the picture, much of the creative offensive drive has fallen to the shoulders of freshman point guard Charlie Moore.  A 5-11 spark-plug from Chicago, Moore has come onto the scene and taken a team-leading 239 shots through 22 starts (the only player on the roster to start every game for Cal this season).  Simply, he dominates possession, getting utilized near-27% of the time, and initiating everything from outside.  It's not a perfect fit, though, with the freshman, as would be expected, struggling with turnovers and his jumper.  As a result, his efficiency rating is is a tick under 100, and a large part of the reason Cal's overall offensive efficiency has suffered this season.  A high-ceiling, however, for the young guard; we'll be seeing a lot of him in the coming years.

At his side on the wing are a trio of senior guards: Jabari Bird, Sam Singer, and Grant Mullins.  Bird, a one-time five-star recruit out of Vallejo, CA, is putting up solid 15/5 numbers this season.  He mostly stays out on the wing, though, taking over half of all his shots from deep.  He's making just 35% from out there, though, so it's more of a volume thing. Singer, who we've also seen kicking around for a while, is still the same pass-first back-up point guard that you remember.  Mullins, though, while a senior, is a new face.  A graduate transfer from Ivy league Columbia (the second Evil Eight transfer into the program in three years), Mullins was 2nd Team All-Ivy a year ago, and was a 13/3/3 kind of player for the Lions.  His numbers haven't dipped much on the Left Coast, with the heady shooter tickling the twine from deep as the Bears' best three-point artist (42% in conference play).  Colorado will need to defend him outside.
Why does Bird mostly settle for jumpers?  From: the AP
Past those first seven, there's not much exciting talent left on the Cal roster.  Sophomore Don Coleman will see occasional action as a deep backup guard, and old hands Roger Moute A Bidias and Stephen Domingo can show up if Cal needs to go deep on the wing.  However, none will stretch you too much.  This is a seven-deep team, for the most part.

Coaching - 

For a time, at least, it looked as if Cuonzo Martin would have only a brief stay in Berkeley.  While he was bringing in talent and winning some games through two seasons, he famously hadn't signed his contract, and the program ran up on the rocks with the Yann Hufnagel scandal.  With recruits and seniors alike bailing, it would've been pretty easy for both parties to part ways after last season -- Cuonzo for calmer waters, Cal and their new-er AD to a fresh start.  To everyone's credit, though, cooler heads prevailed, Martin was exonerated from any wrongdoing with Hufnagel, he went on to finally sign his contract (soon thereafter extended), Rabb decided to stay, and the Bears settled into shape for the 2016-17 season.
Cuonzo returns!  From: NBC Sports
I'm glad for Martin and the Bears.  I think each are a good fit for the other.  For Martin, especially, this appears to be a much more comfortable fit than his days as Bruce Pearl's replacement at Tennessee.  He can be a top-notch recruiter, especially given Cal's obvious advantages, and his style fits well in the league.  Coming off of a Tournament appearance, and seemingly on track for another, I could see this pairing, Cal and Cuonzo, staying together for quite some time.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 5-5. Against the spread: 4-6. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -3.7 pt/gm)
Lines as of Saturday @ 8am - CU +6 O/U 135

Something always seems to happen when the Buffs travel to Berkeley that sends the game spiraling away from the visitors.  They've been close, a couple of times, but the breakthrough win in Haas has eluded them.  I don't see any crack in that formula today.  Okoroh and Rabb will plug up the middle, whistles will go against CU, and 50-50 rebounds will go to the hosts.  Plug in a few too many missed jumpers from Colorado, and the game could get out of hand.  Give me the Bears by 10:

Cal 70 - CU 60


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