Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Oregon Basketball Preview #2

Ugly, messy, fought with unnecessary difficulty.  These are the ideas that spring to my mind when considering Colorado's 60-52 win over Oregon State on Thursday.  Similar to the first meeting in Boulder, the Beavers were allowed to stick with the Buffs, who possessed far more talent and depth than OSU could possibly bring to bear, for far too long.  However, in the final minutes of regulation, with the Beavs sniffing out the possibility of their first Pac-12 win of the season, CU slammed the door on their over-sized tails.  Clinging to a one point lead, Derrick White knifed into the action, and nailed a jumper.  On the ensuing possession, he then extended for a miraculous block of Beaver forward Gligorije Rakocevic, which turned into a crippling blow when Xavier Johnson swished a corner three with some 30 seconds to play.  Boom, just like that, a six point lead materialized on the scoreboard, and the game was effectively over.  Thanks for coming, don't forget to tip your waitress.

That's what makes this effort against lowly Oregon State so befuddling.  There's no reason Colorado should've let the hosts hang on, even going so far as to let them pull even with under two minutes to play.  But the finishing touches shown by the Buffs in sealing the win were, none-the-less, impressive. CU was hungry for victory in this one; you could see it even as OSU was sticking close. The defense was tenacious, and the late-game offense was exquisite.  This was the killer mentality that the team was missing earlier in the year, the desperate energy that so often separates the winners from the losers with post-season positioning on the line.  It's a mentality that has been with the team since the Oregon game a few weeks ago, and one that could serve them well as the calendar starts to look a whole lot like March.
Beavs made it ugly, but the Buffs prevailed.  From: the Press-Democrat
The star of the game is easy to pick out here.  As much for his late-game heroics as his 20/1/4/2/3 overall line, Derrick White stands above the rest.  Far from an isolated incident, either.  The fifth-year senior transfer has earned KenPom's game-MVP honors in five of the last six evenings, a run that includes some of the best basketball he's played all year.  The mercurial point guard is really coming into his own at the perfect time, carrying the Buffs and their fortunes on his shoulders as they race down the back-nine of their Pac-12 schedule.  Let's not forget, though, the 17/4 efforts of Xavier Johnson.  He hit the game sealing bucket, after all, and was aggressive in finding scoring opportunities all night long.

Overall, this was a rough night for Colorado, at least offensively.  The Beavers almost completely disrupted the offensive rhythm that the Buffs had shown against Washington State last weekend, eliminating backcuts and interior penetration, while holding Colorado to just 42% shooting from the field.  The big issue here was in the paint, where OSU clogged things up enough to limit the Buffs to just 28 points under the rim after they had claimed 44 against the Cougars.  For as difficult as CU found it to score, however, they made up for it on the defensive end.  While State was able to play them to near-parity on the glass (33-31), Colorado held the hosts to 38% shooting from the floor, 30% from deep, and squelched them in the paint to the tune of just 18 total points.  CU was showing extremely hard on screens and giving OSU's point guards fits.  The team as a whole managed just seven assists all night and committed 18 turnovers.  Whereas the Beavers had shook off the CU defense in Boulder, the Buffs were able to hold them to just 0.83 ppp in Corvallis -- a night and day turnaround.
Colorado found a way.  From: FOX Sports
So, as always, a win is a win, and this one pushed Colorado's winning blitz to six in seven games.  It's impossible, at this point, to not look back to early January and wonder about 'what if?' All those close losses, all those calamitous final possessions and fumbled leads that helped fuel the 0-7 start to league play are now unavoidable thorns in the side of the team and their flagging Tournament resume.  As friend of the blog Ted Chalfen pointed out after the game, CU is, in essence, eight points shy of sitting here today at 20-7 (10-4).  When I say 'a win is a win', this is exactly what I mean.  In all of the early season defeats to Arizona State, USC, Washington, and Washington State, the execution on the court wasn't anywhere close to where the Buffs' ceiling was. But, a couple of possessions here or there turn those results into wins, and, as ugly as those games were, all sins would've been forgiven, and Tournament tickets punched.  Instead, we're where we are now, with BuffNation making plans for the NIT.  This is a zero-sum game, basketball, and the win's the thing. Colorado has, of late, found their cut-throat nature, pouncing for wins with the result in the balance. Had they just been at that point five weeks ago, the season is completely different.

Alas, we've yet to find that 'reset button' on the great game of life, so BuffNation must soldier on. The Oregon Ducks are up next, and they're looking for a bit of revenge.  Time to see just how far this CU team has come in their advance back up the ranks in the Pac-12.


Hype Music for the Evening: "I Love LA" by Randy Newman

Doesn't make much sense, right?  CU is playing Oregon today, why am I picking a song about Los Angeles?  Well, that's because I'm actually in LA right now, in town for a family vacation.  So, you get stuck with this diddy by the great Randy Newman.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene is set for 1pm MT on Saturday.  Televised coverage can be found on FOX national, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

For reference, my preview from the first game against UO this season can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

This is the win that started it, the pride-saving climb back from irrelevance to something approaching the pre-season promise.  The team that I talked up in my season preview was suddenly back and on full display in late-January against then-#10 Oregon.  Outside of the small worry of 16-26 shooting from the free throw line, the Buffaloes dominated the proceedings, dictating the pace, and playing confident, composed basketball throughout.  This was no fluke, CU earned this one; 74-65.

Coach Boyle had been talking about it for months.  I had been pleading for it since the start of conference play.  Defense, defense, defense -- the crux of the #TadBall credo.  What was once as essential to the program as Muscle Milk and Nike had become abandoned and discarded throughout the infamous 0-7 start to conference play..  1.15 ppp allowed against woeful Oregon State, 1.2 against WSU, 1.37 to UCLA, to name a few.  Pac-12 opponents, from the good to the bad, were naming their score against the Buffs, leveraging easy baskets to keep the team on their heels.  Not on this Saturday night, however.  From the opening tip, CU was not messing around on the defensive end.  They came to play, to disrupt, to annoy.  Hands were shot into passing lanes, closeouts were frenetic.  I saw guys who hadn't been locked in for weeks shoot out of the tunnel like demons focused on a lost soul.  The Ducks were held under one ppp for the game, forced into a 24% turnover rate, and limited to under 30% shooting in the second half. This... THIS is what I'm talking about when I think of Colorado Basketball.  The definition of #TadBall.
Just like football.  From: KVAL
But defense alone doesn't tell the story, and neither really does the play of Derrick White.  Sure, Derrick, who led the team with 23 points, including 17 in the second half, really stamped his name on the stretch of this one, but what I was most impressed by was the contributions from players who had otherwise disappointed in prior weeks.  Wes Gordon, for the love of Tad, was outstanding. 8/6/4/2/1 against zero turnovers.  He was where the Buffs needed him throughout his 23 minutes, and really frustrated the Oregon forwards. George King was rebounding the hell out of the ball!  Remember when he used to go whole games without pulling down a single board?  He had seven in the second half alone. Lucas Siewert, he of the 30 minutes over the proceeding seven games, was out there busting his ass after loose balls.  By my memory, he earned three hustle points on the night, and well-earned each of the 12 minutes he docked.  Finally, Josh Fortune, one of the more maligned guys on the roster, filled a number of key roles, particularly defensively.  Sure, his 2/4 line didn't get him much press, but his run was valuable throughout the evening, especially as he was using his length to disrupt both defensively and on the glass.  My point is, this was a team win, across the board, the kind of collaborative effort BuffNation had been dying to see.

That being said, oh my was DWhite fantastic.  He kicked off the second half run with back-to-back three pointers midway through the final frame, extended it with a dramatic and-one, and really killed off the game late.  His second half line deserves to be framed: 17 points on 5-7 shooting, 4-5 from the line; a pair each of boards and assists, a block, a steal, and zero damn turnovers.  Essentially perfect. He controlled the pace, leveraged his abilities flawlessly, and lead the team to victory.  Just brilliant stuff.
Joy has returned to Boulder.  From: The SL Trib.
All-in-all, a pretty solid evening from the team, and one which reminded everyone, both inside this fanbase and out, what this group is capable of.  The Buffs have only continued to soar in the succeeding weeks, a testament to the boost a big win like this one can give to a flagging squad.

The Ducks since then - 

Oregon has gone 4-1 since their trip to Boulder.  The biggest of those four wins, and, really, the biggest single win in the entire Pac-12 calendar, was their February 4th blowout home victory over Arizona.  The Ducks decimated the Wildcats that day, seizing control of the action early in the first half, and never letting up off the gas until the game was well in hand.  Before you could blink, they were up 19-6. The Wildcats would try to stall things a bit, but, with eight minutes to play before half, the UO started pouring in points.  Extending back a bit, they would go on a 19-0 run to make the score 38-11 just ahead of the U4 TO.   If Arizona did anything positive in Eugene that afternoon, it was to keep the final deficit from ballooing to a 40-pointer after that opening.  As it was, the Ducks won 85-58 to sling-shot into a tie for first place in the Conference of Champions.

No matter which of these teams ends up winning the regular season crown, both will carry the memory of this result with them to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.  Oregon, against a usually stout UofA defense, shot 65% from the field and 64% from deep.  The rim must've looked like a hula-hoop to those guys!  That's an embarrassment of a result for the 'Cats, one which damages their reputation as a potential Final Four contender.  If the Ducks can do this to them, what happens when they are put up against other ultra-capable teams from across the country?  But, I digress...
The Ducks cracked Zona in the head.  From: SI
Unfortunately for Oregon, a loss immediately following this big win did significant damage to their league standing.  It's an understandable one, coming on the road to top-10 UCLA, but their 82-79 loss to the Bruins is probably going to cost the Ducks a shot at a share of the Pac-12 regular season crown. Arizona is not likely to lose the rest of the way, and this loss, combined to the one dealt them by CU, puts the Ducks a full game behind the 'Cats with the season ticking to a close.  The real painful undercurrent to this story, then, is the fact that Oregon had a win over UCLA in their grasp early on.

Just as they had done against Arizona, Oregon raced out to a big first half lead in Los Angeles. Eventually, they were up 37-18 with about six minutes to play in the opening frame, before settling for a nine-point lead at the break.  The Ducks even continued to push in the second half, breaking the lead out to 15 with about 16 minutes to go.  With a home crowd at their backs, though, the Bruins started to chip away.  They would take the lead with just under five minutes to play, and UCLA never looked back after that.
Oregon took a painful one on the chin in LA.  From: the Columbian
As painful as that loss looks like it will ultimately be for Oregon, probably costing them their second-consecutive league title, it doesn't hurt my view of them.  Pound-for-pound, I think they're the best in the Pac-12, and the stats back me up.  They're tops in the conference in defensive efficiency (holding league opponents to about 0.96 ppp), while boasting top marks for block rate, steal rate, and limiting free throws.  Similar to what Colorado's football team was able to do defensively this season, the Ducks smother their opponent, keeping them off the scoreboard for long stretches.  Their offense ain't that bad, either.  2nd in the league in efficiency (behind the out-of-this-world Bruins), they can score all manner of ways, especially from outside where they've been hitting nearly 43% of three-point attempts since the calendar flipped to 2017.  The Ducks share the ball so well, assisting on 62% of all made baskets, and really cut you to death when they're on their game.  Such a good basketball team. While they may come up short in the regular season standings to the Wildcats, I expect them to claim the championship, once again, as the attention shifts to Las Vegas in a few weeks time.

Why things could be different - 

"If Oregon is so good," you may be asking, "then how did the Buffs manage to beat them last month?"  Well, the answer here is informative, and could lead to a fresh perspective on this afternoon's affair.  Remember that three of the Ducks fouled out that evening last month, and another, Dillon Brooks, finished with four fouls.  Foul trouble dogged them all game long, largely thanks to the activity of Derrick White on the drive and Xavier Johnson in the paint.  While I would expect both DW and XJ to stay aggressive, the flip in home whistle could erase this factor from the rematch.

Now, foul trouble for Oregon wasn't the reason Colorado won last time, but it was a large part of it, especially as the game really tipped for good in the second half. The real trick is that Oregon is usually so good at staying away from such issues, and keeping opponents off the line.  As I said, they're top in the league in FTA/FGA ratio, meaning they simply do not typically send teams to the line as often as others.  The Buffs don't usually rely on such things, really shaping up as average in terms of earning trips to the line, but it's more that just free throws. Players with foul trouble naturally give wider berths on drives, leave open lanes for passing, and shy away on open rebound opportunities. It opens up the floor for better offensive opportunities. It's not a direct correlation, but it is important.
A healthy Brooks on a roll could be the difference maker.  From: the SL Trib
Beyond that, I'd look at three point shooting.  The Ducks missed 23 threes while on the Front Range, which is not like them.  While I wouldn't expect 64% insanity, like they shot against Arizona, UO usually shoots better at home, and should see their performance from the perimeter tick back up against the Buffs this afternoon.  Chris Boucher could be key here.  Just 2-6 in the first game, and oddly quiet since, he's due for a breakout performance.

Finally, I think Dillon Brooks is finally healthy.  In the Boulder leg, Brooks was held to nine points, and looked a little off his game.  Since then, he's been averaging 21 points per, and has shown off some of his usual explosion.  A healthy Brooks adds such a unique dimension to Oregon.  A point forward, he's a walking defensive miss-match, and can put whomever guards him in interesting positions.  Active team defense will help, but if Brooks is getting into the lane, and drawing contact, there's going to be little the Buffs can do to slow him down.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 9-5. Against the spread: 6-8. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -4.29 pt/gm)
Lines as of Friday @ 8pm - CU +11, O/U 141

The flip in home court here will be damning.  Colorado won't get the whistles they did in Boulder, Oregon will revel in the home rims by canning threes, and Brooks will run wild.  It's not an indictment of the Buffs - UO is a good team, after all - but look for the Ducks to roll.  I'll give the points, and take the home team.

UO 81 - CU 69


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