Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, February 23, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Utah Basketball Preview #2

So, what are the Buffs playing for over the next two weeks?  The simple answer is positioning in the NIT, but many of you don't want to hear that.  Want something more tangible?  With three games to play, Colorado can sweep their way to a 9-9 finish in the Pac-12.  After the team's dreadful start to their conference slate, I'd say crawling back up to parity would be one hell of an accomplishment.

What's more, with three home wins, the Buffs could put themselves in position to finish in the top-half of the league, potentially leap-frogging Utah for 6th (if the Utes, in addition to a loss this evening, also drop a home game next week to one of the NorCal schools).  That might not be ideal for overall Pac-12 Tournament seeding, with 6th place lining things up for a date with UCLA in the quarter finals, but CU isn't really in a position to be choosy.  Best to pile up some wins, hope for the best, and take 'em as they come in Vegas.


Hype Music for the Evening: "The Music of the Night" by Andrew Lloyd Webber

My mental faculties are skewed by the exceptionally late start time.  In such a state, playing around with the 'nighttime' theme in my mind somehow landed me here, with this tune from the iconic 'Phantom of the Opera.' I'm not a huge show tunes kind of guy, but I've always had a soft sport for this musical.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the Coors Events Center is set for 9pm tonight.  Earlier this year, when the Buffs faced off with the UCLA Bruins at a similarly fan-unfriendly start time of 9pm, it at least made some semblance of sense.  For Bruins fans watching back in LA, an 8pm PST tip is not entirely unreasonable. Tonight, however, the Pac-12, in all its wisdom, has allowed TV to push a pair of mountain states teams into the red eye slot.  For everyone watching this with a rooting interest, a conclusion by 11pm is a best-case scenario.  Realistically, it could be round midnight by the time we can leave the stadium tonight.  What the hell are they doing over there in San Francisco?  Wake up, and start scheduling with your heads.

For those with nothing else to do on Friday, and have no issue with staying up late on what is otherwise a work-night, you can catch televised coverage on ESPNU.  The radio call can be found on AM 760.

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

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Back in the dawning days of the New Year, in what was 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 post from before the game, I had 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 any positive sense.  Derrick White tried to cover everything up with a solid 15/2/8/2, and George King provided a burst of scoring energy 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 (a combined 1-6 from beyond the arc).  

The loss both extended and kicked off painful streaks. As most are well-aware by now, this was the first of seven consecutive conference losses to open 2017 for Colorado.  Beyond that, however, it also marked six straight losses for the Buffaloes against their travel partner from out West.  The team was eventually able to right the former, pulling out of the dive before hitting Beaver-esque depths of depravity.  Now, it's time to correct the latter, and bring to an end the shameful slide against the Utes.

The Utes since then - 

I chuckled to myself while putting together the previous section.  It's been a long time since these two teams met.  Some 50-plus days have gone by, in fact.  They might as well have played that first game last season for all the bearing it has on the rematch.  Nope, we're entering fresh territory tonight.

Now, you should all be acutely aware of the narrative journey Colorado has traveled since then, but the Utes are an interesting story in their own right.  From the off, the team was fighting an uphill battle to get into the NCAA Tournament.  A marshmallow-soft non-conference schedule, put together by coach Larry Krystkowiak, did them no favors, so their 9-3 record entering Pac-12 play might as well have been 6-6, or worse.  Through one month, though, they seemed to be on the cusp of surviving that leaden anchor of a slate, and making a solid case for inclusion in the Dance for the third straight year.  At the end of January, the Utes were 15-6 overall, 6-3 in-league.  No true big wins to speak of, but they'd been close a few times (against UCLA and Oregon at home, to be specific), and a similar back-half of their conference portion could've been enough to sneak them into the bracket.
Missed opportunities really hurt Utah in January. From: SL Trib
Problem is, if anything, they've regressed with the calendar flip.  Since opening February with a double-overtime loss to Cal in Berkeley, the Utes have gone 2-4, with just a pair of home wins over the woeful Washington schools to show for their efforts.  Steadily, any hope of the NCAA Tournament faded as statement win opportunities passed them by.  Finally, last Sunday came the coup de grace, their fatal 68-67 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis.  There's no recovering from that.  Utah will be, barring a triumphant run in Las Vegas, a NIT squad next month.  Those overtimes in Haas, then, are their high-water mark.

The really funny thing is, in many respects, Colorado has put a better product on paper their their mountain state neighbors.  Even with the loss to them in Salt Lake City, the Buffs own double the wins over teams in the KenPom top-100 (4-2), and, if you exclude results from the 20 days over Jan 1st through Jan 21st, Colorado is 16-5, while Utah is only 14-9 against a much softer schedule.  You are what your record says you are, and all of that, but the Utes aren't all that much better than CU, by any stretch.  I hope the NIT seeding committee considers all of this when placing the two in their bracket in a few weeks.
Losing to OSU is inexcusable.  From: the SL Trib
Statistically, Utah is well-balanced.  4th in the Pac-12 for both offensive and defensive efficiency, they're one of three teams that can claim top-five status in both categories (Arizona and Oregon are the others), so maybe they're just snake-bitten?  Their hallmarks are scoring in the paint, and ripping down defensive boards.  They're #1 in the conference in percentage of points scored inside the arc, getting over 60% of all scoring from 2pt range.  On the glass, they pull down 77% of all opportunities, which is outstanding at this level. All-told, the Utes do a great job controlling activity around the tin, wrecking opponents underneath, and limiting them to single-look trips.

A few weaknesses: they don't share the ball well (218th in assist ratio), don't really get to the line (249th in FTA/FGA), and can struggle with turnovers (near 20%).  All three are signs of a lack of a killer point guard.  Don't get me wrong, Lorenzo Bonam has gutted Colorado in the past, but what creativity the team shows with the ball is typically focused on putting forwards David Collette or Kyle Kuzma into positions to score, rather than off the guard-oriented dribble-drive.  Might be why they've proven incapable of earning big wins against the kind of teams they'd need to beat to get into the Tournament -- guard play matters at the elite level, after all.  Oh, well.

Why things could be different - 

Colorado was atrocious defensively in the paint in the first meeting.  The Buffs surrendered 46 points underneath off of 58% shooting inside the arc.  Only Oregon State (weirdly) in Boulder and Oregon (less weirdly) in Eugene have been able to surpass those numbers against CU this season.  This leads me to believe that a regression to the mean should be in store.  Hold Utah to, say, just 50% shooting from 2pt range and to parity in scoring at the rim, and it's an easier proposition for the Buffs to claim victory.  Go further, and I would say the Black and Gold will be in a great spot to earn the win.
You have to keep the Utes from having free access to the rim.  From: the SL Trib
Additionally, I would expect Colorado capable of dramatically improving on the 22% turnover rate they committed in the first meeting.  The starting five were responsible for 10 of the 15 gaffes that day, headlined by Xavier Johnson's four.  Many of them were heedless and unforced.  Cut that number down a bit over a low-possession game, and the effect should be dramatic.

Last, but not least, Wes Gordon has to stay in this game.  Quick whistles against the senior back in January relegated him to the bench, opening the flood gates for the Utah forwards to pour through. Even if he doesn't have a 'good' game, just his physical presence on the defensive end could be enough to slow the onslaught under the rim.  It also helps here that reserves Tory Miller, Lucas Siewert, and even George King are better interior defenders than they were two months back, but Gordon will still be relied upon as the first line of defense.  The funny thing is, even with Wes out for long stretches, Colorado rebounded pretty well with the Utes in SLC, so just an improvement on the defensive end is all that's really needed.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 10-5. Against the spread: 7-8. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -2.93 pt/gm)
Lines as of Wednesday @ 8pm - CU -2.5, O/U 149.5

Long story short, I like the Buffs in this one.  The turn home should be big, and this is far from the same team that got walloped in SLC back on New Year's Day. Ii expect a measured, physical game played in the low-60s of possessions.  With a favorable whistle and a little luck, Colorado should claim another nice win in February.

CU 69 - UU 64


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