Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tuesday Grab Bag: Riding that #TadBall wave

So, given the current run of positive play emanating from the Colorado Men's Basketball Program, can we reasonably begin to plot extraordinary paths for the team, once lost adrift a sea of losing, to somehow chart their way into the NCAA Tournament?

Simply, no.

I don't mean to undercut the happier vibes of late, but the possibility seems to be popping up every now and then among BuffNation, and I feel it needs to be addressed.  Currently, the Buffs boast a RPI ranking in the low 100s -- depending on where you look, it's usually 107th in the country.  That is a terrible place to be entering middle February, essentially disqualifying in its own right.  Add to it the fact that CU currently has more losses to RPI 100+ teams than they have wins over teams ranked in the top-50, and the peril becomes quite clear.  Colorado simply doesn't have a Tournament-worthy resume, and they're not even particularly close.

'Well,' you might ask, 'what if CU wins out in the regular season, would they have a chance then?' Again, the answer is no. While it is true that they would then boast four wins against the top-50, including two over current top-10 RPI ranked Oregon, the overall picture only brightens slightly. According to RPI Forecast, a 20-11 record would only boost Colorado up into the high 60s.  With the rest of the resume the way it is, with three ugly losses still on the docket, a high-60s RPI wouldn't be enough.  Further wins in the Pac-12 Tournament could help here, especially with a favorable draw, but, by that time, you're asking to hit a point on far too many successive rolls of the dice to make any statistical sense.

Really, the only shot the Buffs have at landing a golden ticket into the field of 68 is a mad-dash sprint in Las Vegas, akin to the magic they pulled off in 2012.  If you want to take those long-shot odds, at least you'll be in the appropriate venue to do so.

Sorry, but the best-case scenario at this point is continued winning, a nice seed in the NIT, and a run for NYC.  After the ups and the downs of the past few months, though, would that be all that bad of a future?


Today in the bag, I'm talking the win over WSU, the fuel behind the revivification taking place in the CEC, and how the rest of the Pac-12 fared this weekend.

Click below for the bag...

Buffs rout Washington State for 5th win in six tries - 

It's impossible to be 'perfect' in basketball.  There's the individual moments of brilliance - like, say, Spencer Dinwiddie's 2013 line against Oregon State - but it would be miraculous for a whole team to play 40 minutes of 'perfect' basketball at this level.  There's too many possessions, opponent scoring (at least to some degree) is a guarantee, and at some point you're going to miss a shot.  Colorado, however, came pretty darn close to pitching what was, in effect, a perfect game against Washington State Sunday night, playing excellent basketball in all phases throughout a 81-49 win over the Cougars.  Given a few months of struggle, the team seems to, finally, be rounding into shape.

I'm not kidding about the quality of the performance.  It was a team-wide display of excellence that hasn't been paralleled against conference competition in some time, maybe since the famous Utah win back in 2012 that started the Pac-12 era.  Caveat for competition applied, but Colorado came to play against the Cougs, showing off the depth of skill that had most of us dreaming of postseason glory back in October.  Versatility, consistency, aggressiveness on both ends -- CU checked all the important boxes in this one.  The only regret is that the team was incapable of such highs back in January.
DWhite continues to be an assassin as the Buffs roll.  From: KGMI
After some opening minute inconsistency, shared by their opponents in crimson, the Buffs began to take flight.  Powered by an active defense that was forcing turnovers at a 35% clip, CU began racing down the stretch into halftime.  A 13-0 run was the leveraging blow here, with the team grinding WSU into the floorboards; ripping rebounds, skying for blocks, forcing steals, flying in for dunks, knocking down jumpers, and slicing into the lane.  It was a commanding, clinical stretch of four minutes, one which separated the teams for good.  While Colorado had proven capable of giving up big leads in the past, there was no whiff of a stall on Sunday, as they decisively won each and every ten-minute 'quarter' of action.

The big display was defensively.  Washington State committed 24 turnovers against Colorado, the biggest chunk of them either outright steals or forced errors.  It's a stat indicative of the raw activity the Buffs showed.  Highlighted by Derrick White, Wes Gordon, and Dom Collier, active hands were the rule, rather than the exception, and CU made life on the court a living hell for the visitors.  When the Cougs weren't turning the ball over, they were missing shots and failing to collect the rebound. They could only muster four offensive rebounds, and shot under 39% of the field for the game.  All told, just 0.72 points per possession and a defensive rebounding rate approaching 87% -- near defensive perfection.
Defensive activity was the rule, rather than the exception.  From: the Seattle Times
On offense, Colorado only continued their balanced, efficient approach.  All but one of the players who saw significant minutes recorded points, the team had five more assists (16) than turnovers (11), and shot over 51% from the field.  CU was a danger ever time they came up the floor, knifing the Cougars with back-cuts and activity around the basket.  The Buffs would end up with 42 points in the paint, triple what WSU could muster.  They capitalized on turnovers (34 points), gobbled up second chance opportunities (16), and got out on the break (15).  There wasn't an aspect of the attack that really suffered, including continued success off the bench for players like Tory Miller and Bryce Peters. While this was, above all else, a defensive show on Sunday, offensively Colorado was far better than just good.

Player of the game honors will go to Derrick White, who put up 23/2/3/3/1 on just 11 shots in 26 minutes, but he had plenty of support.  Contributions from George King and Bryce Peters (a combined 23 points) were just as key, with King showing well on both ends of the court, and Peters proving that he deserves more and more playing time as the season rolls on.  Past them, there were no weak points; even Josh Fortune had a good game.  I'm getting the feeling that this team finally 'gets it.'  That each player understands their role, is comfortable with it, and is able to take advantage of their skills in spots where they'll do the most good.  It's showing in success on the court.

With that, the Buffs will look to take their five-of-six winning ways out west for the final road trip of the season.  The game over the weekend against Oregon is a tall ask, even for a team on a roll, but we should all expect success this Thursday against woeful Oregon State.  With second-tier postseason positioning still on the line, the Buffs can't afford any further slips against the bottom rungs.  Look for my preview up on Thursday morning.

Defense has helped the Buffs turn a broken season around - 

Isn't college basketball a funny game?  This Colorado team, looking dead to all the world four weeks ago, is suddenly alive and well.  Five wins in six games, including tough wins over Oregon at home and Stanford on the road, has almost completely reversed the ugly trends that had me planning for trips to the Hoover Dam while in Las Vegas next month.  Certainly, the true quality of this team is somewhere in the middle between their 0-7 and 5-1 runs, but the narrative of the rebound they've shown in the last few weeks is enticing.  To that end, I want to probe the depths a little bit -- just how did they get from there to here?

The first place to look is on the defensive side of the game.  The first pillar of #TadBall, gritty defense, has been a hallmark of Colorado Basketball since the Buffs arrived in the Pac-12. This year, however, the team had not been living up to that standard.  Back in their largely successful non-conference run, the team was playing statistically acceptable defensive basketball -- allowing around 0.94 points per possession to what was mostly lesser competition.  However, while the raw numbers looked fine, the qualitative performances were clearly not pointing towards long-term success.  This disappointing chicken came home to roost over the first seven Pac-12 games, with the team allowing 1.17 ppp in their consecutive losses to start league play.  This was good for the 11th-best mark in the conference, a dismal performance.  Even against Oregon State, the win that sparked the recent run of success, Colorado was still not playing 'good' defensive basketball, allowing that garbage team to put up 78 points on them.  This was not Colorado basketball, this was not #TadBall.
It's all about defense.  From: the Olympian
That's what made the following performance against Oregon so stunning.  This CU team that had been struggling on defense - playing lazily and incoherently when the opponent had the ball - was suddenly active and aggressive on every possession.  They held a top-10 team, who had been on a roll, under a point per possession that day.  Ever since, it's been like a monster was awoken.  In the five games played since the Buffs tipped off against the Ducks, Colorado has been holding all opponents to about 0.97 ppp.  That's a number that would've been good for 2nd in the league, had they been playing at that level since the first of the year.

I'm not saying that they Buffs will continue these defensive ways.  I'm not even going to say that they will necessarily keep winning.  What I will say, however, is that this team is suddenly dangerous, and a much more palatable product for the attendant fan base.  Whatever spurred on this revival - be it the message from Coach Boyle finally sinking in, the spice of a ranked opponent like Oregon visiting Boulder, or just a team finally growing comfortable with life together - it doesn't really matter.  For the time being, at least, the Buffs are back to being themselves, and I'm pretty damn happy about it.

Around the world of Pac-12 basketball - 

- Arizona 62 - Cal 57 -

For Arizona, the beat rolls on.  The conference leader by a solid game over Oregon, the Wildcats continued their cruise against the soft back-half of their schedule, putting aside a solid pursuit by Cal in the final minutes of this one.  With this test in their rear view, really only one remains - the home rematch with UCLA in two weeks.  As we learned last month, however, the Bruins don't have the defensive muscles to flex in challenge of the UofA.  In that vein, feel free to declare the race for the league title over, with Arizona the winner.  It is what it is.
With the win, Arizona looks to be the league champs.  From: CSN Bay Area
As good as the 'Cats are, I do want to note that the Golden Bears came close here.  They were able to stymie Arizona in the paint, and force a number of slow, loping possessions from the hosts.  The problem, of course, was that the Wildcats were able to, likewise, stymie Cal under the basket, limiting the starting forward pair of Ivan Rabb and Kingsley Okoroh to just four combined points.  When Charlie Moore wet out injured, there wasn't much else they could do to put points on the board.  I am interested, though, in the potential of a rematch in Las Vegas.  The Golden Bears may be the only team outside of the Ducks who can put a scare into Arizona at that tournament.

- Oregon 81 - USC 70 -

Speaking of the Ducks, they slid past a stern test from USC to recover from a missed opportunity against UCLA.  There's no shame in a split in LA, but, with Arizona seemingly on a course to win-out on the remainder of their schedule, the loss earlier in the week is enough to cost Oregon a shot at a share of the league title.  They'll just have to settle for the pride of the ass-whupping they laid on the 'Cats last week, and the knowledge that the pair could meet again in Vegas with the championship on the line.
Ducks survive one stumble in LA, but probably lost a shot at a 2nd title.  From: NCAA
USC remains an interesting, if flawed, team.  They are solidly on track for a Tournament bid, but are also clearly a step below the upper-echelon of the conference.  With Benny Boatwright back in the fold, however, they can be seen as a dangerous proposition for post-season play.  I wouldn't be surprised to see them pull off an upset of a more highly regarded foe once the calendar flips to March.

- UCLA 78 - Oregon State 60 -

Last and, let's be honest, least, I come to the Oregon State Beavers. The Pac-12's bottom dwellers still haven't won a conference game, and haven't really been all that close since we last saw them come to the CEC.  Tres Tinkle is still out, and they simply have no recourse against even the lightest of in-league competition.  In this one, they were able to hold the Bruins at bay for a half, but still ended up falling under the heel of a second half scoring blitz, buoyed by Lonzo Ball's 22/6/9 performance.  If OSU can't take the home game against Colorado this week, the Beavers will, almost assuredly, finish the season without a Pac-12 win.  More later this week when my preview drops.

Happy Tuesday!

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