Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, March 4, 2017

2016-17 CU vs Cal Basketball Preview #2

Thursday night against Stanford was another of those moments where you could imagine the parallel universe where this season had gone slightly differently.  One where the Buffs had survived the brutal opening stretch of conference play to remain in contention for the NCAA Tournament.  Indeed, as they showed against the Cardinal, there is a good team in there when the switch is flipped on.  Firing on all cylinders offensively, they boat-raced the visitors in a game that was well-over by the start of the first timeout in the second half.  91-72; about as straight-forward as you can get.
Assists fueled an offensive explosion against Stanford.  From: the Post.
This was not the same kind of game as the win over Washington State from a few weeks back, when I was using words like 'perfect' to describe the team's performance.  In fact, against the Cardinal, I thought Colorado was barely acceptable defensively, though they did a solid job frustrating opposing stars like Travis Reid and Marcus Sheffield.  No, Thursday night was all about the offense.  CU poured in the points at a 1.4 ppp clip, only missing out on the heights of 1.5+ and 100 points scored due to there simply not being a need to.  They were sharing the ball, knocking down open looks, and executing like I've rarely seen in these parts; in response, Stanford had no answer.  All told, the team assisted 25 times on 35 made baskets -- a 71% rate that makes me weak in the knees.  This was offense at its most effusive.  Nine players posted ORtgs over 100, for the love of Tad.

This offensive explosion was credited after the game to a drill instilled this week by assistant coach Bill Grier.  While running plays in practice, buckets would only count if they came off a true assist. With this in the back of their minds, Colorado was certainly, to a man, willing to look for teammates Thursday night. Seven players tossed out dimes, with six of those recording at least two.  For the most part these weren't extra passes for passing's sake, either.  Outside of a few exceptions, each assist was necessary to create the basket, particularly the entries that helped the Buffs generate 38 points in the paint.  There was even a perfectly executed alley-oop!  Who are these guys, the Flint Tropics?
All too easy.  From: the BDC
I can't really point to one player as the star of the game, such was the balance on display (seven players with at least nine points), but I was especially piqued by the efforts of Lucas Siewert.  The freshman power forward had his best game in a CU uniform, coming off the bench to chip in 15/3/2 against zero turnovers in 21 minutes.  He was everywhere, hustling defensively, and nailing jumpers off precision passes.  Along with 10 points from fellow frosh Deleon Brown (who is looking much better after lost time to injury and illness), the new generation of Buffs was shining brightly against Stanford. Elsewhere, Xavier Johnson finally kicked a slight slump, going for 15/9 in limited minutes. Had the team needed, he could've provided more, but, much like the pursuit of 100 points, it just wasn't called for.

And so, the Buffs shrugged off a sour performance against Utah to get back in the hunt for an NIT bid.  The next hurdle: a game against the solid, (probably) NCAA Tournament bound Cal Golden Bears.  With a win the Buffs will potentially climb to the 7th-seed in the Pac-12, while similarly helping those rival Utes slot in 4th.  A loss, and things could get complicated for everyone in the league.  Best to just claim the win, send the seniors out in style, and step up to #7.


Hype Music for the Evening:  "Seven Steps to Heaven" by Miles Davis

I don't get jazz.  Never have.  I put it down to a lack of drug use, but it is what it is.  Regardless, Miles Davis is one of the greats of the genre, and deserves his due.  This track, a live rendition of the titular anchor from his 1963 studio album, features frenetic drums, extensive solo work, and sporadic themes.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the Coors Events Center is scheduled for high noon on Saturday.  Remember to get there early for the Senior Day tributes.  The 2017 graduating class deserves a strong round of applause. Coverage for those unable to attend can be found on Pac-12 Network, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

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

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

The Buffs headed to Berkeley down a pair of key players.  Seniors Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon were suspended on the always mysterious 'violation of team rules' -- this year's version of the 'something that always seems to happen' when Colorado visits Haas that I mentioned in my first preview.  Given the shocking pregame revelation, the results, at least in the first half, were about as you would expect.  CU fell behind by as many as 23 in the opening frame, were lucky to manage just a 15-point deficit at the break, and looked completely and utterly on the ropes.  The Buffs, those still available to play, did show some moxie in the second half, fighting all the way back to cut the lead to just five points with a few minutes to go. In the end, however, the first half hole was dug too deep, and the final horn cried out to announce a 77-66 loss.

Yeesh, that first half.  Colorado was out-rebounded 21-14, surrendered nine three-pointers, and saw the game essentially put to bed early after a 24-2 run made the score 37-14.  I don't want to pin the ugly opening solely on the unexpected absence of messrs Johnson and Gordon, but they do make for convenient scapegoats.  Cal's superstar sophomore, Ivan Rabb, had an easy go of it against in the first half against reserves, after all, putting up 8/6 early to underscore the point.  But, of course, Rabb wasn't the only Bear on the court, and he wasn't the one with the most to show for the starting 20 minutes of the game.  Guard Charlie Moore was the primary culprit, especially on the perimeter, where he hit five of his seven first half attempts from deep.  He took advantage of the soft zone Colorado was forced in to playing, and was the ultimate individual cause of that big first half spread.  Had CU come in with their full compliment of players, they probably don't play zone as much, and maybe the numbers are different, but it is what it is.
The Bears belted Colorado early.  From:
As ugly as that first half was, the second half was just fine.  Given the halftime break to re-group, the Buffaloes looked a different team down the stretch.  Derrick White, especially, was assertive, going 6-11 from the field for 15 points after the half.  He powered the CU comeback attempt, along with assisting play from George King, Tory Miller, and freshman Lucas Siewert (who picked up 18 big minutes with the seniors out of action).  With all the miracles the senior guard has performed this season, I don't think it really would've been all that surprising to see him pull the rabbit from the hat, and will Colorado to a shocking win.  Alas, it was not to be.  The Buffs cut it to five, but no less.  The loss that seemed certain in the opening frame was finally realized.

That result was not wholly unexpected; my preview ahead of the action warned as much.  The narrative of the game, however, shows that this was an opportunity heedlessly forfeited.  Colorado was never going to get back what they lost over the opening 0-7 stretch to conference play, but a win here could've opened the Buffs up for a heroic push back to .500 and beyond.  Instead, here we are today, with the team still fighting for the postseason lives.  Hopefully, today's effort can reverse last month's result in the Bay Area.

The Golden Bears since then - 

Cal has been in a semi-free fall since Colorado left town.  After wining the following game in Tempe against Arizona State, the Bears went on to lose four of five, putting their Tournament lives, once so assured by braketologists across the nation, on the verge of collapse.  The first three losses weren't that bad, dropping a trio to Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon by a combined total of 13 points, but a blowout 30-point defeat to Utah on Thursday sent signals that something is rotten in Berkeley. They're now 19-10 overall, 10-7 in conference, and seemingly about to drop out of a top-four seed they appeared to have a lock on as recently as last week.
Teams have been flexing on the Bears, of late.  From:
A large part of the problem has been the play of freshman guard Charlie Moore.  The Chicago product, who roasted Colorado for 17 points last month, has been slowing down recently.  Possibly the result of the typical freshman wall, and also possibly the result of a hip injury sustained against Arizona at the start of the losing streak, Moore has been putting in some shaky shifts recently.  Over the last five games, the sparkplug guard has averaged just six points per, and has been shooting under 30% from deep.  Cal desperately needs better production from the young star if they have any hope of surviving the late seasons swoon, and making the Dance.

Still, Cal is a pretty solid basketball team, all things considered.  They continue to boast a strong corps of premier forwards that can muck up anything that opponents throw at them; their defense, despite a few rocky patches, is about as good as you'll find in the Pac-12; and they continue to rebound the hell out of the basketball.  Even with the recent losses, and acknowledging an offensive profile that was never all that sexy, there are some stats that really jump off the page.  How can you turn away from an offensive rebounding rate well over 34%, or a defensive eFG% of 46.7? This is a team, even in a slump, that can make you work on every possession, and force you to execute against their strengths.  It's no fluke, even given the suspensions last month, that they worked CU out of the gate.  Over-look their challenge at your peril.
Cal has been missing the explosive play for Moore.  From: the Daily Californian
I can't help but worry over their Tournament lives, however.  Currently about a 10- or 11-seed on most sheets, a loss here in Boulder, or an early exit next week in Las Vegas, will have them really sweating on Selection Sunday.  With that in mind, expect them to come out hungry and aggressive this afternoon.

Why things could be different - 

It will help matters greatly that Colorado's two senior forwards, Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon, will be available today.  Cal took advantage of utter chaos in the paint in the first meeting, storming out to an early edge against a discombobulated CU zone.  With those two back, expect the Buffs to come out in the man-to-man and stick there, something that should cut down on the open looks and free rebounds that were typical of the first half back in Berkeley.  I'm not saying that the seniors will be the difference, but their presence will be a step in the direction of normalcy.
CU needs to chip into Cal's rebounding edge from the first meeting.  From: SFGate
Colorado really needs to see this effect on the defensive glass.  Cal was able to haul in 47% of all offensive rebound opportunities in the first meeting, a number which must still haunt Coach Boyle in his sleep.  Now, the Golden Bears are a great rebounding team, with Rabb, Kingsley Okoroh, and Kameron Rooks standing tall in the paint, but even their strength down low can't account for that excess.  Those boards gave them 24 second chance points; an inexcusably large number.  The Buffs, with the return of their starters, should be able to eat into that advantage today.

Finally, look for a little senior day magic.  This is probably the last home game for Josh Fortune, Wesley Gordon, Xavier Johnson, ad Derrick White, barring a surprise home date in the NIT.  White, especially, feels like he could go off on a grand stage.  If he's pumping in points, the Buffs are sharing the ball well, and the rebounding discrepancy is cleared up a bit, CU should be in good position to claim this one.

Prediction - 

My record this year: 11-6. Against the spread: 7-10. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -2.94 pt/gm)
Lines as of Friday @ 8pm - CU -2, O/U 134

The Cal team the Utes got to face Thursday, beating them by 30, will not be the team Colorado gets this afternoon.  Teams usually bounce back at this level, especially those with the type of talent and defensive capabilities that the Golden Bears possess.  So, expect a good showing from the visitors.

Still, I'm not going to bet against CU on their senior day.  Given a better seal on the defensive glass, revenge performances from Johnson and Gordon underneath, and Derrick White going off, I'll take the Buffs in a close one.

CU 75 - Cal 72


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