Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

2017 NIT: CU vs UCF Basketball Teaser -- Password is Tacko

It's been a while since Colorado was last in the NIT.  Some six years and (for yours truly) 950-ish posts ago, the Buffs of Alec Burks and Cory Higgins played Alabama in Madison Square Garden as part of the 2011 NIT semifinals. That day was bitterly painful for the small cabal of CU fans who, even back then, cared deeply about this program.  In a flash of a baseline drive from 'Bama's Trevor Releford and a missed jumper from the aforementioned Burks, about 19 seconds in total, an improbable season was over, and the Buffs were resigned to a 62-61 defeat.
The last vision of Colorado in the NIT was a painful one.  From: the AP
You have to remember that I didn't know the run of success that lay ahead, and that it would all get much better over the next five years, but I was broken-hearted that afternoon.  That team was, to that point, the closest I had ever seen Colorado Basketball get to being a 'winner,' and to have it all peter out, first with a NCAA snub, then with a last-second defeat in the NIT, seemed like an affirmation that Colorado hoops would always be an also-ran.  How wrong I was.

If some of you, especially those who may have been too young to remember 'the before times,' are missing an answer to why this tournament is still important, just look back to that season.  Even though Colorado missed out on the Dance, even though they didn't win in New York City, just getting there was a momentous step in the modern history of this program.  It was the launching pad for the 2012 rocket blasting into a league championship and the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  It was the true birth of the swagger and the pride of Colorado Basketball.  That NIT run meant something to those of us who got to latch on and experience it first hand -- to look past the opportunity the NIT can be is to look past all the joy of the last five years.
The 2011 NIT means a lot for this program. From: the BDC
With that said, I'd be hard pressed not to acknowledge the differences between 2011 and 2017.  First, that 2011 group was loaded with hungry talent, not to mention three players who would go on to see the NBA.  They got to play three games in that tournament at home, and deserved each and every one of them.  While I cannot say yet with certainty how many currently in uniform will wind up at the next level, the '11 team was a more capable squad from top-to-bottom; they were a special, special offensive club.  Additionally, everyone that year, from fans on to the team, saw making the NIT as an accomplishment and a chance to shine, even with the disappointment of the Committee leaving them off the board.  That is, decidedly, not the case this spring.  You have to care about being in the NIT to succeed.  That 2011 team certainly did.  This year's squad?  I have my doubts.

But, enough jabber, on to the crux of the matter: UCF.  The fourth place finishers in the AAC this year, the Knights were winners of 21 games and are unquestionably a solid, tough basketball team. Looking at their resume, I don't see a whole lot of hiccups (though the home loss to Penn isn't anything to brag about).  Their problem this season was an overall soft schedule (even with a date against Villanova, the Knights were 329th in non-conference scheduling) and missed opportunities in league play.  Really, outside of home wins over Cincinnati and Houston, they swung and missed against every big team they played.  Indeed, should they beat CU this afternoon, it'd make for their third-best win of the season.
Coach Dawkins swapped coasts over the summer.  From:
The Knights are led by an old friend -- Johnny Dawkins.  You will probably remember Coach Dawkins from his days on the Stanford sideline, solemnly guiding the Cardinal to disappointing result after disappointing result.  Really, he's at home in the environment of the NIT, as accustomed to the secondary bracket as a chicken in a coop.  His Trees made the NIT four times in eight seasons, as compared to just one Tournament appearance, winning the damn thing twice.  Coach Boyle, however, knows a trick or two about how to go about beating Dawkins' teams.  After losing to the Cardinal twice in 2012, he never fell under Johnny's heel again, winning the last five meetings before Dawkins was fired a year ago. Though the personnel at his disposal is decidedly different from when he was on the Left Coast, I'm sure Coach Dawkins was far from pleased to see the name 'Colorado' turn over next to his on Selection Sunday.

Johnny has an interesting roster to work with in Orlando, though.  The obvious standout, mostly because he literally stands out above the crowd, is sophomore center Tacko Fall.  The 7-6 (that's not a miss-print), 290 lbs Senegalese baller is as unique a challenge as you'll find in the game today.  In the mold of Sim Bhullar and Mamadou N'Diaye of recent fame, he towers over the paint, almost blocking out the rim from the sight of would-be attackers.  It's no wonder, then, that the Knights are #1 in the country in two-point shot percentage defense, allowing under 40% inside the arc.  What was once a good shot, anything near the rim, becomes a dicey proposition with Fall, the AAC's Defensive Player of the Year, lurking to block or otherwise affect even the closest of looks.  Opponents are even under 50% at the rim itself.  Colorado will need to find an answer to this conundrum -- moving the ball, getting out in transition, and hitting outside jumpers.
Dude's tall, what else can I say?  From: the AP
Past just deterring shots, however, Fall also excels offensively.  He's in the top-three nationally in eFG%, and top-five in offensive rebound rate.  Overall, he shoots 72% from the field, and I honestly have no idea how you go about guarding him.  You can't really front him, he's just too tall.  You can try to keep him from grabbing position down low, but he has arms for days and can close space to the rim in an instant just by reaching out.  Wes Gordon will have his hands full.  To that end, the Buffs have been getting creative, handing redshirting freshman Dallas Walson padded sticks in practice to simulate the reach of Fall.  Other teams have tried similar things in the past, with, most notably, the Silver Swords of Chaminade sticking a manager on a folding chair in practices leading up to their famous tussle with Virginia and 7-4 Ralph Sampson in 1982.  When playing someone as abnormal as a 7-6 center, your thinking has to be just as abnormal. Luckily, Tacko isn't on the court all the time, averaging just 26 minutes per, but when he is, CU will have to look outside the box; literally and figuratively.

Fall, however, isn't the only dangerous piece on the Knights. Guards BJ Taylor and Matt Williams combine for 32 points per game, and can be deadly.  The senior Williams, especially, rarely leaves the court, and is an outstanding shooter.  He took 292 three-point attempts this season, canning 38% of them. Colorado needs to run him off the line and keep him from getting hot.  Elsewhere, Tank Efianayi is an interesting veteran wing capable of playing inside-outside.  He combines well with AJ Davis and Nick Banyard up front.
Williams is an electric outside threat.  From: the Orlando Sentinel 
Overall, a solid team.  They can be elite defensively, especially as teams wrestle with their helping of Tacko in the paint.  I wouldn't be surprised if Colorado struggles offensively, unless they start nailing outside shots.  Defensively, however, I think the Buffs can find some room for success.  UCF is far from a strong offensive club, and can really get shut down by anyone that is willing to put in the work.  That's where the buy-in from CU comes in.  If they have bought into the purpose of this tournament, they should be alright and eventually find themselves in a position to steal the win in Orlando.  If not, however, the proceedings could get very ugly.  My guess is that, with four seniors and none of the post-season distractions of two years ago, a focused bunch of Buffaloes will show up. With that in mind, and with a healthy dose of heart behind my pick, I'll take Colorado to advance in an ugly one.


Tip-off from CFE Arena in Orlando, FL is set for 5pm MT Wednesday.  Coverage can be found via internet stream on ESPN3 (aka: WatchESPN), with the radio call... unknown at this time.  Is Mark Johnson still available, or did he bail on this season?  Anyway, stick with the stream, it may be your only shot at following this one.


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