|Texas Longhorns (16-7 overall, 5-4 Big 12) at Colorado Buffaloes (9-14, 1-8)|
Coors Events Center | Boulder, CO | Tip: 1 PM CST | TV: ESPN
The Longhorns travel to Boulder, Colorado today in a game that, at first blush, looks like an easy win on paper. And for a Texas team that is trying to get back on the right track after a brutal stretch where they lost three games by a combined total of eleven points, it couldn’t come at a better time. But this Colorado squad is playing much better basketball than their record would indicate, and the mile-plus elevation of Boulder has often made the Coors Events Center a dangerous gym for visiting conference opponents.
The Buffaloes have only one win in the Big 12, a home victory over Iowa State. And although those same Cyclones absolutely decimated Colorado in Ames on Wednesday night by a 70-42 count, Jeff Bzdelik and the Buffs have been putting a scare into the league’s top teams. Colorado played both Kansas State and Nebraska to narrow two-point losses and fell five points short against both Kansas in Lawrence and Oklahoma in Norman.
As if the recent play by Colorado wasn’t reason enough to harbor some doubts about today’s game, the Coors Events Center has given Texas fits in the past. The Final Four team suffered a loss here in 2003, getting absolutely shot out of the building by a red-hot Colorado team, 93-80. Two years later, the Buffs repeated the accomplishment with an 88-79 win on its home floor. Even the convincing 102-78 win by Kevin Durant and the Longhorns in 2007 was an absolute battle for the first 24 minutes or so. While the preview below will likely lead you to believe that Texas should cruise back home with a victory, things likely won’t be easy.
Jeff Bzdelik is rebuilding in Boulder
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)
By the numbers
There is nothing remarkable about the Colorado offense or defense, as their efficiency numbers in both categories rank almost exactly in the middle of the NCAA pack. What is troublesome for Coach Bzdelik, though, is the fact that their margin is actually a -0.2, meaning that they give up 0.2 points per possession more than they score. He counters that problem with a Princeton offense that burns clock, so the Buffs typically only see 63 possessions per game, cutting down on the opportunities for their opponents to exploit that statistic.
Colorado struggles to rebound, particularly on the offensive side of things. They grab only 21.4% of their opportunities on the offensive glass, which puts is 342nd in the country for that metric. Three hundred and forty-second. Out of 344 teams. Quality. This inability to rebound is mostly a result of the four-out, one-in look that Colorado runs, along with the fact that their only post player is often setting screens up high and is nowhere near the basket when shots are released. Texas is already a solid rebounding team, but if they can limit Colorado to one-and-done possessions today, a win should come easily.
Another number that jumps out of Ken Pomeroy’s statistical overload is the fact that Colorado tends to win only when it keeps its opponents off the free throw line. Their season average for free throw rate is just in the middle of the pack for the NCAA, but in their losses it nearly doubles. Texas should attack the Colorado zone and draw fouls rather than simply settling for mid-range or three-point jumpers.
Meet the Buffs
Colorado runs only seven or eight deep on any given night, and has had the same starting five for nearly the entire season. Bzdelik’s team is very young after losing Richard Roby, Marcus Hall, and Marcus King-Stockton to graduation, and he is hoping that giving the core group of players a huge chunk of minutes will pay dividends in future seasons.
Australian freshman Nate Tomlinson is slotted at the point, and he’s doing a commendable job running the Princeton offense with no experience. Early in the season, you could see him struggling with the new system, as he actually had more turnovers than assists. But as the season has marched on into conference play, his confidence is up and he’s making less unforced errors. Texas must keep an eye on him today, as Tomlinson is deadly from behind the arc. His 43% success rate from three-point range leads the team, and is going to be needed for Colorado to hang around in today’s contest.
Cory Higgins is having a stellar sophomore year
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
The leading scorer for Colorado is sophomore guard Cory Higgins, son of former NBA player Rod Higgins. He’s one of the best free throw shooters in the country at 86%, and had streaks of 45 and 23 consecutive made free throws earlier this season. Higgins can attack the basket with ease, so it’s important for Texas to turn away his drives before he draws the fouls inside and converts the nearly-automatic points at the charity stripe. In addition, Higgins is at the top of the conference in steals, so a turnover-prone Longhorn team will have to take care of the ball when he’s nearby.
The other Buffalo who is a surefire offensive threat is Dwight Thorne II, a cousin of former A&M standout Acie Law. (As an aside, when you consider that Law is actually Acie Law IV, it makes you wonder why that family can’t come up with any new names.) Thorne is another long-range gunner, having hit on 42% of his three-point tries this year. Colorado’s offense keys on backdoor cuts and open three-point looks, so Dwight is going to be needed if the Buffaloes hope for an upset today.
Freshman Austin Dufault is the lone big man in Bzdelik’s version of the Princeton offense, and he seems to be making a good adjustment to the new system. He was Mr. Basketball in the state of North Dakota last season, and it is easy to see why. Not only can Dufault score inside and clean up the glass when he is actually in position, but he also showcases a nice jumper out to seventeen feet or so. While he’s not going to be an impact player in the league anytime soon, Dufault seems like a four-year guy who is going to be an absolute headache for opponents in his last season or two.
Jermyl Jackson-Wilson is a bull of a player despite checking in at just 6’6″. He fights hard for those offensive rebounds that seem to elude the Buffs, and prefers to muscle his way in for closer looks. With only five points and four rebounds a game, he’s not a huge contributer on the stat sheet, but his energy and hustle seem to make the difference on a few key plays in each contest.
Bzdelik really only utilizes three players off the bench, although he occasionally looks deeper down the pine when things are going horribly wrong. Levi Knutson is a reserve guard who is really struggling this season, hitting only 15% of his three point attempts after being the team’s marksman last year. Big man Casey Crawford will be called upon to spell Dufault on occasion, but he is also a quality long-range shooter. Trey Eckloff is something of a project, as he was just 17 when he hit the CU campus and has had difficulty adjusting to the college game. At 6’9″, his inside presence will be needed in the future, but for now he is relegated to the bench.
Texas needs another solid game from Balbay
(Photo credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/AAS)
Keys to the game
Kill them on the glass – When there are often four Colorado players on the court that are 6’6″ or less, and the lone big man is often at the top of the key setting screens, the rebounds should come quite easily for Texas. The Longhorns shouldn’t have to especially try to control the rebounding battle, but should dominate on the glass and limit the number of looks for the Buffaloes. In addition, Texas should hopefully see a spike in the number of second-chance points they earn this afternoon.
Limit the threes – Colorado is going to get quite a few easy layups as a result of their Princeton offense, and there is likely little that Texas can do to stop it. But the Buffaloes are not going to beat the Longhorns by piling up a ton of layups. The thing that could keep them in this game is hot outside shooting from Thorne and Tomlinson, so Texas must ensure that those two guards do not get any easy looks from behind the arc.
Use Balbay to dissect the D – Things seemed to open up with the insertion of Dogus Balbay into the starting lineup on Tuesday night against Oklahoma State. Connor Atchley enjoyed more open looks and took advantage of them, A.J. Abrams was freed up to the tune of 20 points, and the Longhorns enjoyed a salty assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1. The Buffaloes love to throw a ton of different defensive looks at their opponents, so Texas will need Balbay to probe the different zones and find the open lanes and open men. If he’s not the one handling the ball, Colorado could enjoy a fair share of Longhorn turnovers.