Since We Last Spoke: Colorado

Kevin Danna brings his updated insights and observations heading into Thursday night's away contest versus the Colorado Buffaloes at the Coors Event Center.

On January 14, the Stanford Cardinal men's basketball team played perhaps their most complete game of the season. Coming off a rusty and shaky 68-65 victory over the Utah Runnin' Utes, the Cardinal were lights out from the perimeter, dominant down low and air-tight on the defensive end in an 84-64 shellacking of the Colorado Buffaloes.

The last time Stanford played at Colorado, the Cardinal were dominant on a Sunday afternoon ESPNU game, beating Colorado 67-43 behind 15 points from Anthony Goods on Dec. 2, 2007, as part of the now-extinct Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series (won by the Pac-10 that year 7-5).

So, going into Thursday's game against the Buffs in Boulder shouldn't be much of a stretch to pull off, right?

Oh contraire. I'm not sure there's been a game I've been as nervous about against a team the Cardinal has already beat by 20 points. Stanford probably couldn't have played better than they did against the Buffs back at Maples Pavilion, a game in which they shot 53 percent from the floor and held Ralphie to just 33 percent shooting in the second half. And while Colorado looked impressive for about 25 minutes, once that Cardinal run hit after the Buffs tied it up at 42, Boyle's bunch had no response and went away quietly.

Since then, these two teams have gone in opposite directions. In the nine games since, the Farm Boys have gone 3-6, while Colorado is 7-2 over the same stretch. We've witnessed what has hurt the Card, so let's discuss what has propelled Colorado since the middle of January.

First and foremost, the Buffaloes don't lose games they shouldn't; they are the quintessential "takin' care of business" bunch. Their two losses since the Stanford game were both on the road against top-half conference opponents - UCLA and Arizona. Otherwise, they are 3-2 on the road. Granted, their roadies were against the three bottom feeders of the Pac in Arizona State, USC ,and Utah, but they won those games nonetheless, and won their last two road games (Arizona State, Utah) to go 2-1 on their longest conference road swing of the season.

The Sun Devils were able to hang around for a while against the Buffaloes, down just five early on in the second half. But then the third best freshman in the conference went off, as Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 points in the final frame to propel his Buffaloes to a 63-49 victory. Colorado certainly let the Sun Devils dictate the pace at which the game was played at for good stretches - the game was very tight for most of the first half until the Buffaloes pulled away a little bit in the final minute; Colorado had some difficulties with the Sendek match-up zone.  But at the end of the day, they were able to show that at the very least, they could beat a bad team at their own game. When they pushed it and got out in transition, which they are able to do a lot more in the second half, Arizona State had no hope.

The Utah game was a little deceptive. You look at the score of that game - 55-48 Buffs - and maybe think that was a poorly played game for Tad's team. Heck, even a writer for the Buffaloes' athletic website considered it an ugly win. I disagree for the most part; I don't think gobuffs.com gave its team enough credit for what they were able to do against the Utes.

Ok, so maybe it was scoreless going into the first mandatory timeout (Comcast Sports Net didn't start picking up the game until around the 13-minute mark of the first half, so I couldn't tell ya what went down). Maybe there had only been a combined nine points scored when there was nine minutes to go in the half. Maybe Colorado only shot 2-15 to start the game.

But let me tell ya, Colorado was as impressive as you can be in the last 29 minutes of that game as you can only winning by seven against a 2-12 team in a mediocre conference. Also, I'm annoyed when people consider low-scoring games ugly basketball. There's a difference between missing contested shots and just turning the damn thing over in the face of zero pressure; there were only 19 combined turnovers in that game in Salt Lake City. Yes, hitting shots is probably the biggest ingredient to winning games, but there are so many other factors that go into determining the outcome of the game. I question the level of love of the game one has if he or she says, "eww, it was 55-48? What an ugly game!" If you don't appreciate solid defense and contested jump shots, you don't appreciate life (now there were certainly some missed open jumpers, and Utah banked in two threes, but whatever).

For those who insist on offense, however, Colorado did score 50 points in the last 29 minutes of the game and hit 17 of their final 38 shots, which is 45 percent. What was most impressive about the Buffs offensively was that they were able to get anything they wanted out of timeouts. Sometimes that meant finding Austin Dufault down low for an easy layup, other times that meant letting Dinwiddie do work, clearing out for the freshman and just letting him beat his defender to the rack. They kept it simple, and the Runnin' Utes were unable to guard them out of the timeout.

Larry Krystkowiak's side was also unable to body the Buffaloes down low. While Dufault had a nice game with 11 points and nine boards, it was André Roberson who stole the show. Already the best rebounder in the conference, Roberson seemingly gobbled up every miss en route to a 16-rebound performance. He also scored 12 points, using his wiry strength to grab offensive rebounds and flushing them down. He was additionally able to stretch the defense, hitting a much-needed Buffalo bucket from 18 feet out on the right wing to put his squad up two with about five minutes to play. In all likelihood, Roberson is going to pull down his 300th rebound this season against the Cardinal on Thursday night. He has been playing exceptional basketball all year and is the only player in the conference averaging a double-double.

***Another note on that game, which you may or may not find interesting - I at least got a chuckle out of it - Carlon Brown, the Utah transfer, was booed heavily when he touched the ball. To be expected, I guess, but you rarely see a guy play against the team he transferred from. Just a crazy situation in Carlon's case - I'm not sure how closely he followed the conference re-alignment deal (he did transfer after the 2009-10 season, which is right around when all this got started), but I'm sure he didn't expect when he went from a Mountain West school to a Big 12 school that he would be playing his former team twice in his senior season in the Pac-12.***

It seems obnoxiously obvious, but the main difference between January 14 and February 23 is that the latest game will be played at the Coors Events Center, where the Buffaloes are undefeated in conference play. In fact, Colorado is the only undefeated team at home in conference in the Pac-12. It goes back to that "taking care of business" mentality the Buffaloes have - they just win the games they should, and for a team with a 10-4 conference record, that is well more than half of the games they play in.

They have had some close calls at home, beating both Arizona and Oregon by just one point. In both cases, though, the Buffaloes found a way to pull it out. Against the Wildcats, Carlon Brown hit a trey to put his team up 64-63 with a little more than a minute to play before D'ing up on the last couple of possessions to hold Arizona scoreless in the final minute. Against the Ducks, Australian guard Nate Tomlinson got fouled by Cardinal killer E.J. Singler with one second remaining and the game tied (Altman was none too pleased about the call). Tomlinson hit the first, missed the second on purpose, and that was it. 72-71 Buffs.

What makes the Buffaloes so scary going into the Thursday game is that just about anybody who will step on the floor in white, black and gold can handle the ball and score it. They get their offense from so many different contributors - kind of like Stanford - that they will be very tough to defend. Carlon Brown is their leading scorer at just north of 12 points per game; this is the first time in ten years that their leading scorer is not averaging at least 15. No matter, though, because Dinwiddie averages 11, Roberson averages 11, Dufault averages 11, and freshman Askia Booker averages nine. They and Oregon State are the only two teams in the Pac-12 that have five guys who average at least nine per contest, not rounding up (otherwise UCLA would be in the mix).

We haven't even mentioned defense yet. The Buffaloes are the stingiest team in the conference when it comes to opponent field goal percentage, holding the enemy to 39.6 percent shooting from the floor.  For a team that has had its struggles putting the biscuit in the basket recently on the road, things won't get any easier offensively on Thursday against Colorado.

Also, because of their 7-2 run over the last nine games, Colorado is only 1.5 games back of Cal and Washington for first place in the conference. They have only been this close to the top this late in the season twice since winning the Big 8 back in 1969, so expect these Buffs to come out firing.

Sure, Stanford destroyed Colorado the last time these two teams played. But a lot has happened since and the Buffs will be where they are most comfortable - in thin air. Don't expect a repeat of the last time these two squads played in the Coors Events Center.

And by that, I mean a 24-point butt-whoopin'. However, a win is certainly possible. Stanford has played considerably better in its last three games, even if the team wasn't able to pull it out down the stretch against Oregon. If the Stanford guards can knock down their perimeter jumpers like they did the first time around to leave more space for Owens to operate down low, that will be huge. If Stanford can make this more of a half-court game and not let the Buffaloes run at will like they love to do at home in altitude, that will be big. The question would then become being able to execute in the half-court, which has been a question mark at times for this team.
Stanford can make it 2-0 against the Buffaloes this year; it's just going to take one hell of an effort.
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