The Buffs are coming off a very easy 24-point victory against USC on Thursday at the Galen Center.
This game is critical for both teams as Colorado is tied for first place in the Pac 12 Conference while the Bruins are trying to set themselves up with some momentum going into the trip to the Washington schools next week.
As has been the case all season, the Bruins returned home on Thursday night and their defensive intensity picked up compared to where it was against Oregon State a week ago and in the second half of the Oregon game last Saturday. Playing that kind of defense (how many airballs and crazy, end-of-the-shot-clock shots did the Bruins force?) will be critical for the Bruins to come out of the game against the Buffs with the victory.
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle has done a great job since arriving in Boulder from Northern Colorado almost two years ago. Last year's squad, while not making the NCAAs, was a semifinalist in the NIT. Last year's Buffs squad probably would have finished in the top three of the Pac 10, but CU was still playing its Big 12 Conference schedule. The Buffs proceeded to lose many players off last year's team because of graduation and early entry into the NBA draft. Consequently, Colorado was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Pac 12 in this, their inaugural year in the conference. CU's 14-6 overall and 6-2 Pac 12 record have been the surprise of the conference season.
Obviously Colorado has a built-in advantage when playing at home because of the altitude. Heck, even Utah is considerably better at home because of that advantage. And like the Utes, CU is nowhere near as good on the road as they are at home. However, unlike Utah, CU's issues on the road are more the result of specific match-up issues rather than a lack of talent.
Colorado presents the Bruins and Coach Ben Howland with some match-up problems but also some holes the Bruins can exploit if they play with focus and intensity.
Boyle will start a lineup with two players who are 6'5", one who is 6'9", one who is 6'7" and one who is 6'4". In terms of size, Colorado will be bigger in the backcourt and on the wings while being at a distinct disadvantage in the post. Further, the Buffs will be slightly more athletic across the board.
The three-headed guard line-up features seniors Carlon Brown (6'5" 215 lbs.) and Nate Tomlinson (6'4" 185 lbs.) and freshman Spencer Dinwiddie (6'5" 190 lbs.). Brown is the team leader in scoring at 13.4 PPG and the team leader in the locker room. Tomlinson is the point guard who has a very good assist-to-turnover ratio while Dinwiddie can play any of the three guard/wing positions. Between them they have over 130 assists and only 85 turnovers. The key, however, is that they are all good to very good outside shooters. Tomlinson is the weak link, if there is one, of the three when it comes to shooting, but he is clearly a pass-first point guard. They all shoot free throws very well, particularly Dinwiddie, but they don't get to the free-throw line all that much. These three are primarily jump shooters. Freshman Askia Booker (6'1" 160 lbs.), a quick guard out of Los Angeles, provides depth.
The fact that Colorado has more of a jump shooting backcourt should allow the Bruins to play man defense with some success. While CU enjoys a bit of an athletic edge overall, that's not because of the Buffs' backcourt. They guards aren't remarkably quick, but rather use their collective size to shoot over teams. If Howland plays a lot of zone (which he won't) then he's almost inviting CU's guards to shoot the Bruins out of the gym.
The athletic disadvantage the Bruins will face is actually in the frontcourt and it is a significant disadvantage. Senior Austin Dufault (6'9" 225 lbs.) and sophomore Andre Roberson (6'7" 210 lbs.) are the starting frontcourt but neither are traditional post players. They are much more comfortable playing a face-up game. In fact, both have been pretty good with their outside shooting this season, with Dufault leading the team at 44% from behind the arc while Roberson is shooting a respectable 33%, considering he does most of his work within 15 feet of the hoop. While DuFault can hit the outside jumper, Roberson is the more dangerous of the two because of the multitude of ways he can impact a game. He averages an outstanding 11.1 RPG to go along with his more than 10 PPG. He is the runaway leader in blocked shots with 31 and he provides energy and desire all over the floor. He is basically what many Bruin fans believe Anthony Stover would be if he were given more court time. Dufault and Roberson will be a handful for the Bruins any time Stover isn't on the court. When Stover plays he should be able to neutralize one of these two. Sophomore Shane Harris-Tunks (6'11" 250 lbs.) provides depth for both DuFault and Roberson as both of Boyle's starters can slide easily to the 4 (or even the 3) spot. Harris-Tunks really is a minutes-eater because, if you assume Dufault and Roberson stay out of foul trouble, they will play the bulk of the key minutes on Saturday.
Boyle has utilized his bench extensively over the course of the season, but his rotation really drops to those seven players when playing higher level competition and it may be even shorter than that if Boyle thinks Harris-Tunks adds little to the game.
It is this lack of practical depth that the Bruins can exploit. Josh Smith has to be focused for the Bruins to get the Buffs in foul trouble or else Roberson and Dufault will heavily impact the game. The drop-off from the Buff starting forwards to the bench players is precipitous and would essentially eliminate the athletic disadvantage the Bruins have up front. Therein lies the conundrum: the Bruins should play man defense to deal with the Buff guards but they should play a zone to deal with the Buff starting forwards because, quite frankly, Dufault and Roberson will dribble right around the Wear twins and Josh Smith at will.
Assuming that Howland will play mostly if not all man defense, the key will be for the Bruins to rotate and help properly. They have been collectively doing a better job of that lately. Still, if CU's drivers find open seams and make the appropriate passes to the perimeter shooters who will be spotting up, then it could be a long afternoon for the Bruins.
There are some other factors which should play in UCLA's favor. The Buffs don't force many turnovers. In fact, they only forced 8 against a horrific USC team on Thursday. Conversely, the Buffs do turn over the ball a bit. They average around 14 TPG, but when you eliminate some of the cupcakes they've had on their schedule, that number balloons to close to 19 TPG. Finally, although Colorado is a good rebounding team, the Bruins, if properly focused, should be able to offset that. Howland knows what he's going to get in terms of effort from the Wears on the boards, but if Josh Smith really hits the boards hard then UCLA should enjoy a rebounding advantage. If Roberson has to sit for any long stretches then the Bruins should be able to dominate the boards.
Like most games, this one will probably feature all of the issues written above, with the game flowing back and forth. Little spurts here and there should help determine the outcome of the game. Boyle noticeably gave 10 players at least 10 minutes against the Trojans in the obvious attempt to keep his kids fresh for the game against the Bruins. However, if Boyle stays to form then there is a possibility that CU will tire as the game progresses.
Finally, Colorado, while not Utah, isn't a good road team. They've faced two solid teams on the road in Cal and Stanford and lost a relatively close game in Berkley while getting blown out in Palo Alto.
This game will go a long way in determining what direction both of these squads are going to take. Call it a gut feeling, but go with the home team.