Colorado Preview

Utah gave the Bruins a scare, and now UCLA faces the better team Saturday in the high-altitude Pac-12 road trip in Colorado...

Okay, so it wasn't overtime, but is sure was close. UCLA passed its first true road test of the season on Thursday night with a 57-53 victory at Utah. There were several things that happened in that game that could have easily seen the Bruins fold and lose: Shabazz Muhammad having arguably his worst college game to date; Norman Powell succumbing somewhat to illness (altitude issues?); and the altitude having a clear impact on UCLA's energy in the second half. The Bruins, however, found a way to eek out the win and move on to a possibly sterner test on Saturday. UCLA will face Coach Tad Boyle's Colorado Buffaloes and many of the same issues will be in play. However, there are some things about this game that could potentially make it easier for the Bruins than the game in Salt Lake City…but CU has enough talent to blow the Bruins off the floor if UCLA's best players have another poor offensive game.

Boyle's name has been mentioned quite a bit on BRO as a potential replacement for UCLA's Coach Ben Howland after the season (if Howland is replaced/leaves). Without going off on a tangent, Boyle is, in many ways, very similar to Howland. The particulars may be for another day and another article, but one of the ways that Boyle shows similarities to Howland is his ability to take overlooked recruits and get them to play well both as a team and individually. The Colorado rotation has six players that see significant playing time and you can argue that all six players were either under-recruited or the proverbial diamonds-in-the rough.

Unlike many of UCLA's opponents this season, you can't start a preview of Colorado talking about how one player carries or drives the team. However, if pressed to narrow down the key players for the Buffs, you would almost certainly start with their backcourt of sophomores Askia Booker (6'1" 170 lbs.) and Spencer Dinwiddie (6'6" 200 lbs.). They are the leading scorers on the team at 14.7 and 13.9 PPG respectively, lead in assists with 36 and 41 respectively, both have a better than 37% shooting percentage from behind the arc and clearly have the most attempts, and they rebound well, averaging 3.5 and 4 RPG respectively. In terms of positioning, they are interchangeable. Either can run the point or play the two-guard spot. Both present match-up problems, but both also have holes in their games. Booker is a relentless jitterbug of a player whose activity can really bother defenders trying to stay with him. However, he's also a player who can shoot his team out of games with mistimed shots or simply poor shot selection. Dinwiddie is a very good player who is getting better quickly. He can post up, shoot the three, distribute and, perhaps most importantly, play very good defense. However, his personality has yet to take on that aggressiveness you look for in your best player. His occasional passiveness has caused him to disappear at times this season.

UCLA's defense didn't look great against Utah, especially in the second half when Utah's inability to hit wide-open three-point shots greatly determined the outcome of the game. The Bruin backcourt is going to be severely tested on Saturday by Booker and Dinwiddie. If Larry Drew II doesn't step up his defense then Booker could have one of those go-off games. Dinwiddie is simply a tough match-up for the Bruins regardless because of his size. Add to that fact that the most likely Bruins to guard him, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad, are not the stoutest of defenders. Again, thinking outside the box, perhaps Howland and the Bruins would be better served by having Kyle Anderson and his length on Dinwiddie.

You shouldn't expect Dinwiddie to have one of his off games and disappear. He wanted to go to UCLA, but Howland didn't offer him, and he will certainly be up for this game. In fact, of all the Buffaloes, I expect him to be the toughest match-up for the Bruins on both ends of the floor.

Boyle has decided to go with more of a three-guard look recently, with senior Sabatino Chen (6'4" 190 lbs.) in the starting line up. Chen has been a solid shooter (50%) from the floor, but terrible from the three-point line (4-19), but then came the Arizona game, where he should have been credited with at least one more made three-pointer. He isn't quick or athletic, but he is sneaky and experienced. However, in spite of the game in Tucson, if the Bruins are going to leave one player open around the arc, it's probably Chen.

The two Buffs starting at forward are bound to give the Bruin posts a very difficult game. Junior Andre Roberson (6'7" 210 lbs.) and true freshman Josh Scott (6'10" 215 lbs.) are both very athletic, especially Roberson, and they are both going to give the Bruin front line fits. Roberson is a bit of an athletic freak that averages more rebounds than points (11.8 to 11.3) and has blocked or stolen 51 possessions from the opposition. There really is no one on UCLA that can guard him. He's truly improved his offensive game since last year, shooting over 48% from the floor and over 41% from behind the arc. The silver lining is that Roberson simply doesn't shoot enough, which is more a product of Booker sometimes shooting too much.

Scott has been a nice addition to the squad. He is the third-leading scorer on the team at over 13 PPG and the second leading rebounder at just around 6 RPG. He is the low-post option for the Buffs, having attempted 138 of his 139 total shots on the season from inside the arc, and most of those have come in and around the painted area. He has some reliable post moves that opponents have struggled to defend. His game doesn't rely on strength, however, so he won't have that massive competitive advantage that Alex Oriahki and Laurence Bowers of Missouri had over the Wears and Tony Parker (although it didn't mean much in that game).

True freshman and former UCLA recruit Xavier Johnson (6'6" 220 lbs.) rounds out the rotation for Boyle, or at least those players who get the vast majority of minutes. Johnson is a solid player, being both an inside and outside threat and being able to board well. He has been his own worst enemy at times, though, hitting just over 50% of his foul shots. He is also athletic and will certainly be playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder playing against UCLA.

So, you have a Colorado team that has numerous players who should be motivated to play against the Bruins, are playing at home and need the game probably more than the Bruins do. Did I mention the altitude? If you saw the Utah game then you already know that the altitude played a big role in Utah being able to close the deficit and put the game in doubt in the second half…and Boulder is over 1200 feet higher up than Salt Lake City. Norman Powell got sick (presumably because of the elevation) and most of the Bruins, most notably Jordan Adams, lost the lift in their legs in the second half.

While the altitude could be a factor, the reality is that UCLA will be much more acclimated to it by Saturday morning than the Bruins were Thursday night.

Then there's what I am going to term the "brain freeze" factor. Colorado has some nice wins, namely over Dayton, Murray State and Baylor, back during the holiday tournament season. However, even in those games they suffered through stretches of collective brain freezes where the team failed to execute on both ends of the floor. Now the three aforementioned victories, while still solid, don't look quite as good now as they did at the time. Then there's the loss at Kansas…a blowout loss. Then there's the loss at Wyoming…and the way the Buffs lost at McKale to ‘Zona (no, not the absurd officials' call at the end, but the way CU folded at the foul line). How about the way CU caved against Arizona State?

Colorado is proving they lack a certain mental toughness. They are a good free throw shooting team, yet the Buffs completely threw the game away against Arizona. They did pretty much the same thing against ASU, too. They almost blew a 17-point second half lead on Thursday to offensively challenged USC.

Finally, even though Colorado has been a very good defensive club, allowing its opponents to shoot less than 40% from the floor for the season, much of that is due to some of the creampuffs the Buffs have faced. Perhaps the best scenario going into the Colorado game was having the Bruins barely win in Salt Lake City with Muhammad and Adams having off nights, especially Muhammad. The chances of that happening again are not great. Now add to that the fact that Utah probably plays better team defense with a better team concept than Colorado does (which isn't a knock on the Buffs but rather the standard by which Utah plays) and the Bruins should be ready for what Colorado throws at them.

Back to Muhammad. Having watched him now for half a season or so, it's probably a good bet that the pride factor will kick in with the Bruin freshman and he will make it a personal mission to not have a 3-13 shooting game ever again.

Colorado will probably try and slow the pace, but not as much as Utah or Stanford did. That's because Colorado wants to get out and run sometimes, too, and keeping the Buffs from running much may actually hamper them more than help.

Even though Colorado suffers through periods of ineptitude during games, the reality is that most of those moments cost the Buffs and lasted longer when they were on the road. They are much better at home.

If this game were in a month or two and we had a better feel for the Bruins on the road then I'd be more apt to predict a victory. However, a split will do with a now huge game with Oregon looming for the Bruins next weekend.

However, much like the Utah game, don't be surprised if either team wins.

Colorado 68

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