Colorado Preview

Jan. 2 -- It's a critical game for the Bruins as they goes to Boulder to play the Buffs. It's their best chance to get a win on the conference mountain road trip and a to get untracked after a couple of bad non-conference losses...

After finishing its nonconference slate with an 8-5 mark, the UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court on Friday afternoon to open its Pac-12 Conference schedule in Boulder against Colorado (4 PM; Fox Sports 1).

Colorado comes into the game with a 7-5 record so the game is critical to both teams’ chances of postseason play.

For UCLA, after suffering two bad, demoralizing losses in a row that have seemed to really accent the worries about the program under Steve Alford, the game truly represents an opportunity to change course or compound those worries. In terms of the season, a loss to start Pac-12 play would be a big blow, but a win could reinforce a mindset for this team that the conference schedule represents a new season.

Colorado certainly is in a must-win situation itself, as the Buffs have no significant out-of-conference wins to speak of and have already suffered a series of “bad” losses to Wyoming and Hawaii.

Coach Tad Boyle’s Buffs have gained a reputation this season for playing their own version of a “green light” offense, although, to be fair, that’s more the result of Boyle being forced to play senior Askia Booker (6’2” 175 lbs.) (Pictured Above) at the point for the majority of minutes. Unlike Alford, Boyle has consistently tried to get Booker to make better decisions, both in terms of shot selection as well as getting his teammates involved in the offense. Booker is very streaky, but when he is on a good streak he can single-handedly carry the Buffs for long stretches. He leads the team in scoring at 15.3 PPG, but that is as much a result of the volume of his shot attempts as anything else. He has attempted 50 more shots than his nearest teammate and is shooting less than 40% from the floor overall and from behind the arc. He is one of the few Buffaloes who has more assists than turnovers, but just barely as his 37 assists and 28 turnovers both lead the team.

Boyle does have one pretty certain future NBA player on his roster in junior Josh Scott (6’10” 245 lbs.), who is a good athlete with a nice shooting touch. He really should be the first offensive option for the Buffaloes, but because of Booker’s decision-making there are times where Scott doesn’t see the ball for long stretches. Because Scott plays more of the power forward position for the Buffs, he is going to be matched up with UCLA’s Kevon Looney, and that will be a big challenge for the UCLA freshman. Looney is the better athlete and has more length and upside, but this will be his first conference game, his first conference road game, and it will come in an arena where the altitude will be a factor. Add to those facts that Looney will now be playing one of the top three players at his position in the conference. Lastly, the last couple of games Looney has looked a bit fatigued, as if the large minutes he’s been logging are catching up to him. There’s also the possibility that Looney has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of organization on offense. Regardless of the cause, Looney’s game has been off since Gonzaga visited Los Angeles.

The starting center for Colorado will be sophomore Wesley Gordon (6’9” 240 lbs.), another big body that Boyle can throw at UCLA’s undermanned line-up. He will likely face UCLA’s Tony Parker and UCLA should feel good about that match-up as Parker is the one Bruin who has seen his game improve a bit over the past three weeks. Gordon is not a top offensive option but he is second on the team in rebounding at 6.3 RPG and in blocked shots, with 14. Scott leads the team in both categories at 7.7 RPG and 24 blocks. If there is a knock on Gordon it would be his lack of athleticism. It will be incumbent for UCLA to take advantage of that with Parker and possibly Thomas Welsh if the Bruins stand a chance at a victory.

Junior Xavier Johnson (6’7” 230 lbs.) may represent the biggest defensive challenge for the Bruins. Quite simply, UCLA does not have a player on the roster that matches up well with Johnson because of his length and athleticism. His 13.5 PPG is good for third on the team and he is the other primary outside threat along with Booker. Norman Powell, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are simply too small to be effective defending Johnson. Powell will probably have the best chance because he is a better athlete than Johnson. However, Powell has been struggling at both ends of the floor over the past several weeks. A reinvigorated Powell on defense would go a long way to helping the Bruins.

The final starter is sophomore Jaron Hopkins (6’6” 200 lbs.). Hopkins was the player thrust into a starting role before he was ready last season when former Buff Spencer Dinwiddie went down with a season-ending knee injury. He is certainly better than he was at any point last year, but he’s still, along with Booker, a weak link for Colorado. His offense has been fine, as he’s hitting just under 50% from the floor and 35% from behind the arc. He has been struggling on the defensive end, though, being inconsistent in his closeouts and in understanding what Boyle’s team defensive concept has been. He will more than likely be assigned to guard Hamilton and if Hopkins continues to go underneath screens then perhaps Hamilton can find his shooting stroke in the first half. Hopkins is also the one Colorado player who is really bad from the free throw line. The Buffs are actually good as a team, shooting 74%, but that would be much, much higher if not for Hopkins’ 47% from the charity stripe.

Boyle hasn’t been able to rely much on his bench and even when the bench has responded to the coach’s call, they can’t provide the Buffs with any size. The two players who’ve been getting the most bench time are sophomore Xavier Talton (6’2” 185 lbs.) and true freshman Dominique Collier (6’2” 170 lbs.). Talton also saw his minutes massively increase last year with the loss of Dinwiddie, but he is more of a shooting guard now and Boyle seems to like size. He has been much better form behind the three-point line (40%) than inside of it (less than 30%).

Collier is the crown jewel of the 2014 recruiting class and is clearly the point guard of the future for Colorado. To put his skill in perspective, if Collier were on UCLA he’d be the second-best guard on the roster behind Powell and it wouldn’t be close. His ability to run the offense and involve all of his teammates far surpasses that of any other guard who will play in Boulder on Friday. However, his shooting has been very poor, averaging less than 30% overall and from behind the arc. Still, there is talk that Boyle may be considering starting him and moving Booker to his more natural 2-guard spot, which would allow Hopkins to come off the bench. In fact, it’s intriguing that it hasn’t happened yet.

The final player that should see some minutes is sophomore Dustin Thomas (6’7” 225 lbs.), who only plays so that Scott, Johnson or Gordon can get a short breather. Thomas’ role is very much like UCLA’s Noah Allen’s in that he’s not expected to do much but supply some minutes.

This should be one of the games where UCLA will clearly be outmatched on the glass. Outside of the Parker\Gordon match-up, Colorado can realistically believe that it will win all the other individual rebounding match-ups. Looney has the capability of suddenly becoming a one-man rebounding machine unlike anyone else that will play, but, again, he’s looked tired lately.

The turnover battle is an area where UCLA can even out things. If there is a team in the middle-to-upper level of the conference that is worse at taking care of the ball than the Bruins, either through straight turnovers or poor shot selection, it’s Colorado. There will more than likely be some instances in the game where Bryce Alford and Booker trade bad shots on multiple consecutive possessions. It will feel like watching a bad tennis match. If UCLA does even a marginally better job of taking care of the ball and in shot selection, it will increase its chances for victory exponentially.

The final factor that should impact the game, and it’ll be tough to gauge until seeing the Bruins, will be the altitude. Colorado will obviously be used to the elevation, but UCLA, especially the newbies, like Looney and Hamilton, will not. This is why UCLA will more than likely be forced to play zone for much of the game, which would actually allow Colorado to play to its strengths as Booker can get hot and Johnson and Hopkins are pretty consistent. The Bruins would be better off forcing Colorado to execute its man offense and making Booker make the right decisions.

The Utah game appears to be a likely loss for UCLA. They will be playing the mountains for the second time in 48 hours against one of the top teams in the nation, and certainly one of the best coached. If UCLA is to get a split on this trip then the win most likely has to come in Boulder. If UCLA loses this game the season could begin to snowball and UCLA will be looking at a season reminiscent of Steve Lavin’s last season or Ben Howland’s 2010 season…or worse. Everyone knew Lavin’s final season was just that and Howland was only just beginning to generally lose the luster of his Final Four years.

The two teams actually resemble each other, in their lack of discipline, lack of a point guard with a good basketball I.Q. who likes to shoot, and with similar frontcourt talent, with UCLA probably being slightly better overall. The Bruins absolutely should win this game. However, until UCLA actually shows that it can play with a semblance of consistency and teamwork, where one or two players aren’t consistently making poor decisions, then it is very difficult to think UCLA can win, especially on the road and in the altitude. Colorado also has a solid coach in Boyle, and there’s a good chance he’ll find a way to take advantage of UCLA mistakes better than the Bruins can take advantage of Colorado’s. It would certainly help if UCLA were shooting better, but that’s what happens when importance isn’t placed on shot selection.

Colorado 63

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