Pac-12 Game of the Week: Colorado at CaliforniaPosted by AMurawa on January 12th, 2012
Colorado at California, January 12, 8:oo PM, Comcast Sports Network – California
The Buffaloes are alone in first place in the Pac-12, after opening conference play with three consecutive home wins, but they’re yet to really earn any believers. They’ve certainly got a chance to fill up their bandwagon this weekend, as they make this year’s toughest road trip in the conference when they head to California Thursday night and Stanford on Saturday afternoon. By the end of the weekend, we should have a good idea whether Colorado deserves mention among the top teams in the conference, or whether this is a team that is still a year away from being taking seriously over the long haul.
In Tad Boyle’s first year as the head coach in Boulder, the Buffaloes opened Big 12 play with three straight wins, including an eye-opening road win at Kansas State, the Wildcats’ only home loss of the year. However, they then proceeded to lose their next four games, including three disappointing road losses against the dregs of the conference, going a long way towards sealing that team’s Selection Sunday fate and an NIT bid. Gone from that squad are the team’s four most prolific offensive players, including NBA lottery pick Alec Burks.
But similar to last year, this vintage of the Buffaloes again has four players who are scoring in double figures (although none are approaching the 20 PPG Burks averaged last year) and five different players have led the team in scoring in at least one game. Last weekend it was senior wing Carlon Brown leading the way, averaging 23 points per game in a weekend sweep of the Washington schools, but freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie had been featured strongly, scoring in double figures in nine straight games before laying an egg against Washington State. Then there’s manchild Andre Roberson, a 6’7” sophomore forward who is arguably the most athletic player in the Pac-12 and certainly its best rebounder; he has already posted nine double-doubles on the season after posting five in his freshman season. Throw in steady senior forward Austin Dufault, who you can seemingly pencil in for ten points a night, and you’ve got a solid four-man core that has played well throughout the season. The other guard spot is a bit of a concern, as senior Nate Tomlinson, a 43.8% three-point shooter in his first three years in Boulder, is struggling with his shot this season, hitting just 32.7% from deep and having made just two of his last 14 out there. Freshman guard Askia Booker also earns plenty of playing time (he’s the only reserve getting more than 50% of CU’s minutes), and he’s an athletic ball of energy who can provide a scoring punch off the bench, but he needs to dial back his aggressiveness a bit until he cleans up his jumper and begins to take better care of the ball.
In short, the Buffaloes are a good combination of talented youngsters and steady seniors, and as can be expected when folding in some young components, the team is improving as the season goes on. They’ve been tightening up their defense lately (since Christmas, they’re allowing just 0.73 points per possession, and allowed just 0.93 PPP last week against the Washington schools), and have certainly gone a long way towards figuring out an offensive identity. But they’ve been able to do so in the comfort of home, as this game against California will be the Buffaloes’ first true road game out of their home state this year, and their first road game of any kind since a 50-mile bus ride to Fort Collins on the final day of November.
You can bet the crowd waiting for them at Haas Pavilion will be anything but welcoming, but just as importantly, they’ll be facing a very good team. While CU’s season-long efficiency numbers are mediocre, checking in on both ends of the court at about 100th in the nation, California is right around 25th in the nation both offensively and defensively. Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez is the catalyst for the Golden Bears, leading the team, if not the nation, in toughness and intangibles, but it is sophomore guard Allen Crabbe who is likely the team’s best player. Not only does the 6’6” wing lead the team in scoring and three-point field goals, he’s the team’s best rebounder despite playing mostly on the perimeter. However, Crabbe and the relatively thin Bear frontline are beginning to get some more help up front, as sophomore Richard Solomon returned to action last week after missing four games with a stress fracture in his foot. He grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in just 17 minutes against Oregon, so if he can get back to providing the 20-plus minutes per game he was averaging at the start of the year, the frontline of senior Harper Kamp and freshman David Kravish will be greatly bolstered. Then there’s sophomore guard Justin Cobbs, who is as hot shooting the ball as Tomlinson is cold. Since December 19, when Cobbs grabbed the reins in the absence of Gutierrez due to the flu against UC Santa Barbara, Cobbs has been on fire, hitting 63.9% of his field goal attempts, 75% of his three-pointers, handing out just about five assists per game and playing superb energetic defense for head coach Mike Montgomery. As a result, he’s seen his minutes balloon from the mid-20s to the mid-30s, and he’s become a solid secondary offensive option for the Bears.
For the Buffaloes to win, they’ll need Roberson to make an impact on the offensive glass against a Bear team that will have no problem sending all five players to the defensive glass, they’ll need guys like Brown and Dinwiddie to continue their recent hot streaks from the field, and they’ll need to lock down on Cal’s perimeter shooters. And it wouldn’t hurt if Tomlinson was able to find his missing jumper. But, most importantly, they need to handle the road atmosphere at Haas Pavilion like old veterans; They need to be able to match the energy that Gutierrez and the Bears bring to the game, and they need to do so without getting too amped and playing out of control. All of that sounds easy enough, but playing with poise and energy in a hostile environment is something that cannot be learned in the practice gym. We’ll see tonight if the Buffs have that type of toughness in them.