The last time the University of Arizona men’s basketball team came to Boulder to face the University of Colorado, in May 2013, the Buffs avenged a bitter loss from earlier that season. This Saturday, when the No. 4 Wildcats enter the Coors Events Center, the narrative will be completely different.
CU has already faced head coach Sean Miller and his Arizona team once this season, a match-up that resulted in a 69-57 defeat in Tucson. The Buffs lost the battle in the backcourt, with Wooden Award candidate Nick Johnson scoring 18 points on 50 percent shooting, compared to his Colorado counterpart Jaron Hopkins, who only scored one basket the entire game.
The injury of Arizona’s sophomore power forward Brandon Ashley changes the game. Arizona already lacks depth as a team, with only three players averaging double figures in points per game. Ashley was one of those players, with 11.5 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game. Aside from the starting five, only two players average more than ten minutes played per game. With Ashley gone, there is now one.
This levels the playing field for the Buffaloes, who have had trouble with injuries all year. Junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was CU’s biggest loss, although Tad Boyle said he was already preparing for “life without Spencer” about a month ago. The rebuilding has already started, and the Buffs have succeeded in games without Dinwiddie. Sophomore forward Xavier Johnson has continued to flourish, averaging 17.8 points since CU’s loss to Arizona in January, while junior guard Askia Booker, who has averaged 17 points and 5.8 assists since Dinwiddie’s injury, has emerged as a team leader alongside sophomore center Josh Scott.
CU’s advantage in the frontcourt will be the Buffs’ ultimate aid. Redshirt freshman forward Wes Gordon has returned to the lineup after an injured ankle, and Scott has put up nearly a double-double (14.5 points, 8.6 rebounds) per game. Arizona, without Ashley, will rely on the frontcourt of sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman forward Aaron Gordon. Scott and Gordon, two center-forward hybrids, and Xavier Johnson and Dustin Thomas, two small forwards who can play at the four position, give Colorado the advantage here. This provides depth that will keep Tarczewski and Gordon on the court longer and wear them down as the game progresses.
With a 19-7 record, the Buffs need one more marquee victory to cement their place in the NCAA tournament. University of Kansas did CU a favor in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) by playing well, but Oklahoma State University and Baylor University, two teams who were supposed to be in the top 15, have floundered in the Big 12. Johnson has already guaranteed a 20-point victory for the Buffaloes at home, and with ESPN College Gameday coming to Boulder, the lights on Sox Walseth Court have never been brighter.
The Buffs take on the Arizona Wildcats at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Coors Events Center.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Andrew Haubner at firstname.lastname@example.org.