Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Sam Routhier at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samrouthier, and contact CU Independent Assistant Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.
Sam Routhier: Who’s ready to see some Buffaloes dance? I’ll be honest Justin, when I tuned into the Selection Sunday broadcast a few days ago I was not pleased with the University of Colorado’s draw. Another eighth seed? Another underseeded East coast opponent in Connecticut, the South region’s ninth seed and this season’s AAC tournament champs? Visions of 2014 and the Pittsburgh Panthers danced through my head, as I’m sure they did for many others.
But there is still hope to be had, and plenty of reason to believe that this year’s iteration of the NCAA Tournament will have more action for Colorado fans to tune in. The differences between 2014 and 2016 begin with the state of the Buffaloes themselves. In 2014 Colorado limped to the end of the regular season after star point guard Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending torn ACL. The team that appeared in the postseason was more or less the same team that Buff fans had to suffer through last year, a 16-18 record and an uninspiring performance in the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament.
This season, Colorado has rebounded in a big way, posting a 22-11 record and wins against teams like Oregon, seeded at the top of the West region in this year’s NCAA Tournament; California, a fourth seed in this tournament; and Arizona, a sixth seed. The roster who pushed Colorado to those victories is the same team that will be taking on Connecticut this Thursday, a battle-tested group who have a chip on their shoulder and a hunger for success in the NCAA Tournament that has eluded them in the Buffaloes’ past three tourney appearances.
Justin Guerriero: Sam, I think that the 2015-16 Colorado Buffaloes are one of the most well-rounded squads that head coach Tad Boyle has fielded. There’s senior forward Josh Scott, playing in the final few contests of his CU basketball career, whose prowess in the paint speaks for itself. Sophomore guard George King and junior guard Josh Fortune have been dependable right hand men for Scott during the regular season, and this team has proved that it can take down formidable opponents, namely in big wins against Arizona and Oregon. However, I think you’re absolutely right when you say that UConn is under-seeded. The Huskies finished sixth in the AAC with a 24-10 record, but six of their ten losses were by five or less points.
Connecticut has played ranked opponents well this season. I think that fans look at the matchup between UConn and CU and visualize a likely toss up, after all, the game features an eighth-seeded team going up a ninth-seeded team so shouldn’t it be a pretty even contest? I’m of the thinking that the Buffs are going to get more than they can handle from the Huskies. Connecticut’s offense is piloted by a quartet of talented players who all average at least 12 points per game. The core four consists of forward Shonn Miller and guards Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton and Sterling Gibbs. On average, the Buffs have been superior to the Huskies in the rebounding department, but UConn has the edge in the shooting percentage category. As a team, the Buffs made 42.5 percent of their field goals while Connecticut sank 45.9 of its attempts.
SR: Justin, you’re right in suggesting that Connecticut may have been mis-seeded in this tournament. They certainly wouldn’t be the only team (Oregon State anyone?) who find themselves in a different seed than what was expected. But I think that may be to Colorado’s benefit more than we realize.
Colorado relies primarily on two players to shoulder the offensive burden, Scott and redshirt sophomore guard George King. Connecticut has defended capably this season but I’m confident they won’t be able to stop both of the Buffaloes’ top options. The Huskies field a big man in the middle in seven-foot center Amida Brimah, who led the team this season with 59 blocks. But we’ve already seen Scott go toe-to-toe with big bodies and come out on top; arguably the best game of Scott’s career was in this year’s win over Arizona when he battled in the paint with the Wildcats’ seven-foot behemoth Kaleb Tarczewski.
Even if Connecticut does have a solution for Scott, that doesn’t spell the end for CU. Colorado’s first round drubbing of Washington State in the Pac-12 Tournament featured a first half in which the Buffaloes went up big and Scott was barely involved. You know who was? King. One of Scott’s best attributes this season has been understanding when it’s time for him to force the issue, and when it isn’t. Against the Cougars, Scott was happy to kick the ball out when the double team came and help the Buffaloes’ offense continue humming. It certainly worked for King, who finished the game with 21 points.
When I consider this Colorado-Connecticut matchup, I believe it will come down to which team can respond best when the other takes away an aspect of their game. To be honest, I’m not sure what head coach Tad Boyle has in his back pocket to slow down Connecticut, but I do know that the Huskies will be going after Scott, King, or both. I’m confident that the Buffaloes can win this game (and perhaps others) because throughout this season they’ve been able to respond to what the defense has given them and find a way to win against talented opponents.
JG: I’d agree with your points about Scott. I think that UConn is going to have a hard time stopping him from putting up his usual 16.1 points per game. But the Huskies have had a lot of success this year from a defensive standpoint. During the regular season, the Huskies held opposing teams to just a 41.4 percent conversion rate from within three-point range, which was good for the fifth best in the country.
One of my biggest concerns for the Buffaloes in this matchup is their ability to stay disciplined and avoid sending Husky players to the free throw line. Connecticut boasts the nation’s best free throw conversion rate and has routinely made opponents pay for playing sloppy. Mark my words, if the Buffs can’t play smart, they will fall hard in this game. I do have to say, both teams have had impressive, and for that matter, quite similar, seasons.
Both the Buffs and the Huskies have scored big wins and have looked off. But the Buffaloes have definitely displayed a more extreme version of “looking off.” Their blowing of two winnable games against the Utah Utes in the regular season is a testament to this. For some reason, the Buffs have gone ice cold from the floor at various points during the regular season. And Sam, you brought up the Buffs’ miserable loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament earlier. This year’s team is without doubt more talented and has far greater depth than a few years ago; however, that game did feature an eighth and ninth seed matchup and the Buffs shot 35.7 from the floor in the contest.
If the Buffs are going to win on Thursday, they better be ready to contain the Huskies’ four potent offense generators while keeping the UConn from taking foul shots. And Sam, we both have neglected to mention what lies ahead for the Buffaloes in the event of a win Thursday in Des Moines. If the Buffs can beat the Huskies, they will have to face the No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the second round. This year’s squad has been fun to watch, but the roadblocks in the way of Colorado advancing far into the tournament appear to me as being more than this Buffaloes team can handle.
The Buffs and Huskies will tip off at 11:30 a.m. MST on Thursday, March 16. The game will be broadcast on TNT.