Pac-12 Tournament preview: Buffs vs. Washington State

For the third time this season, the Colorado Buffaloes will take on the Washington State Cougars Wednesday night. For this upcoming meeting, the stakes are the highest. The No. 7 Buffs and No. 10 Cougs will tip off Wednesday evening in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the first round of the annual Pac-12 Conference Tournament.

The first of the two teams’ clashes resulted in an overtime thriller that Wazzu was able to win 91-89 at home on Jan. 21. Colorado fared better in a rematch at Coors Events Center in mid-February, and the Buffs ran away with an easy one 81-49.

After a rough 0-7 beginning in Pac-12 play, the Buffaloes finished the season on a positive note, winning three of their final five contests. The Buffs beat Cal, Oregon State and Stanford, while losing rematches to Oregon and Utah. Washington State sits just below Stanford in the Pac-12 standings, ending the regular season with a 13-17 record.

Whichever team comes out victorious will go on to play the No. 2-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the second round.

Will the Buffs be able to repeat the success they had in February, or will their in-conference woes return again? Here’s a breakdown of the two teams as the impending showdown nears.

Offense

One of the biggest difference-makers in this game is going to be bench performance. In the Buffs’ first game against Washington State, the bench contributed just 16 points, and CU lost despite four starters hitting double digits.

In the Buffaloes’ second game against Washington State, their bench really showed up — non-starters contributed 32 points. Junior forward Tory Miller and freshman guard Bryce Peters had 11 and 12 points, respectively.

In what should be a close game on Wednesday, the bench should give the starters a little extra rest and provide a spark for the Buffs offense. CU shouldn’t lose if it can manage four starters in double digits, and hopefully the bench can play its role to put the Buffs on top.

Another point of emphasis is CU’s ability to make three-pointers, which wasn’t a strong suit in either matchup against Washington State. Anybody who has watched Colorado play knows that they’re always actively looking for the long-range shot, and the Buffs have been hit-or-miss this year.

Boasting just three players shooting over 40 percent from long range, CU relies on the three ball perhaps more than it should. In the 91-89 OT loss to WSU, the Buffs were just 6-of-21 from deep. Senior guard Derrick White shot just 1-of-6 from behind the arc in the loss.

The Buffs should always be looking for better shots, but when the three-point shot is falling for them, they can be lethal. How the Buffs shoot the three should dictate the pace of their offense, and if they aren’t falling, then the Buffs should stay away from taking excess shots from long range.

Defense

Washington State is no pushover team. Despite the fact that the Cougs are lower than the Buffs in the Pac-12 standings, Wazzu has beaten Colorado before and even put up a decent fight against UCLA on Saturday.

Josh Hawkinson is the man to stop for the Cougars, and that’s easier said than done. He’s averaging a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and the 6-foot-10-inch senior even has a stroke from beyond, shooting a respectable 41 percent from beyond the arc and 53 percent from the floor overall.

In WSU’s win against CU earlier in the year, Hawkinson was the X-factor for the Cougars. He had 18 points, including a 3-of-4 performance from deep.

When Colorado destroyed Washington State 81-49 later in the year, CU held Hawkinson to just eight points, which thwarted most of the Cougar’s offensive attack and led the Buffs to a resounding win.

CU senior forward Wesley Gordon has won the team’s best defender award for the fourth straight year, and now is the only player with 40-plus blocks in four or more seasons. Gordon has 200 blocks in his successful CU career. Whether it’s senior guard/forward Xavier Johnson or Gordon guarding Hawkinson, they’re going to have their hands full.

Another big key for the Buffs on defense is their steals numbers. In the blowout win earlier in the year, the Buffs had 12 steals compared to none by Washington State. If the Buffs can win the turnover battle, and turn steals, blocks or stops on defense into easy points on the other end, then the Buffs can come out on top.

The Buffaloes just need to play their game. At times they stray away from it, but they can’t rely on the three-pointer as much if it isn’t going in, they need to rely on their bench, and they need to stop Hawkinson to win. The Buffs will be hoping for a repeat of the 81-49 thrashing, but this game has the makings of a close one. College basketball fans nationwide can rejoice: March is finally here.

Colorado and Washington State will play at 7 p.m. MST on Wednesday, March 8. The game will be featured on the Pac-12 Network.

Contact CU Independent Sports Writer Alex Pepper at alpe3706@colorado.edu.

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