The weather in Boulder is [/checks google] pretty good actually, but you can imagine Tad Boyle is living his best life in Hawaii laying on the beach with sun tan oil lathered on his bald head. But this is no vacation for the Buffaloes — it’s a resume-building opportunity for a team with a disappointingly easy non-conference schedule after every other P-5 team refused to schedule a home-and-home with Boyle.
The 2018 Diamond Head Classic isn’t as strong as it has been in years past, but like all neutral court tournaments, the Buffs should be plenty challenged. CU starts with Indiana State on Saturday, so we can start there and preview the rest of the competition round by round.
Indiana State Sycamores — December 22, 1 p.m. (MST), ESPNU
The Sycs have produced Larry Bird and that’s pretty much the extent of their impact on the college basketball world. The Missouri Valley is a respectable conference, but aside from one NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011, ISU has been more of a depth piece for the conference. They’re 6-3 right now, with wins over McKendree and Truman State (real life schools, I assure you) and losses to Ball State, North Texas and TCU. They’re 139th in KenPom ratings, which is (at least) 70 spots higher than I expected.
The ‘Mores are semi-dangerous as low-volume, high-percentage shooters who work the ball around for the best look. Leading scorers Jordan Barnes and Tyreke Key are accurate shooters and can create off the dribble, but they’re both tiny — Barnes is 5’11 and Key is 6’2 — and can be bothered by quick and lengthy defenders. TCU blew them out partially because they’re significantly better, but also because they have the defensive architecture to take out anyone’s best player. CU should be able to do that, especially if McKinley Wright is locked in. Elsewhere on the floor, ISU doesn’t really have an answer for Evan Battey in the post, nor can they match up well with Lucas Siewert or Tyler Bey. If CU focuses on those mismatches, it should be quick work.
UNLV/Hawaii — Dec. 23, semifinal at 2:30 on ESPN2*
Whatever happens against Indiana State, the Buffs will play either UNLV or Hawaii. Both have a recent history against Colorado — Hawaii beat them in the 2014 Diamond Head Classic; UNLV lost to CU at the Pit in the 2012 NCAA Tournament — but that doesn’t really matter anymore. Although neither team is as strong as they have been in the past, they could be difficult opponents.
UNLV is probably the better team and the more likely opponent if CU does beat ISU. They have a talented team led by the bouncy Shakur Juiston, but nothing has come together yet as they’ve gone 5-4 with losses to Loyola Marymont (not the good Loyola) and at Illinois (also trash). Part of their poor record is bad luck in tight games. They lost close to Illinois and Cincinnati in low-scoring games where they were plagued by foul trouble and turnovers. Colorado is a better team overall and have more offensive firepower if this game gets ugly.
Hawaii’s biggest advantage will be playing on their home court, although unlike the Oregons and Colorados of the world, they don’t have crowd noise or natural advantages to prop them up. The Rainbow Warriors could pose problems with their well-rounded attack and slow pace, just as San Diego did. They would be annoying as hell if they disrupt the gameflow with fouls and sit back in a zone and dare CU to shoot. Considering the Buffs’ history in those kinds of games, it would probably take a hot shooting night and/or superior rock fighting skills to get to the tournament final.
TCU/Rhode Island — Dec. 25, Final at 7:00 on ESPN2*
All respect to Bucknell and Charlotte, but if they make it to the final, I will fly to Hawaii and jump into a volcano (figuratively).
Rhode Island comes into the tournament at just 5-3 and 91st in KenPom. Considering their recent history of NCAA Tournament appearances, this constitutes as a poor start, especially with their disappointing losses to College of Charleston, Stony Brook and at rival Providence. But this team is still good. They no longer have E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell, but they have holdovers in dynamic guards Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell, the latter of whom had a mini breakout last March. It seems that after the cold start, they’re starting to get back into it. They most recently beat up West Virginia on a neutral court, and though Bob Huggins’s squad has struggled and were missing Sagaba Konate, the Rams did defeat a solid defense with frontcourt size, and they didn’t need to get hot to do it.
For Colorado to beat them, they would need to shore up their perimeter issues and contain Russell and Dowtin from breaking down the defense. Assuming Tyler Bey can take care of talented forward Cyril Langevine, that leaves the defensive pressure on Wright to be focused, and Battey and Siewert to hold up in the pick-and-roll. URI has a solid defense that excels in pressuring perimeter shots, so its imperative that if the Colorado offense doesn’t catch the flight to Honolulu, they need to be prepared to win a defensive slog.
Now with TCU, it’s quite simple: if CU’s offense doesn’t show up, there’s no chance they win. The Frogs are one of the best teams in the nation, and it’s because they’re well-balanced, disciplined, and know what they have to bring day to day. They’re not going to play without focus or poise, nor will they have schematic flaws easily exploitable. For the Buffs to win, they not only have to slow down that efficient and balanced attack, but they have to score on one of the best defenses in the country. It’s not as difficult as upsetting Arizona or Oregon, but this game is a long way from Boulder. CU will have to come out guns blazing and hit the few open looks they’re allowed. If they do take care of business up that point and beat TCU in the final, that’s a great win to have on the resume.
*if Colorado wins their games