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Colorado Buffaloes escape with win over 0-7 Cal Golden Bears

The Buffs nearly collapsed, but they didn’t, so that’s good!

NCAA Basketball: California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

That could’ve been bad. Your Colorado Buffaloes (11-7, 2-4) came into tonight’s game against the California Golden Bears (5-14, 0-7) expecting nothing less than a win. They got the win, but it was after nearly blowing an 18-point lead to the worst team in major college basketball.

The Buffs started fairly well. Shane Gatling came out aggressive and scored 9 points in the first five minutes. Lucas Siewert joined him with 8 first half points. There was also McKinley Wright back from his injury — a dislocated shoulder and partially torn labor — who was running the offense and playing hard-nosed defense.

Cal played a soft zone defense against CU, but the Buffs figured it out early and played comfortably against. They stayed calm, made poised passes all over the court, and created open looks everwhere. They missed a ton of wide-open shots and only made 3 of 12 threes, but it was still a positive half for them. CU had 12 assists on 13 made field goals, a much needed reprieve after the offense was committing more turnovers than they had assists without Wright.

That offense combined with Cal’s horrid shooting meant CU went up 32-23 at half. That lead increased immediately after half as Siewert’s sweet shooting helped the Buffs to a lead as large as 18 with 18 minutes to go. Surely the Buffs would hold this lead and not collapse against the worst team in major college basketball.

Cal switched from zone to man defense, and that’s when the collapse started. Like what we saw against Washington State two weeks ago, the Buffs have often fared better against the zone than man, perhaps because they lack the ball handlers to break down the defense off the dribble. My personal guess is that Tad Boyle teams have seen so much zone over the years that they just don’t know what to do against man.

Part of it too was that as bad as Cal is — and they are so, so bad — they weren’t going to shoot sub-30% like they did much of the first half. With Colorado committing turnovers every other possession, they just needed to hit a few shots to get back into the game, and that they did.

The collapse was slow, but it was coming. It was obvious that as soon as Cal made an adjustment that CU didn’t respond to, it was going to devolve into a woeful performance. We’ve seen this play out before, and at times, there’s nothing to do except laugh at the inevitable. But luckily, the collapse didn’t come to its most painful conclusion. Instead, Wright and Tyler Bey took over.

Late in the game when Cal briefly took a lead, there must have been a moment Kin and Bey realized they’re the best players in the arena. Bey was already having a solid night, but he began to dominate inside as he grabbed every rebound in sight and blocked Cal’s best efforts at the rim. Wright calmed the offense and reminded everyone that he’s a winner through and through. He hit the dagger that assured Colorado the win.

After this near-debacle, the Buffs will test their grit against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPNU). Stanford isn’t very good — they’re 9-10 this season — but they’re significantly more talented than Cal, though that’s saying much.