The Colorado Buffaloes have a critical week ahead. They visit Los Angeles to play at UCLA and USC. Those games may sound intimidating, yet both teams have been disasters of different scales, and though it’s unlikely, the Buffs could realistically sweep that series.
UCLA — Wednesday, 7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
The Buffs start with UCLA, who started the season 21st in the pre-season polls yet have gone just 12-10 and 5-4 in conference. Their abysmal start included home losses to Belmont and Liberty, so it was no surprise to see Steve Alford fired before Pac-12 play started. Interim coach Murry Bartow has been an improvement, but that’s not saying much, even considering their win at Oregon.
UCLA was highly ranked because they’re as talented as they always are. Sophomores Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands will always be able to light up scoreboards, and five-star freshman Moses Brown is a menacing force inside. The issues, though, is that Wilkes is really their only consistent scorer, and everyone else is hit-or-miss and struggle with turnovers. Washington beat them because they forced 22 turnovers. ASU won despite poor shooting because they held UCLA to even poorer shooting. Colorado doesn’t have the experience or coaching Washington, nor do they have the length and athleticism of ASU, but they can still pose problems.
The solution for the Buffs against Wilkes will be simple: sick Tyler Bey on him. The Bey we saw against Oregon could shut down a lengthy scorer, especially if his snarling physicality can rattle the thin-framed Wilkes. That’s a huge part of how CU swept UCLA last year. Wilkes kept shooting and shooting (and ended up scoring 21) and the Buffs welcomed him to launch a slew of contested mid-range jumpers.
The other key to that sweep was McKinley Wright shutting down Aaron Holiday to just 31% shooting in those two games. Hands is far more athletic than Holiday, but nowhere near as skillful as the guard who averaged 20 points and 6 assists and is now in the Indiana Pacers’ rotation. If healthy and focused, Wright should be able to bother Hands, and if their help defense is as havoc-inducing as it was against Oregon, we could see Hands and the Bruins commit a number of giveaways.
If the Buffs can take care of Wilkes and Hands on offense, the game will come down to whichever role players can step up for either side. For UCLA, those two stars are such high-usage that if they have off-nights, the whole team will struggle to score. For CU, though, we have no idea which versions of the role players will show on any given night. But playing at UCLA should bring out the best in them if they take it seriously and show up focused.
Prediction: Colorado 79, UCLA 76
USC — Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2
USC is the more difficult opponent for CU in terms of matchups, but they too are enduring a weird season plagued by inconsistency you wouldn’t expect from such an experience team.
They’re currently 13-9 and have gone 6-3 in the Pac-12. A closer look at the schedule shows that their wins and losses are decided by whoever should be the favorite. It’s kind of weird — of all their wins, not one is really unexpected, and of their losses, losing @ Santa Clara is the only that’s moderately surprising. The real upset on the schedule, though, is that with their talented and balanced roster, they shouldn’t be dropping most of those games, even if it is in Corvallis.
Anyway, USC’s roster is rife with NBA talent, but those pieces don’t always fit together. They still have a twin towers lineup, but with Nick Rakocevic replacing Chimezie Metu beside Bennie Boatwright. If CU has any issues, it will be lacking the size against those two. Boatwright takes half his shots from deep, so maybe Lucas Siewert can stand with him, but the Brazilian might struggle if they run him through pick-and-pops. Bey and Evan Battey should be able to deal with Rakocevic’s interior scoring, but they can’t afford to get into foul trouble.
Out on the perimeter, the Trojans will bring Shaqquan Aaron and Jonah Matthews (brother of CU killer Jordan Mathews of Cal). Both are 3-and-D wings — Matthews being more 3 and Aaron more D. There’s also Kevin Porter Jr., as one-and-done freshman who might be a lottery pick. Considering CU’s issues closing out on shooters, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Mathews or Porter caught fire and won them this game. D’Shawn Schwartz and Daylen Kountz have looked improved of late, but they’re going to be tested on both ends. CU likely won’t win unless they step up.
The best hope for a CU win lies with point guard Derryck Thornton, the former five-star Duke commit. He’s USC’s only ball handler and he’s been awful most of the season. This USC team is built for pick-and-rolls, but that doesn’t really work if your point guard can’t shoot and struggles taking care of the ball. He can be bothered on the ball and ignored off it. If CU is scared of Mathews or Boatwright, they can move their defense towards them and force Thornton to make them pay. That’s easier said than done, but it’s an exploitable weak spot.
CU probably isn’t going to win this game, but they can if they come out with intensity, focus and a smart gameplan. Tad Boyle needs this win to not just get back into the Pac-12 race, but also for petty reasons against noted antagonist Andy Enfeld.
Prediction: USC 73, Colorado 68