The largest obstacle between the Colorado Buffaloes and the NCAA Tournament are the top-seeded Washington Huskies. In this semifinal matchup in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Buffs have an opponent that has beaten them up twice this season and pose all kinds of matchup issues, yet CU opened as only 1.5-point underdogs (now 2.5). Is an upset possible?
The first thing to do is look back at the previous Buffaloes-Huskies games from this season. Washington won both by scores of 77-70 and 64-55. Those scores are probably closer than the games were played as the Huskies had complete control over both games and CU closed the gap after the result had been decided.
In the first game, the Buffs lost McKinley Wright to his left shoulder injury, yet they hung around as D’Shawn Schwartz and Tyler Bey scored a combined 37 points. And even without Wright, they took care of the ball fairly well and even won the turnover battle. They lost, however, because CU couldn’t defend Jaylen Nowell or David Crisp, and they didn’t quite have the offensive firepower without Wright. At the time, that game served as an encouraging performance to see CU not fall apart without Kin, but it was a bitter missed opportunity for what would have been a key home win.
In the second game, Washington completely destroyed Colorado’s offense, built a massive lead, then stopped trying and let CU back into the game as Bey dominated inside. Despite the close final score, Washington showed the matchup problems they pose. Tad Boyle has finally figured out a zone-busting offense, but Mike Hopkins’s defense is a different fortress, one that has a four-armed demon roaming the gates. At Washington, Matisse Thybulle carried his team through a relatively poor showing as he had 7 steals and 5 blocks. There’s nothing CU can do against him besides avoiding his side of the floor, but even then, Thybulle wins in that.
However, this is not quite the same Washington team as they were just three weeks ago. Since their win over Colorado, Washington’s schedule goes as follows: loss at California (!), one-point win at Stanford, overtime win at home against Oregon State, home loss to Oregon, three-point win over USC. That is not good. That is why Washington has gone from Top 25 to a bubble team. (They’re probably guaranteed a berth after beating USC.)
Their defense has slipped from great to good and their offense has slipped from average to sketchy. You don’t give up 76 points to Cal if your defense is clicking, and as potent and all-encompassing as Thybulle is, there’s not much he can do to help his teammates defend versatile big men. Washington still poses issues and will create tons of turnovers, but they are vulnerable to threes and interior scoring. On offense, only Nowell and sometimes Crisp are dangerous (they’re really good slashers), so a good defense can focus on those two and force their non-scorers to beat them.
For Colorado, the answer is probably three-fold: (1) take care of the ball, (2) hit some outside shots, and (3) don’t let Nowell explode. Colorado probably has to do two of the three to win, but maybe all three.
The first is the most difficult what with Thybulle and what not, but if CU showed anything against Oregon State and in their first game against Washington, it’s that they can take of the ball if they’re focused. Having Bey show up to the tournament would probably help too, but it goes without saying CU won’t win unless he’s back. This is also Tournament McKinley Wright leading the charge, so he’s hyper-focused and will do anything to win.
On the second point, CU is a better shooting team than their 32% from deep. I can’t tell if it’s a real trend or not, but it seems that Colorado shoots better away from Boulder and they have already shot 39% from three in this tournament. It would help if Lucas Siewert finds his jumper again, but it might not matter if Shane Gatling, Wright and Schwartz continue to shoot confidently. Now for interior scoring, Bey really has to show up and he and Evan Battey have to avoid foul trouble. If they can remain in the game, they should be able to win the interior on both sides as they have the versatility to take advantage of UW’s major shortcoming.
Lastly, the issue of Nowell may not be solved. Daylen Kountz has flashed a ton of defense potential and Schwartz is doing the little things, but unless Alex Strating channels Andrei Kirilenko again, they don’t really have an answer for slashing wings. If that zone can contain Nowell without allowing wide open jumpers or uncontested drives to the hoop, that would be huge. Crisp is dangerous as a shooter and Thybulle has gone off against CU in the past; threes could threaten CU even with Washington’s offense scuffling. It would be preferable to have a one-person solution for Crisp, but without any wing stoppers besides Bey, their best solution may open up more danger. All that said, Colorado is a clear top-3 defense in the conference and they may be able to hold Washington under 60 with or without Nowell taken out.
Considering Washington’s struggles and Colorado’s toughness, this upset is very possible. The Buffaloes really just need to hit their shots and play defense, but that was always the case for them to win in the Pac-12 Tournament.