On Saturday afternoon, the Colorado Buffaloes will hope to complete the desert sweep with a momentous win over the Arizona Wildcats. These aren’t the same Buffs, and these aren’t the same Wildcats; this is the first a ranked CU team has faced an unranked Arizona team. Arizona is still good — KenPom.com has them ranked 16th in the nation — but they have lost five of their last eight games, including a blowout against Oregon State last weekend.
1. Don’t get beat on the perimeter
Colorado has an elite defense and have shut down Dayton and Oregon, who are 2nd and 7th nationally in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Arizona is rated 9th nationally and it’s not hard to see why. It starts with Nico Mannion, the top-10 recruit and projected first round draft pick who runs the offense with pace and precision. He’s so skilled at getting to his spots and feeding his teammates.
Colorado has struggled containing dribble-drive threats, namely Devon Dotson, Payton Pritchard and Ethan Thompson. Dotson has speed, Pritchard craft and Thompson size; Mannion isn’t as fast as Dotson but he is quick, and as far as his craft is concerned, there’s a reason some draftniks liken him to Arizona great Mike Bibby. McKinley Wright will have his hands full, but he’s a big game player who will undoubtedly show out. Mannion tends to settle for mid-range shots and floaters, so even though he’s good at those, they’re inefficient shots that CU will happily oblige.
Mannion plays on the perimeter with Josh Green, another one-and-done first rounder, and role players Dylan Smith, Max Hazzard and Jemarl Baker. Green is super athletic and projects to be a 3-and-D wing at the next level, but he’s still raw and struggles with consistency and shot selection. Those wings may be more dangerous, if only because they’re good shooters each around 40% from three. The Buffs will have be crisp with their rotations, or else their help defense on Mannion and Zeke Nnaji could concede open threes.
2. Neutralize Zeke Nnaji inside
Even with Nico Mannion there, he’s not Arizona’s most reliable source of buckets. That would be Zeke Nnaji, an athletic forward who lives off dump-offs passes and offensive rebounds. The freshman forward is a standout effort player who will crash hard for hustle points. He’s going to get buckets, but the Buffs should be able to limit his effectiveness if they keep him off the glass.
The Buffs struggled rebounded against Arizona State, by Tad Boyle’s standards, mostly because Romello White is such a tank. Nnaji is sneaky and smart, but he’s going to have a hard time getting around Evan Battey boxing out. If he gets past Battey, he has to fight Tyler Bey, who has a 29.3% defensive rebounding rate (12th best nationally). Moreover, if Bey is tasked with guarding Nnaji, it’s hard to see him scoring a lot off of cuts and lobs. My only worry is that because Nnaji works so hard, and because his movement is kind of herky-jerky, that he could get to the line and get either Battey or Bey in foul trouble.
3. Take advantage of Arizona’s mistakes
The advanced stats paint the Wildcats as the 51st best defense in college (CU is 17th, for reference), but the eye test shows that Mannion is a liability on the perimeter, Nnaji has all kinds of defensive lapses, and their scheme allows a number of threes. Their best defensive stoppers all play on the wing, but Colorado’s wings mostly spot up and attack close-outs. It’s still Sean Miller’s defense, so they’re not bad, but this is far from those teams with Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
There’s a definite blueprint for Wright to get past Mannion, for Bey and other players to find holes where Nnaji is absent, and for one of Shane Gatling, D’Shawn Schwartz or Lucas Siewert getting hot. Insofar as CU’s offense shows up — it didn’t against ASU — they match up quite well in this game. After that, it’s a mentality game. They have to take care of the ball, capitalize on those mistakes and stay calm if and when things goes awry. That’s all easier said than done, but it’s positive that CU doesn’t have to change much about their offense to attack Arizona’s weaknesses.
4. Survive McKale
Colorado has never won at the McKale Memorial Center, apart from Sabatino Chen’s buzzer-beater. Part of that is Arizona being a top-flight basketball program and part of it is that the McKale is a semi-mythical basketball arena. Their crowd is always there, always behind their team. In close games, it only takes a small run for that to snowball into a game-changing stretch. There also has to be a mental block playing at Arizona, just because they’ve never won there before.
If there’s any CU team that could survive the McKale Center, it would be this one. Colorado hadn’t won at Arizona State since 2012, yet the Buffs won on an off night. The Buffs have been tested all season away from home as they have four neutral-site wins (ASU, Wyoming, Clemson and #13 Dayton) and played Kansas at the Allen Fieldhouse. They know how to fight and want to prove they’re the best team in the Pac-12. If we know anything about them, they’re going to clamp down defensive, crash the boards and hope some shots fall.
Colorado 70, Arizona 67