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Making sense of the Colorado Buffaloes before Pac-12 schedule begins

The Buffs are a legit Pac-12 contender.

NCAA Basketball: Brooklyn Showcase-Colorado at Miami (FL) Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

This is a big season for the Colorado Buffaloes. Expectations were high, as Tad Boyle returned two All-Pac-12 players, brought in a top-5 recruit, added an impact transfer and had a number of veterans to rely on. This team was expected to contend in the Pac-12, reach the NCAA Tournament and maybe be the one that gets Boyle into the Sweet Sixteen.

While the Buffs have lost two frustrating games, this team looks better than anyone predicted. Even those losses can be partly excused. An early season tournament game against a physical Florida State was always going to be tricky. That road trip to Colorado State was intimidating before we knew the Rams were a top-15 outfit — a game the Buffs probably would have won if not for a disastrous finish to the first half.

By the numbers, the Buffs are one of the 25 best teams in the nation. They’re formidable on both ends of the court, ranking 22nd in offense and 35th in defense, per Ken Pomeroy. The stats peg them as favorites in all but three of their remaining 20 games: at Arizona (#3 on KenPom), at Utah (#31, with Lawson Lovering looming) and a home tilt against the same Wildcats. Any one of us would have taken a 22-9 record before the season began, but even that feels conservative at the moment.

It will be interesting to see if the Buffs can maintain their offensive success during Pac-12 play, particularly on the road. Boyle instituted a five-out motion offense in the pre-season and it’s been a massive success.

The ball flies around the court for open threes and layups. The players have learned when to cut, how to screen, and exactly where to throw those threading passes. The Buffs have assisted 62% of their made shots, good for 18th in the country, and have converted an incredible 41% of their threes (7th best) and 58% of their twos (16th).

Everything begins with KJ Simpson. The junior is playing lights out, averaging 20 points, 4.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds on an absurd 58% from the field, 49% from three and 90% from the line. He’s fully in control of this offense and has figured out when to take over as both a scorer and playmaker. Jack Barsch suggested he’s the best guard in the Pac-12 right now and that’s probably underselling it. Simpson has been the best player in the conference, full stop.

It turns out that life is easier for KJ when he’s surrounded by willing shooters and capable playmakers. Opponents used to hound him knowing the CU offense couldn’t attack the temporary advantage they were given. Now with Eddie Lampkin Jr. at center, Julian Hammond III in a consistent role, and then role players like Luke O’Brien and J’Vonne Hadley stepping up and making plays, there’s no easy way to stop Simpson.

And this is before getting to Cody Williams, the freshman star who will be back from injury soon, and Tristan da Silva, the potential first round pick whose slow start has him averaging 16/5/3 on 54/39/84 shooting splits. Those two haven’t hit their stride yet but we all know they’re coming. Williams unlocks all kinds of offense in transition and semi-transition. Da Silva is a matchup nightmare and should be able to self-create in slowed down games.

The offense might slow down, but maybe it doesn’t. The team has shot the lights out of the ball, with the exception of their trip to Dayton Beach where they struggled against Richmond and Florida State. That might have been just a bad stretch, as the Buffs scored efficiently in Ft. Collins and then blew the doors off then-#15 Miami in a Brooklyn showcase. Simpson, Hammond and da Silva are legit shooters. LOB was recruited to Boulder as a shooter, so maybe his 41% is real.

If that offense does slow down and the three-point shooting cools off, the Buffs can still win games with defense and rebounding. It’s a Tad ball team, after all, and they’ve shown a tremendous amount of effort and commitment on that end of the floor. Hadley and O’Brien just fly around the court making plays and the combination of the two is devastating for opposing offenses. Simpson has proven himself as a strong point-of-attack defender. The rest fit nicely within the scheme, know where to rotate and are tight with the box outs.

The Buffs aren’t perfect; far from it. They’re losing a lot of points on live-ball turnovers. The ball whirls around on offense, but they’re not always on the same page, and often those errant passes turn into fast break layups. The FSU game suggests that this might be more of an issue against longer, physical defenses where the passing lanes shrink and the margin for error is thinner. That length would also affect shots when usually open shooters no longer have that half second to set their feet.

The Buffs were also torn apart by the Rams, the 8th best offense in the country per KenPom. Niko Medved has designed a motion offense built around shooting, passing and the brilliance of Isaiah Stevens. The Rams are going to cause problems for every defense this year, but it’s worrying that the Buffs could be similarly vulnerable to USC’s Isaiah Collier and Boogie Ellis, Washington’s Sahvir Wheeler (and usual bugaboo Keion Brooks) and Arizona’s Kylan Boswell and Caleb Love. It’s obviously more complicated than good guards = big trouble, but Boyle’s scheme is usually vulnerable to shifty guards who can get past that first defender.

Even with these issues, the Buffs should be the 2nd best team in the Pac-12 as long as they stay healthy. Arizona looks elite, but that’s it. Otherwise, only Colorado, Utah and Washington look better than expected, while Oregon, USC and UCLA have been disappointing, injured or a burning heap of blue and gold. It’s a long season and lots can change. The Buffs are the most complete non-Arizona team and they figure to get better as Williams returns, da Silva heats up and Lampkin continues to play his way into shape.

The Buffs start Pac-12 play on Friday, Dec. 29 against a solid Washington State team before hosting the Washington Huskies on Sunday, Dec. 31. Both games are in Boulder and should be wins, but we will see if Colorado can continue their strong play in their final year in the conference.