After an expected blowout victory over the Drexel Dragons, the Colorado men's basketball team will be facing the first challenges of the year in two games that can be illuminating in their push for their fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The Buffs will host Auburn late Monday night and will travel to Laramie to face off against the Wyoming Cowboys Saturday evening.
The first of the two games (Monday at 11 p.m.) comes during ESPN's annual Midnight Madness college basketball marathon against the upstart Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers are coached by Bruce Pearl, a man you may recognize from his successful tenure at Tennessee from 2005 to 2011 where he led them to two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight. Pearl is a fantastic coach, but his legacy is a bit tarnished thanks to some shady recruiting that earned him a three-year hiatus that ended with Auburn's Friday night victory over Milwaukee.
Auburn is led by a pair of guards in K.T. Harrell and Antoine Mason. The former is a returning starter who averaged 18.3 points last year as Auburn's only real offensive threat. The latter is a graduate transfer from Niagara who was second in the NCAA with 25.6 points per game last season. Both pose major problems for a Buffaloes defense that struggled defending the three both last year and in their game against Drexel, and it may be tough for Askia Booker and Xavier Talton to outscore them on the other side. Additionally, Auburn will have the No. 1-ranked JUCO prospect on the block in the 6'7" Cinmeon Bowers, a power forward who raked in 17 boards along with 18 points in his Friday debut. Bowers should be problematic for the Buffs as well, but if Josh Scott is able to outscore him down low, which Scott is more than capable of doing, especially after a brilliant game against Drexel, this matchup should go CU's way. Where Colorado has a major advantage is at the small forward slot, where Xavier Johnson will either physically punish any guard Auburn puts on him (they used a three-guard lineup against Milwaukee) or get around any lumbering forward tasked with guarding him.
The last time the Buffs ventured north to Laramie, the visit did not go as planned as Wyoming physically dominated the Andre Roberson-led squad by the score of 76-69, a score that was much closer than the game truly was. Returning from that Cowboy group are Larry Nance Jr. and Boulder High alum Riley Grabau. Nance, like his father, has some mad hops, mad hops that will be blocking shots and propelling highlight reel dunks all game. Grabau is a marksman and could very well end up Brady Heslip-ing this game, especially if Tad Boyle doesn't do something about the struggling three-point defense that has weighed down the team for far too long. Besides Nance and Grabau, Colorado has major advantages at the guard and forward positions as the host team will be guarding the Xaviers with inexperienced defenders.
Overall, Colorado can win this game and they can very well get blown out, but it's tough to tell at this point thanks to the small or non-existent sample sizes from both teams. We all know how good and how bad this familiar Buffaloes roster can be, but if they come out like they did against Drexel, this game could go sour. If Askia Booker doesn't shoot 2-14 like he did this past Friday night, Josh Scott Tim Duncan's his way through the Cowboy frontcourt and/or Xavier Johnson continues to exhibit his all-world versatility, the Buffs could find themselves with a key resume-builder they'll need in March.