Admittedly, I've been quite lazy this season in previewing the Washington State Cougars. When the Buffs went to Washington earlier this season, I asked Ralphie Report's oppressive editor for the week off. I only got the week off because I promised to sacrifice my firstborn to the Lisfranc gods. Worth it.
I did so because, damn, writing about the Huskies and Cougars did not sound like fun. The Huskies are fun now because all their young guns have figured things out, but this was before then. I didn't want to write about Wazzu because besides Josh Hawkinson, this wasn't a good team. I don't exactly enjoy writing about bad basketball, so hopefully you understand.
When that road trip was finished, CU had been swatted into oblivion by U-Dub's Marquese Chriss and Malik Dime, and they barely escaped with a win over the Cougs. Even when the Buffs are on top of the world, Seattle will find a way to cut them down (RIP Spencer), so not many should have expected a CU win. However, a win in Pullman was expected, and a close game wasn't the least bit surprising given the matchup history there.
When the Washington schools came to Boulder, I previewed them. I broke down the dangerous Huskies in depth. Then I basically wrote that Washington State has two only good players in Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu and predicted a 22-point victory for the Buffs. Yeah.
Thanks to a stellar effort from Wesley Gordon, the Buffs, sans Josh Scott, were able to edge the Huskies 81-80. (I predicted 81-79. Toot! Toot!) The Wazzu game was impossibly even closer. The Buffs got out to a fast start but were predictably unable to finish off their opposition. As each second ticked, the Colorado lead was chipped.
With about two minutes to go, everyone in the CEC collectively thought, Are we seriously going to lose at home to Washington State? A loss at home to a team with a 1-11 conference record would have likely devastated any chance of the Buffs making the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, the Buffs didn't lose in regulation, but they didn't win either. Overtime saw the Cougars take a three-point with a few seconds remaining. At that point, the entire Buffs' fan base collectively thought, Fuck!
Then George King saved the planet from annihilation by fending off the Vogons with his fadeaway three. I still don't know why Wazzu didn't intentionally foul. Second overtime saw the Buffs separate and pull off the season-saving victory.
So what did we learn from this close encounter with the one-win? Don't ever underestimate Wazzu. The football team learned this lesson long, long ago (I see you, Marquess Wilson). Win or lose, the Cougars will always find a way to pester the Buffs. If they pester enough, they might come away with a stunning victory. For tonight's game, their entire strategy calls for nonstop pestering.
The Buffs are essentially a lock into the NCAA Tournament, but a loss to Wazzu would drop them down to a 10-seed or worse (which could entail a stressful First Four appearance). In order to avoid that, the Buffs will have to make sure of a few things.
First, Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon have to win the battle on the block over Hawkinson and company. They don't have to dominate, they just have to be ever so slightly better. Since both CU bigs are excellent defenders, stopping Hawkinson shouldn't be too tough to manage. He's a terrific player, but even the best players can be shut down if the defense focuses completely on them.
When Stephen Curry was back at Davidson, Loyola (Md.) thought it would be a grand idea to double team the Wildcat marksman all game. Curry was held scoreless, the only time in three seasons that ever occurred. Davidson won that game by 30, but Loyola showed that enough defensive focus can stop anyone, even a sorcerer.
It would be foolish to double-team Hawkinson, but diverting most of their interior defense his way could go a long way into winning this matchup. Focusing on Hawkinson, the conference's top rebounder, would also mitigate his impact on the offensive glass.
Winning this matchup on the offensive end shouldn't be very difficult for CU. We all know how dominant Scott is. We mostly all know how good Gordon has been recently. Wazzu doesn't have the best post defense and can only stop the Buffs with a zone. That could give the Buffs fits, but only for so long before they free themselves up.
Second, Colorado will have to be the better perimeter team. As we've seen this season, Ike Iroegbu and Que Johnson can be game changers. The two aren't the most consistent, but they can explode in short notice. If they catch fire, they can keep this game close.
In the previous preview, I wrote that the most logical way to defend Iroegbu, an explosive driver with a shaky jumper, was to give him room to shoot. Though I would like to double down on that, Tad Boyle's game plan last time was contrary to my mine, but it was perhaps even better. Maybe this man who has spent more time coaching than I've spent breathing knows more than I do. Maybe.
This game plan asked Dom Collier and Xavier Talton to pressure Iroegbu and force him to give up the rock. The junior guard isn't that great of a passer and can be turnover-prone at times, so this was a well-founded idea, but the problem is that he's so quick that he can drive past any perimeter defender. When you have Collier playing defense the way he is right now, this strategy becomes ideal. Iroegbu scored only eight points and had two assists to six turnovers.
The best way to guard Que Johnson is much easier and much simpler than for Iroegbu. Despite Johnson's 25 points last time out, the Buffs' game plan was actually run to perfection. That game plan is to let him shoot, shoot and shoot some more. Those 25 points came on 8-22 (8-13 FT) shooting. Johnson's effective field goal percentage was a cool .386, which is -- no disrespect to the number one cop on the force -- actually lower than Thomas Akyazili's season total. About any way you look at it, Johnson's prolific shooting had a negative net value on his team's performance. So, uh, keep on shooting, Que.
As for the Buffs, a nice offensive game from one of the wings (I foresee Fortune going ham) would be guacamole in a burrito. It's not vital, but it's certainly welcome. It actually makes sense to compare Fortune to guac: (1) When good, both are soul-saving merchants, (2) when bad, they are lethally bad, and (3) when you're not quite sure if they're good or bad, you'll probably say yes, and you'll probably regret it.
I'm going to eat a burrito now.
Colorado 78, Washington 69