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How Colorado can beat No. 4 UCLA

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Colorado hosts UCLA on Thursday night and has the chance to pull off the home upset.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

This season hasn’t been the most fun for the Colorado Buffaloes. After an up-and-down non-conference run that saw Colorado finish 10-3, they’re 0-3 in the Pac-12 and are in need of a drastic turnaround to achieve the lofty expectations they set for themselves. Now, in their home opener, they will play No. 4 UCLA on national television (FS1) with the chance to pull off the greatest upset in the Tad Boyle era.

Every piece of evidence suggests that UCLA is a juggernaut. The Bruins have used space-and-pace basketball to its utmost potential and have engineered one of the best offenses college basketball has seen in a while. Freshman phenom Lonzo Ball is an evolutionary player and a stathead’s wet dream; even if he didn’t have stars supporting him, he would be an offense unto himself. Those stars in support? UCLA’s major six-man rotation — Ball, T.J. Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holliday, Thomas Welsch and Bryce Alford — is teeming with college excellence and NBA talent and they’re all playing at or above their respective expectations.

If Colorado is going to beat UCLA, they have to do the following:

1.) Play perfect defense.

It seems fairly obvious, but it’s required for the Buffs to stand a chance. UCLA’s offense is absolutely ridiculous, so it would take the most tenacious of defense, the most fearsome of rebounding and the healthiest of CU’s perimeter stoppers to slow down the Ball Boys™.

UCLA has lost only one game this entire year and that came on an impossible buzzer-beater on December 28 at Oregon. In that game, Oregon kept the Bruins’ offense in check — they still scored 87 points (lol) — for almost the entirety of the game and they did that mostly by forcing key players into rough outings. Before he busted out with three triples in a row to power a late UCLA run, Ball was shooting horribly and was clearly shaken. Isaac Hamilton, star forward, had arguably his worst game of the season as he scored just 2 points. Aaron Holiday, younger brother of NBA players Jrue and Justin, shot just 2-10 from the field. In order for Colorado to get similar results, they will need Derrick White to play the best (defensive) game of his life against Ball, George King or Xavier Johnson to hope for a miracle against Hamilton (he had 22 in last year’s meeting), and have another guard, presumably Dom Collier or Deleon Brown, to force Holiday into turnovers.

Also of note, CU will have to play incredible transition defense to slow down Lonzo Ball’s turbo-charged fast breaks in which he does things like this:

So how did UCLA score 87 points and nearly win? UCLA’s offense is so good that they can shake off poor performances from their players and still have enough to score gobs of points. Against Oregon, Thomas “Get Buckets” Welsch and Bryce “Balding Toddler” Alford combined for 40 points on 22 shots. That’s otherworldly efficiency, even by UCLA standards. Oregon focused their efforts on stopping Ball and Hamilton, but in doing so, they allowed Welsch and Alford to find soft spots in the Oregon defense. If there’s any part of Oregon’s defense Colorado would replicate, it would be allowing Alford to spot up unimpeded and Welsch to roll inside, but there’s hope for the Buffs. To shut down Alford, Colorado’s perimeter defenders will have to close out hard every time he’s open on the perimeter and hope he misses the easy shots, as he does occasionally. For Welsch, Colorado needs Wesley Gordon to play at peak intensity and avoid foul trouble to take away UCLA’s best/only interior threat.

Can Colorado accomplish all of that on defense? Almost definitely not, but they will need to get close to it to have any hopes of keeping up with UCLA.

2. Play perfect offense.

It seems fairly obvious, but it’s required for the Buffs to stand a chance. This isn’t so much about UCLA’s defense as it is about their offense. Even if the defense is perfect, Colorado stands zero chance of outscoring UCLA unless they have every component of their offense humming effortlessly along.

Back to that Oregon game. As noted earlier, Oregon played solid defense against the Bruins, but they still needed to score 89 points to win. By no means was the Duck attack led by one player alone. Oregon, like UCLA, has so many offensive threats that it’s impossible to focus on one player without leaving the defense hopelessly vulnerable in other areas. Colorado isn’t exactly Oregon on the offensive end, but they can replicate what Oregon did to beat UCLA.

In that game, Oregon’s crunch time scorer and buzzer-beater hero Dillon Brooks was their least efficient player, but he still scored 23 points and had a handful of assists. If the game were to be a close contest, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Derrick White leading the CU offense with high-volume, highly efficient scoring, similar to his performance against Arizona State in which he scored 35 points on 10-20 shooting.

Away from Brooks, Oregon produced tons of points on three pointers and fast break opportunities. On the former, CU is no stranger to the three-point shot and it’s about time they catch fire from deep — looking at you, George King and Josh Fortune. On the latter, UCLA’s opponents don’t have a choice whether or not to play up-tempo; if you can’t endure a fast game, you have no chance at victory. Colorado is built to play fast — they always play two lead guards, two athletic wings and a rim runner at center — but they’ve been hesitant to get up and go. To score as Oregon did, the Buffs will have to convert their fast break opportunities like the game depends on it, because it does. Basketball is a game of balance, so once CU has established the threat of running past UCLA’s defense, three-point shots will naturally open up, and vice versa.

If Colorado is able to generate and convert open threes and transition opportunities, and Derrick White steps up into a Dinwiddian role, the Buffs can score with UCLA. If they can play perfect defense as well, they have a real chance of pulling off the upset.

3.) Coors Events Center is rocking.

Colorado hasn’t hosted a better team in the Tad Boyle era, Kansas and Arizona teams included. Considering how the season has progressed and what it can still become, never before with Boyle has Colorado seen a more significant upset opportunity. The basketball team itself can only do so much; even perfect offense and perfect defense may not be enough for the Buffs. This team hasn’t inspired much fan support and there may not be much student turnout with class out of session, but there’s the slim chance the Coors Events Center has the best game it’s ever had and it’s enough to push Colorado to the brink of victory.

Prediction:

UCLA 84, Colorado 68