Buffs’ Visit Will Find No. 10 Wildcats In Nasty Mood

The road has not been kind to the Colorado men’s basketball team this season. The Buffs have won but a single game outside the friendly confines of the Coors Event Center, and that victory came against DePaul on a neutral court. Perhaps, then, it is a blessing that Colorado’s first two away games in Pac-12 play are also its toughest.

Based on the Buffs’ 25-point loss at now-No. 8 Utah last Wednesday, though, it may be more of a curse. Colorado’s Thursday trip to the desert of Tucson will be no easier than that sojourn to Salt Lake City, regardless of the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats having lost two of their last four games.

 “I expect them to be pissed off,” Buffs head coach Tad Boyle said when asked how Arizona will respond to last Sunday’s defeat at Oregon State. “Oregon State shot 51 percent, but Arizona is gonna be tough no matter when you play them, where you play them.”

Colorado faces a seemingly herculean test against a team that has won in four straight matchups by an average of 17 points. To compound the difficulty, the Buffs might have to face the Wildcats without Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, both of whom are questionable to play.

Johnson injured his ankle early in the Utah loss; Boyle said he is getting better every day but offered no timetable for a return. Scott missed CU’s victories over UCLA and USC with back spasms. He played 28 minutes against Utah, but was a shell of his former self.

“There’s no question he wasn’t himself,” Boyle said. “Anybody who watched the game, saw him, he was out there physically, he wasn’t himself, didn’t run, he defended well but had trouble scoring and moving.”

If Scott plays, he’ll face a familiar nemesis: Wildcats junior center Kaleb Tarczewski. Scott and Tarczewski, two of the Pac-12’s three best centers, have battled to stalemates in their previous meetings. Scott is more skilled, Tarczewski bigger and more physical.

Despite his physicality, Tarczewski is a laughably bad rebounder for a seven-footer. He averages just over five boards a game and grabs only 12 percent of available rebounds while he is on the floor; centers ideally pull in at least 15 percent. If Scott doesn’t play, Wes Gordon should still be able to keep Tarczewski off the glass.

Colorado actually matches up fairly well defensively with the Wildcats — their half-court offense has frequently been inert under head coach Sean Miller, and this year is no different.

“As long as we clog the lane, don’t give them anything easy at the basket, make them take a lot of 17-to-20-foot jump shots we’ll be just fine,” Buffs guard Askia Booker said.

But that is not how Colorado will beat this team — the Wildcats are once again winning with frenetic, aggressive defense, the hallmark of Miller’s Arizona teams. They are second in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game and third in field goal percentage defense through an admittedly small three-game sample size.

Buff fans are all too familiar with that athletic aggression. Arizona killed CU last year by trapping ball screens — ball-handler, roll man, didn't matter. The Buffs struggled to react to double teams and were consistently unable to pass to the open man when the traps came; they committed 34 turnovers and dished out just 11 assists in their three games against the Wildcats.

Those turnovers have been especially damaging this season. Boyle methodically ticked off the stats: Colorado is third in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage, first in three-point percentage and fifth in free-throw shooting, but it is seventh in scoring, seventh in assists and 11th in turnovers.

“The turnovers, really, are passing,” Boyle said. “We work on it in practice. I don’t know, we’re trying. Watch film, practice, put drills in, but not very successful so far.”

Arizona’s defense isn’t the soul-crushing vise that it was last year — the Wildcats clearly miss Aaron Gordon and his seven-foot wingspan — but it will still be nigh-impermeable against CU’s stagnant half-court offense. Booker offered a single word when asked where the Buffs will find points Thursday night: “transition.”

“When you can get stops and you can get up the floor, it doesn’t matter how much length you have,” Booker continued. “And you can’t trap ball screens in transition.”

CU should get good transition looks against Arizona. Its half-court offense, like the Buffs’, is often sluggish. The Wildcats are third in the Pac-12 in turnovers, but they’re ninth in assists and they don’t shoot threes or rebound well. If Colorado wins on the boards, makes smart outlet passes and runs like hell it could stay with Arizona. But those are big ifs with Scott and Johnson in the lineup. Without one, or potentially both, of them, out-rebounding the Wildcats is less likely.

So is containing Stanley Johnson. Were Xavier Johnson healthy, he would shoulder most of the defensive responsibilities for the Wildcats’ 6-foot-7 freshman phenom. Stanley Johnson, the nation’s seventh-best recruit according to ESPN, is the best player Arizona has had since Derrick Williams left for the NBA four years ago.

He makes the mistakes you would expect from a player with just 16 games’ experience. His ball-handling is unrefined and he didn’t play well in the Wildcats’ two losses — he scored only seven points at Oregon State, and turned the ball over on Arizona’s final possession against UNLV — but few wing players have his combination of size, shooting and athleticism. He is all but guaranteed to be a lottery pick should he declare for the NBA draft.

In Xavier Johnson’s possible absence, Tre’Shaun Fletcher will guard Stanley Johnson with help from Dustin Thomas and Jaron Hopkins. Fletcher matches up well with Johnson’s size, but Hopkins might be the only Buff athletic enough to stay with him.

“I’m gonna have to have my hands full,” Hopkins said of the possibility that he switches onto Johnson. “But I’m gonna guard him like I guard everyone else.”

That may not be enough; Colorado will need to play a near-perfect game to be anything but a tune-up for the Wildcats before Utah visits on Saturday. But the Buffs must, at some point, win these sorts of road games if they want to be an upper-echelon Pac-12 team. And there is no better time to start winning them than now.

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