Brooks: At 6-3, Buffs Eye Better Pac-12 Second Half
BOULDER - Halfway in, the Colorado Buffaloes haven't been half bad - and that's been fairly surprising for some of the men's basketball coaches in the Pac-12 Conference.
With league play at the midway point, CU - joining Utah this season as Pac-12 newbies - isn't looking or playing like the No. 11 team. That's where the Buffaloes were predicted to settle in their first Pac-12 season. Instead, they're tied for second (6-3) with Oregon, which follows Oregon State's Thursday night visit to the Coors Events Center with a Saturday night appearance. Both games tip at 7 p.m.
"I like where we are," CU coach Tad Boyle said, and with the exception of inconsistency on the road, what's not to like about his second Buffs team and its first venture into the Pac-12?
After losing 76 percent of their scoring from last season, Boyle and his staff have compensated by stressing his foundational points (let's hear it again: defense and rebounding) and cobbling together enough offensive balance to turn heads in the Buffs' new conference digs.
"Being able to come into this league and doing as well as they have is something to take note of," Oregon State's Craig Robinson said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference.
Of course, Boyle and his players share a list of second-half improvements, topped by the obvious. "The easiest thing to look at is our home (5-0) and road (1-3) records," senior Austin Dufault said. "We've won a lot at home and only one on the road . . . if we want to get to where we want to be at in the second half (of the season) we've got to win a few more road games. I think that's going to be key for us in what we want to accomplish this year."
Still, when Boyle takes a look at the league's stat sheet, he likes what he sees. "We feel good about leading the league in field goal percentage defense (39.8); we want to be top three," he said. "Rebounding margin (+6.1), we're leading it, and we want to be top three there. So I feel good about those two areas. When we don't do those things we don't have success."
As for general improvement, Boyle speaks first of being more efficient offensively. "Our execution and field goal percentage (45.3) can get better," he said. "Some nights it's going to be better than others depending on the way the ball's bouncing. But what I don't want to see are the wide swings. You look at our three road losses and the wide swings between our field goal percentage in the first and second halves - it's like falling off a cliff. You can't have that if you want to beat good teams on the road."
Team consistency tops most coaches' wish list, but Boyle has had individuals come through in that area - starting with Dufault. Although he's played out of position for most of his CU career, he's adjusted well and is enjoying a productive final season. He's No. 2 among the Buffs in scoring (11.4) and rebounding (4.8), but he's the leader among the starters in field goal percentage (50.9) and three-point percentage (44.4).
Boyle was "hoping" for that kind of consistency from Dufault, but frankly didn't know where those hopes would land. Said Boyle: "I didn't know what to expect from Austin; I was hoping he would have a great senior year and it's certainly proven out so far. He just has a sense of determination and urgency, just a different demeanor from last year. But they all know it's their last one so there's a sense of seriousness that you don't see sometimes from freshmen and sophomores or even juniors."
At a slender 6-9, 225 pounds, Dufault has been asked to play inside as well as out. In the post, he often finds large loads as he did last weekend in LA. UCLA's Josh Smith is listed as 6-10, 310. Don't believe the weight. A couple of seasons ago in the Big 12, Dufault encountered a similar-sized hulk in Texas' Dexter Pittman.
"Lots of similarity there in how much space they take up and just being overall huge," Dufault said. "But both had pretty good hands."
His quickness is an asset against mass, but he concedes, "In the last couple of games I've kind of struggled inside. I've got to continue to play confident and keep finishing at the rim. I've been playing well outside, shooting the ball well and getting good looks - and that comes from my teammates finding me.
"I just need to get back on the block and post up a little more. And I need to keep defending and rebounding, try to keep the big guys off the boards . . . just be solid overall. I've been more aggressive and I'm playing with more confidence, knowing I'm looked at more as a scorer."
He'll be needed in that role this week against the teams from the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State (14-7, 4-5) is fourth in the league but has won three straight and leads the Pac-12 in scoring (82.4 points) and in field goal percentage (48.5). Also, Beavers guard Jared Cunningham leads the conference in scoring (18.2) and steals (2.8), while teammate Devon Collier is first in field goal percentage (63.4).
The Buffs and Beavers are well-acquainted, having played for the past two seasons in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. Each team won at home - OSU 74-69 in Corvallis in 2009-10, CU 83-57 last season in Boulder.
But Boyle sees a different OSU team on this trip. The Beavers still use 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones, utilizing 6-10 redshirt freshman Eric Moreland at the top of the 1-3-1. "But they also play a little more man (defense) this year," Boyle said.
He also expects the Beavers to play an up-tempo offense: "I think they'll run with us. They're athletic; you don't score 80 points a game without getting out in transition. I fully expect them to run and we want an up-tempo game. We just have to make sure they're not getting transition layups. They only way you do that is by getting stops . . . we've talked about that all the time.
"The whole key is to not turn the ball over . . . if you turn it over above the free throw line, it's usually a layup at the other end because they're so fast and athletic. Our transition defense is going to have to be good, and part of that is taking care of the ball."
Do all that and the second half of Pac-12 play will have a good beginning. A 6-3 start was better than many expected, but it also left the Buffs expecting more.