Buffs' Goal Comes Down To Pride vs. Depleted Huskies
SEATTLE - Five days into March, it's difficult to remember that there are still regular-season college basketball games to be played. Joe Lunardi is a daily fixture on ESPN. Conference tournament previews are being released even though not every bracket is set.
The Pac-12's bracket is still unsettled, and Colorado's place in it depends on how the Buffs finish their Washington road trip. But for Tad Boyle, this final journey before that crapshoot they call the postseason isn't about seeding. It's about pride.
"If you asked me, 'What's the highest seed we could be?' I don't have an answer," Boyle said. "I don't know. My thing is, you play the next game. Where we are right now, we gotta concentrate on getting better, not worrying about what our seed is. If you're battling for fourth or fifth, that's a different story. That's the difference between a bye and not a bye. But when you're down there in the muck like we are, it really doesn't matter."
Washington, like Colorado, is down there in the muck.
"That's why I say it's gonna come down to pride," said Boyle, who sends the Buffs against the Huskies here Thursday night (7 p.m., FS1).
The Buffs (13-15, 6-10) played with pride in their Jan. 22 loss to the Huskies (15-13, 4-12) in the Coors Event Center. Colorado played one of its best defensive games of the season. The Buffs held the Huskies to 36 percent shooting and just 52 points. They played great defense on the final possession and Andrew Andrews beat the buzzer over Wes Gordon's outstretched hand anyway.
Colorado and Washington are radically different from what they were a month and a half ago. The Buffs played that first game without Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson; Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar dismissed center Robert Upshaw for violating team rules four days after they beat Colorado.
Upshaw left a gargantuan hole in the middle of Washington's defense. He was college basketball's most dominant rim protector. His nearly five blocks per game led the NCAA; he averaged almost one block per game more than LSU's Jordan Mickey, the active leader. When he was dismissed, Upshaw had blocked more shots by himself than Colorado had as a team. He blocked 17 percent of the shots opponents took while he was on the floor.
Before Washington kicked Upshaw off the team it held opponents to 34 percent shooting; since, they've shot 53 percent. Against the Buffs, Upshaw turned the paint into a black hole. He only blocked two shots but his presence affected every shot Colorado took at the rim.
"Obviously, with Upshaw, we still wanted to attack the rim," Boyle said. "We just had to attack it quickly and smartly and with him out it makes it a little bit easier."
Colorado's forwards should have a huge game in Upshaw's absence. Gordon played maybe the best game of his career last time against the Huskies, a 10-point, 17-rebound opus in which he nullified Upshaw and Sean Kemp offensively and on the boards. Scott has averaged nearly 10 rebounds per game since he returned from his back ailments, which still linger. No matter who Romar plays in the frontcourt, Colorado will have an advantage in size and skill.
Romar doesn't have many guys to play. Washington's rotation is untenably thin. The Huskies played only six players in their visit to Boulder. But they won.
"They came in here with six guys and beat us," Boyle said. "Now, obviously, Upshaw was one of them. They've struggled since they left here. They've won one game. But it's not like we've set the world on fire."
In Upshaw's absence Romar has turned to sophomore Jernard Jarreau and freshman Donaven Dorsey next to Kemp in the frontcourt. Dorsey is undersized, effectively a small forward forced to play the four, and Jarreau doesn't offer even a semblance of Upshaw's rim protection.
"In terms of skills on the offensive end, he's a better player than Upshaw," Boyle said. "He's not the defensive presence that Upshaw is."
Upshaw's dismissal is another ignominious chapter in a Huskies' season that, like the Buffs', has been wildly disappointing. It's almost unfathomable to think that before conference play Washington was 11-0 and ranked 13th in the country. Then, the Huskies were a defensive terror and sophomore Nigel Williams-Goss looked like Romar's next great guard ' remember, Romar has sent Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Quincy Pondexter, Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the NBA since he arrived in Seattle.
Williams-Goss is a better distributor than any of his predecessors ' he leads the Pac-12 with over six assists per game ' but he has regressed from an average three-point shooter his freshman year to an abysmal one this season. He hits just 24 percent of his treys, and Washington really has no credible outside threat. The team shoots 31 percent collectively, and Andrews and guard Mike Anderson are the only players in the Huskies' rotation who shoot better than 35 percent from deep.
Still, Williams-Goss and Andrews can be deadly ' Williams-Goss scores 15 points per game, Andrews 14 ' they get to the line often, shoot well when they're there, and Williams-Goss is an unbelievable passer. They played all 40 minutes against Colorado in that first game.
"They both can hurt you in a lot of different ways," Boyle said. "Our guards have a great challenge on their hands defensively."
The Buffs' guards were up to the challenge last time; Colorado held Williams-Goss and Andrews to a combined 10-of-30 shooting. They did enough to win, but only just, and they needed a late Buffs turnover and Andrews' clutch shot. Washington was two points better than Colorado with one of the best defensive players in the country on the floor.
The Buffs aren't in a good place, but they're better off in March than they were in January. They have two more games, then next week one chance to prove themselves. But first, the Huskies. One of these teams needs to crawl from the muck.