Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Sam Routhier at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @samrouthier.
Without his best player on the floor, University of Colorado head coach Tad Boyle learned last week that the next best asset his team could trot out in two close victories was resilience.
It’s hard to pinpoint another trait that was as crucial for the Colorado men’s basketball team this past week in its victories over Washington State and Washington. Both wins were by single digits, with the 88-81 victory over Washington State coming in double overtime, and the 81-80 win over Washington depending on a Colorado stop in the Huskies’ final possession.
Boyle’s team will have to take that trait on the road this week, as Colorado is set to take on the two Los Angeles outposts of the Pac-12 Conference, USC (18-7, 7-5) and UCLA (14-11, 5-7), whether senior forward Josh Scott is ready to return from an ankle injury sustained two weeks ago against Oregon State or not.
While a cavalcade of players have stepped up for Colorado in Scott’s absence over these past two victories, the return of the Buffaloes’ semifinalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award would be a boon if Colorado wants to steal another Pac-12 road win this week.
In Scott’s absence, Colorado has found a great deal of consistency from Scott’s frontcourt mate in the starting lineup, junior forward Wesley Gordon. Gordon’s 17 points and 13 rebounds led Colorado in both categories against Washington, while his 15 points and 12 rebounds in the double-OT thriller against Wazzu were equally reminiscent of a Scott performance. Gordon also paced the field with a whopping eight blocks combined in the two games, four apiece, providing a healthy dose of rim protection for the Buffaloes.
Beyond Gordon, Colorado has also been able to keep pace in these high scoring contests with a backcourt by committee. Redshirt sophomore guard George King has battled through inconsistency in recent games but managed to deliver baskets when Colorado needs them most, including the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that kept the Buffaloes alive in overtime against Washington State on Thursday. Junior guard Josh Fortune found his number being called against Washington on Saturday, and delivered to the tune of 13 points and nine rebounds.
Colorado will need to continue its high-scoring ways on Wednesday when it takes on a USC team that has yet to lose at home this season and is among the conference leaders on offense.
The Trojans average 83.1 points per game and have five players who average at least 12, numbers that both dwarf Colorado’s averages this season. While it will take a team-wide effort to stifle a Trojan offensive with so many scorers, a good place for the Buffaloes to start would be with USC’s backcourt duo of junior Julian Jacobs and sophomore Jordan McLaughlin. The two guards are first and fourth in the Pac-12 in assists per game, with 5.8 and 5.0 respectively, while McLaughlin leads all Trojans in scoring with 12.7 points per game.
While Scott and Gordon have been able to anchor Colorado’s defense closer to the basket, it will be up to Colorado’s backcourt to stifle the Trojan’s dime-droppers and disrupt the Pac-12’s No. 2 team in points per game.
Moving onto the Bruins, don’t be fooled by their sub-.500 record in Pac-12 play. UCLA has been unsteady this season but has also provided flashes of brilliance, such as their 87-77 drubbing of then-No. 1 Kentucky in December.
The Bruins have the horses to compete with any team in the country, and like USC it all starts in the backcourt. Junior guards Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford lead the Bruins in scoring, having both tallied 411 points overall this season for identical averages of 16.4 points per game. UCLA has also leaned on senior big man Tony Parker, whose 9.1 rebounds per game lead the team.
If the Buffaloes can hound Hamilton and Alford and funnel the action toward Parker and his front court peers, not unlike Colorado’s near-victory over Utah earlier this season, Colorado should fare well against UCLA. The Buffaloes have been a superior rebounding team to date, averaging 43.0 rebounds per game against UCLA’s 40.8. Colorado also shoots better than both USC and UCLA from long range, with a 39.6 percent rate of success on 3-point attempts, tops in the Pac-12 Conference and currently ranks 14th in all of Division I. Both of these upcoming contests for the Buffaloes may very well come down to keeping the opposition in the paint, and keeping the Buffaloes’ shot attempts coming from beyond the arc.
As always, Colorado’s games this week will have repercussions in the Pac-12 standings. The Buffaloes currently sit tied for third in the conference with Utah, and are only a half-game above USC. Losses in both contests this weekend could drop Colorado as many as five spots in the conference standings, making at least one victory in the next two contest an important outcome if the Buffaloes want to maintain a top spot in this tightly-packed conference.
Colorado tips off with USC at 9 p.m. MST on Wednesday, the game will be broadcast on ESPNU. The Buffaloes’ game at UCLA will also be at 9 p.m., and will be broadcast on FS1.