CU men's basketball preview: Washington State

GAME TIME: Thursday, 6 p.m., Coors Events Center.

MATCHUP: Washington State Cougars (9-8, 1-4 Pac-12 Conference) at Colorado Buffaloes (11-7, 3-3).

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network. Radio — 850 AM.

COACHES: Washington State — Ernie Kent, 4th season (45-65, 369-319 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 8th season (160-102, 216-168 overall).

LEADERS: Washington State — Scoring: F Robert Franks, Jr., 18.2 ppg; Rebounding: F Drick Bernstine, Sr., 7.7 rpg; Assists: G Malachi Flynn, So., 4.0 apg. Colorado — Scoring: G McKinley Wright, Fr., 15.0 ppg; Rebounding: G/F George King, Sr., 8.3 rpg; Assists: Wright, 5.3 apg.

NOTES: The Buffs will wear patches on their uniforms to honor CU lacrosse player Julia Sarcona, who died in a car accident on Saturday. Before the game CU will observe a moment of silence to honor both Sarcona and WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide on Tuesday...CU has won five of its six games against WSU over the past two seasons. The Buffs are 6-0 all-time at home against the Cougars...King has recorded at least 10 rebounds in three straight games and is coming off two consecutive double-doubles. King has averaged 10 rebounds over the past four games...Washington State opened Pac-12 play with four consecutive losses before defeating Cal at home Saturday...


Earlier this week former CU guard Xavier Talton signed a professional contract with KK Pelister Sport Bitola in Macedonia...WSU's Drick Bernstine is a native of Aurora who played at Cherokee Trail High School. Bernstine previously played at Denver and North Dakota before arriving this season at WSU as a graduate transfer.

Asked if the recent showings by his team had changed his opinion of utilizing a zone defense, Tad Boyle could only laugh.

The leader of the Colorado men's basketball team, long a devotee of the gospel according to man-to-man defense, didn't exactly go out of his way to say he now embraces zone. Yet even Boyle can't deny the effectiveness his Buffaloes have enjoyed defensively of late while working in a zone. It's a recent habit that might prove useful once again Thursday night when Washington State brings a lineup of capable 3-point shooters to the Coors Events Center for a Pac-12 Conference showdown.

"It's keeping people off-balance. And that's the key," Boyle said. "I'm going to do anything that works to help win games. What I don't want our players to do is get complacent. It's not that the zone is more effective than the man. We've got to understand that when we play with energy and effort on defense, good things happen for our team.

"What I want do is rebound the ball the way Colorado teams in the past have rebounded the ball. We are not there where we need to be. But defensively, we've made some good strides and the zone has been good to us."

During the nonconference schedule the Buffs frequently struggled to slow down the 3-point shooters of the opposition, allowing opponents to hit at a .349 mark while surrendering a number of red-hot performances along the way. Drake went 8-for-19 on 3-pointers against the Buffs. Air Force went 11-for-26 and Xavier was 9-for-14. In fact, take a season-opening 6-for-37 brick-fest from Northern Colorado out of the equation, and CU's defensive 3-point percentage in its other 11 nonconference games jumps to .378.

It has been a far different story so far in Pac-12 play, particularly over the past two weekends as the Buffs have posted wins against Arizona State, Arizona, and UCLA. A far more liberal use of zone defense by Boyle has coincided with the surge. Entering this weekend's action in league play the Buffs ranked second in defensive 3-point percentage with a .311 mark (conference games only). In those wins against three of the most talented teams in the league, the Buffs have held their opponents to a .250 mark (21-for-84) on 3-pointers.

"Maybe it's just getting to the shooter, making shooters think about their shots. Using our length to take away whatever we can," CU junior guard Namon Wright said. "I think we're making shooters a little more hesitant. For me, it feels a little uncomfortable when they're high out to get a quick shot off without forcing it. That's probably true for other teams when we're playing zone."

CU's new-look zone defense could be on display again Thursday night. Through Tuesday's games this week, Washington State ranked third in the nation (and tops among teams from Power 5 conferences and the Big East) with 11.9 made 3-pointers per game. Junior Robert Franks set a school record and tied a Pac-12 record with 10 3-pointers in WSU's win last weekend against Cal, and four different Cougars players have enjoyed games with at least six made 3-pointers this season.

"Whether we're man, whether we're zone, it doesn't matter what defense we play, we'd better get to shooters," Boyle said. "We know who those shooters are. It starts with Malachi Flynn and Franks. They've got some guys who can shoot the ball."

Pat Rooney: or