CU Buffs bracing for young talent, reliable experience from No. 4 UCLA

Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle knows his team will have a tall task in slowing down No. 4 UCLA.

CU men’s basketball preview: UCLA

MATCHUP: No. 4 UCLA Bruins (16-1, 3-1 Pac-12 Conference) at Colorado Buffaloes (10-6, 0-3).

GAME TIME: Thursday, 9 p.m., Coors Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — Fox Sports 1; Radio — 760 AM.

UCLA — Steve Alford, 4th season (81-41, 544-276 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 7th season (140-86, 196-152 overall).

LEADERS: UCLA — Scoring: F TJ Leaf, Fr., 17.4 ppg; Rebounding: Leaf, 9.1 rpg; Assists: G Lonzo Ball, Fr., 8.0 apg. Colorado — Scoring: G Derrick White, Sr., 15.8 ppg; Rebounding: F Wesley Gordon, Sr., 8.0 rpg; Assists: White, 4.1 apg.

NOTABLE: UCLA leads the Pac-12 in scoring (92.8), scoring margin (plus-18.7), field goal percentage (.534), 3-point percentage (.428), total assists (387), and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.84). The assist total leads the nation, while the Bruins’ field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover rate both rank second nationally…The Bruins routed CU 77-53 at home last year…UCLA leads the all-time series 10-2. CU won the last game in Boulder with a 62-56 victory on Jan. 2, 2015. Gordon and Xavier Johnson combined for 25 points and 20 rebounds in that game, with Gordon adding seven blocked shots that remains a personal best…In three Pac-12 games CU has shot just .290 (20-for-69) from 3-point range…The Buffs host No. 25 USC Sunday night (6:30 p.m., ESPNU).

At some point, a dominant run by the UCLA Bruins will be inevitable Thursday night.

The fourth-ranked team in the nation arrives for a late-night date at the Coors Events Center as by far the top offensive team in the Pac-12 Conference and one of the best in the nation. Completely shutting down UCLA’s array of scorers simply isn’t feasible for the Colorado Buffaloes.

Certainly the Buffs have proven vulnerable to surrendering game-changing runs. On Saturday in an otherwise solid showing at No. 17 Arizona, the Buffs were outscored 36-9 on either side of halftime. Earlier in the week Utah erased an early CU lead by outscoring the Buffs 34-19 going into halftime.

Heck, even in their most recent game at the Coors Events Center, CU allowed visiting Eastern Washington to sprint to a 19-2 lead before rallying.

Chances are UCLA will put together a similar run at some point Thursday. So while the Buffs generally have not responded well to in-game adversity, the fact they have done so in each of the past two games is a trait that needs to remain at the forefront in any potential upset bid by CU.

Head coach Tad Boyle took plenty of notes from UCLA’s lone loss of the season Dec. 28 at Oregon. Though the verdict game down to a 3-pointer by Oregon’s Dillon Brooks at the buzzer, what impressed Boyle the most was the Ducks’ mental toughness and perseverance.

“It’s all toughness,” Boyle said. “Oregon was down. They just kept battling and fighting. Oregon has great toughness and that’s how they won the game. They just never went away. UCLA is so talented. They’re going to make runs. They’re going to make shots. Again, if you don’t get your head down and don’t act like you lost your puppy and keep fighting, you’ve got a chance. That’s how Oregon beat them.

“It took a buzzer-beater to beat them, and this team went into Rupp Arena and beat (Kentucky) convincingly and that’s not easy to do. Toughness is the whole key when I look at that Oregon team and how they beat UCLA. We’re going to have to have that toughness Thursday night.”

While the Bruins lean heavily on freshman sensations like guard Lonzo Ball, the Pac-12 leader in assists, and forward TJ Leaf, UCLA’s leading scorer and rebounder, the duo has been added to a team that already boasted an envious level of experience and firepower.

Guard Bryce Alford has made the most 3-pointers in the Pac-12 and is on-pace to finish in the top 10 of the all-time scoring list at one of college basketball’s most historic programs. Fellow senior Isaac Hamilton is a steady contributor at 14.1 points per game, while Boyle lauded sophomore Aaron Holiday of being “as good a player as there is in our league” despite his role off the bench for the Bruins.

“It’s a testament to the older guys, because I think they’ve embraced those two freshmen very well,” Boyle said. “I’m not around UCLA’s program day-to-day obviously, but they seem to have great chemistry and great togetherness. Certainly on offense.

“That’s a testament obviously to the freshmen coming in that are talented enough to do what they do, but also to the veterans that understand how talented those freshmen are. They all co-exist together.”

Pat Rooney: or