The numbers say the Colorado Buffaloes are one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12 Conference.
Head coach Tad Boyle doesn’t necessarily believe it, and the term “smothering defense” doesn’t immediately spring to mind for anyone who watches the Buffs. Nonetheless, the numbers don’t lie.
Heading into the final weekend of play in the Pac-12 Conference, the Buffs lead the league with a defensive field goal percentage of .423 in conference games. It is one of the statistics Boyle covets, and while his team’s defensive efficiency hasn’t been enough to erase a league-low turnover margin of minus-4.2, it will take an above-average effort from Utah in the regular-season finale on Saturday (5 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Mountain) to keep CU from finishing as the Pac-12 leader in defensive field goal percentage.
And Boyle, long a devotee of an almost exclusive man-to-man defensive approach, admits his team’s increased use of zone this season has been a revelation.
“I think our zone has helped us a little bit. We’ve guarded the 3-point line better,” Boyle said. “Playing the combination of man and zone has helped us. It’s funny, because I think we’ve coached some good defensive teams in the past, especially those teams with Spencer (Dinwiddie) and Andre (Roberson) on them, two really good perimeter defenders and Josh (Scott) was a good post defender. Because I coach this team every day, I don’t feel like this is a great defensive team. But the numbers don’t agree with me.
“I don’t think of UCLA of being a great defensive team, but they’re second. So I don’t know. But I think defensively we’ve shown at times we can get stops.”
Boyle credited his team’s surge to the top of the Pac-12 heap in defensive field goal percentage to a number of factors, including catching a few good-shooting teams (like at home against Utah, and at UCLA) on bad nights. Also, it hasn’t exactly been a banner year for defense in the Pac-12. The Buffs finished with a similar defensive field goal percentage in Pac-12 play in the NCAA Tournament season of 2016 at .424, but that was only good enough for fourth in the league. The Buffs posted much more impressive defensive field goal percentages of .411 in each of their first two seasons in the Pac-12 but finished second each time.
Last year’s league leader in defensive field goal percentage, Cal, set the pace with a .414 mark.
“Over an 18-game schedule, or 17 up to this point, the numbers are what the numbers are,” Boyle said. “They say we’re the best defensive team. Arizona is probably the best offensive team they’ve had there since we’ve been in the league, but certainly not anywhere close to the best defensive team. Oregon, same way. They’ve struggled defensively at times this year and at times in the past they’ve been really good. I think it’s fair to say the league overall defensively isn’t as good as it’s been in years past.”
One of the catalysts for the Buffs’ defense this season has originated from an unexpected source. Senior George King was never touted as a standout defender prior to this year, but he generally has provided solid one-one-one defense both in the paint and along the perimeter. He also seemingly picked up a few tricks last year from Derrick White and his penchant for getting blocked shots at the rim or in transition. King posted only 16 blocked shots through his first three seasons but has recorded 21 this year.
“That was my main focus individually that I had, just including only myself this year, was picking up my defense,” King said. “Just taking more pride and not allowing guys who are averaging whatever they’re averaging to not get their average. When we go man, that’s gut-checking time. That’s one thing I want to be known as, as one of the best defenders in the Pac-12.”