Emergence of Cal’s Connor Vanover a problem for CU Buffs in Pac-12 tourney

Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, right, and the Buffs will have their hands full on Wednesday with Cal’s 7-foot-3 freshman Connor Vanover.

Colorado men’s basketball preview: Cal Golden Bears

TIPOFF: Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. MT, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network; Radio — 760 AM.

RECORDS: Cal 8-22, 3-15 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 19-11, 10-8.

COACHES: Cal — Wyking Jones, 2nd season (16-46 at Cal and overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 9th season (185-121, 241-187 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Cal — F Justice Sueing, So., 14.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg; G Paris Austin, Jr., 11.7 ppg, 4.4 apg; G Darius McNeill, So., 11.2 ppg. Colorado — F Tyler Bey, So., 13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg; G McKinley Wright, So., 13.0 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.8 rpg; F Lucas Siewert, Jr., 10.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg.

NOTES: On Tuesday CU’s D’Shawn Schwartz (second team), Evan Battey (honorable mention), and Alex Strating (honorable mention) earned spots on the Pac-12 men’s basketball All-Academic teams…The Buffs have never lost in the Pac-12 Conference tournament first round but have only advanced out of the quarterfinals twice, winning the tournament in 2012 and losing in the semifinals in 2014…Wright and Bey, who received first team All-Pac-12 honors on Monday, were superb as freshmen last year in CU’s first-round win against Arizona State. Wright nearly posted a triple-double with 20 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds, while Bey recorded what at the time was his second career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds…Bey enters the tournament with a share of the Pac-12 lead with 14 double-doubles, including five in a row…One of those double-doubles by Bey this season was a 17-point, 14-rebound effort in a win at Cal Jan. 24 in the teams’ only meeting this season. Siewert paced CU in that game with 18 points. The Buffs outrebounded Cal 37-24 and held the Golden Bears to a 5-for-21 mark on 3-pointers…CU ranks second in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage overall (.742) and in league games (.762)…The winner will play fourth-seeded Oregon State in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. MT.

Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle doesn’t typically venture on to the court during his team’s early warm-ups on game night. But since the cavernous bowels that houses the visiting locker room at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif., doesn’t exactly provide an atmosphere of inspiration, Boyle opted to wander courtside when his Buffaloes visited Cal in January.

While wondering how CU point guard McKinley Wright would respond in his first game back from a game-and-a-half absence from a shoulder injury that will require offseason surgery, Boyle took notice of Cal’s 7-foot-3 freshman Connor Vanover go through his pregame shooting routine.

Boyle says he was impressed. And Vanover would soon impress the rest of the Pac-12 in the days to come.

“I remember going up and sitting on the bench watching them shoot and warm up, and I remember seeing Vanover and I saw his size,” Boyle said. “He looks 7-3. And you see him shoot the ball and it’s like, ‘Wow, he’s got a nice-looking stroke.’ I’m a little concerned. We have to understand what he does. We didn’t see it the first time we played them. But obviously Stanford saw it and some other teams have seen it. He’s playing well right now. They’ve got some good players.

“We’ve got to be ready to go. It’s a new season for us. But it’s a new season for them.”

When CU topped Cal 68-59 on the road Jan. 24 in the teams’ only meeting this season, Vanover was a non-factor. The freshman from Little Rock played only six minutes without scoring a point. It was more of the same two nights later against Utah, with Vanover staying within what was his season norm at the time by scoring just two points in four minutes.

Second-year Cal coach Wyking Jones unleashed Vanover afterward, and he has been a completely different player over the past 10 games. During that span Vanover has averaged 12.4 points while shooting .505 from the floor and .395 from 3-point range. That 10-game run includes an 18-point, seven-rebound outing in an upset win against then-No. 25 Washington, as well as a 9-for-12 performance (5-for-6 on 3-pointers) 24 points this past weekend in the Bears’ regular season-closing win at rival Stanford.

“They’re really presenting a lot of problems, and it comes to one-on-one guarding the ball,” Wright said. “They like to do a lot of five-out and just attack wherever they think the weakest link is. If they think you’re the weak link, they’re going to iso you to death until you stop them. We’re going to try and be in each other’s gaps and get stops.”

Despite never once entering the Pac-12 tournament as a top-four seed with a first-round bye, Boyle’s Buffs nonetheless have always fared well on opening day, winning all seven of their previous first-round matchups at the Pac-12 tournament. The last time CU was the No. 5 seed, in the program’s most recent NCAA Tournament season of 2016, the Buffs faced a 12th-seeded, conference 1-17 Washington State team in the first round that stayed within five points of CU with under nine minutes remaining in the first half before the Buffs steadily pulled away. Given the emergence of Vanover has the Bears as hot as a 3-15 can be with three consecutive victories, the Buffs aren’t taking that first-round win streak for granted.

“It’s win-or-go-home time,” Boyle said. “We want to extend that trip hopefully as long as we can, but I know Cal does too and so does everybody else that’s there.

“I haven’t talked to our guys about that (streak) but it’s something our staff takes a lot of pride in. I’ve always felt like in tournament play, the teams that are tougher and execute better and want to win more are the ones that usually do.”

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