CU Buffs aim to stay in the moment in nonconference finale against Iona

CU wary of looking ahead to Oregon battle

Colorado's Tyler Bey and the Buffs will attempt on Sunday to erase their season-long penchant for playing to the level of the competition.
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Tyler Bey and the Buffs will attempt on Sunday to erase their season-long penchant for playing to the level of the competition.

A few weeks ago, Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle warned his team’s game against Northern Iowa would be the biggest trap game of the season for the Buffaloes.

The warning proved prophetic, as the Panthers’ three-point win at the CU Events Center toppled CU from the AP top 25. Yet Sunday’s home matchup against Iona in the nonconference finale has all the ingredients of yet another trap bait for the Buffs.

CU is coming off an emotional and thrilling overtime win on a buzzer-beater against nationally-ranked Dayton, followed by three days off while CU’s players enjoyed Christmas. And the Buffs will be challenged to not peek too far ahead, with a huge battle looming in the Pac-12 Conference opener on Thursday at home against No. 6 Oregon.

Citing that Dec. 10 letdown against Northern Iowa has been an integral part of the Buffs’ preparation for the program’s first matchup against Iona.

“We talk about Northern Iowa, exactly. We had the lesson. Let’s see if we learned from the lesson,” Boyle said. “Because if we aren’t ready to play, Iona will come in here and they’ve got tough-minded, East Coast kids that aren’t afraid of anything or anybody. And they play with reckless abandon. They play with great effort. They just took Princeton to overtime on a neutral floor. They’re a really good program.

“But to me, the Northern Iowa game is kind of the lesson plan we kind of give to our team as we prepare for Iona. If we’re not ready to play, just because we’re in this building, just because we’re at home, doesn’t mean we’re going to win.”

Following the Dayton win, the Buffs will attempt to erase their season-long penchant for playing to the level of the competition. Whether it has been stumbling through ugly wins against Wyoming and Colorado State or playing impressively to notch neutral-court wins against Clemson and Dayton, the Buffs generally have mirrored the abilities of their opponents. The Iona matchup, on the heels of that Dayton win, offers the Buffs a chance to break that habit.

“I feel like that with the Dayton game we learned what we’re capable of,” CU forward Tyler Bey said. “(Sunday), we feel like we can blow that team out if we play like we’re capable of playing. We’ve just got to keep our heads on tight and play with energy.”

On paper, it should be a good matchup for the Buffs’ solid all-around defense. The Gaels are shooting.415 overall with a .276 mark on 3-pointers, and they are averaging 69.8 points per game. Nearly two-thirds of that scoring total has been produced by three players in forward Tajuan Agee and guards EJ Crawford and Asante Gist.

Still, with the disappointment of the Northern Iowa result still somewhat fresh in their minds, the Buffs understand they can’t be caught looking ahead to Oregon.

“It’s another must-win. We can’t have any more of the low-major losses,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “We lost to Northern Iowa, and they’re a very good team, but I think we let that one slip. We had too many turnovers. But with this Iona team, they’re a more driving and attacking team. They feed off turnovers and they get out in transition. So we have to do a good job of protecting the ball, getting to the free throw line, and scoring the ball.”

Iona Gaels at CU Buffs men’s basketball

TIPOFF: Sunday, noon, CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac 12 Networks; Radio — 760 AM.

RECORDS: Iona 2-4; Colorado 10-2.

COACHES: Iona — Tim Cluess, 10th season (201-112, 299-135 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (199-125, 254-191 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Iona — F Tajuan Agee, Sr., 17.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg; G/F EJ Crawford, Sr., 16.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg; G Asante Gist, Jr., 11.2 ppg, 4.0 apg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Jr., 12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr., 12.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Jr., 11.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .463 3-point percentage.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Buffs are coming off an emotional win against nationally-ranked Dayton and are just days away from a huge matchup against Oregon in the Pac-12 opener. Bringing the requisite focus to the floor against the Gaels likely will be the Buffs’ biggest challenge.

NOTES: Both coaches are on the brink of career milestones. With CU’s next win, Boyle will become just the second Buffs coach to win 200 games. Iona’s Cluess reached that mark with Iona’s second win this season, and his next victory will be his 300th overall as a Division I head coach. Cluess, however, is expected to miss the game while monitoring a health issue…Iona has been idle since suffering a 90-86 overtime loss against Princeton on Dec. 17 in Brooklyn. Two of the Gaels’ losses this season have occurred in overtime…The Gaels have won the past four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championships and have played in the NCAA Tournament in six of Cluess’ previous nine full seasons at Iona…Bey posted double-digit rebounding totals in five of the first six games. He followed that with a pair of nine-rebound games but has averaged six rebounds over the past four games…CU forward Evan Battey has gone 15-for-17 on free throws in the past two games.