It certainly won’t be an easy road for Colorado. Yet the current configuration of the final two weeks of the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball might prove advantageous for the Buffaloes once the conference tournament tips off.
Among the top five teams in the Pac-12, only the Buffs and Stanford are scheduled to play just three games over the final two weeks. Oregon began a stretch of six games in 14 days with Monday’s loss at USC. For the Trojans, Monday’s win began a stretch of five games in a span of 13 days. When Arizona State visits CU for the March 4 regular season finale, it will be the Sun Devils’ fifth game in 10 days.
After that ASU game, the Buffs are in line to enjoy a full week off before tipping off in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament. Of course, that’s a favorable schedule in regard to the format. Taking advantage of it will be more challenging on the floor, as the Buffs begin their regular season-ending three-game homestand on Thursday against 19th-ranked USC.
“I think (USC) has cranked their defense up to another level,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “Having (guard) Ethan Anderson back is a big key to their defensive scheme and what they like to do. Evan Mobley is playing at a high level. We gave them some bunnies that he missed at USC. We don’t expect him to continue to miss. It’s going to be a collective effort. It’s going to be a fun one, but I have every bit of confidence that we can come out with a win.”
The Buffs put together one of their most impressive wins of the season on Dec. 31 at USC, shackling Trojans all-everything freshman Evan Mobley while holding USC to a .383 mark, which remains its lowest in Pac-12 play and the second-lowest of the season.
USC, though, has been the hottest team in the Pac-12 since, going 14-2 and strengthening its grasp on the top spot in the conference with a thorough dismantling of Oregon on Monday. The Trojans played that first matchup against CU without Anderson, who has averaged 5.9 points, 3.4 assists, and 3.4 rebounds in 15 games, mostly off the bench.
The Buffs played without 7-footer Dallas Walton, who likely will play a big role in trying to slow down Mobley. Over the course of the Pac-12 schedule, the 7-foot freshman has shown why he is a probable top-five pick in the 2021 NBA draft, entering Thursday’s game in Boulder leading the league in Pac-12 games in rebounding (8.5) and blocked shots (2.9), while ranking third in field goal percentage (.584) and sixth in scoring (16.4).
“I think they’ve grown up. They’ve grown up a lot,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “That (first matchup) was their first Pac-12 game and we jumped on them pretty good. We had great energy and effort that night, and I think they had some young guys. They had some guys that were new to our conference and new to the Pac-12 and maybe didn’t know quite what to expect. Maybe we punched them in the mouth a little bit and they didn’t quite react.
“Since then, the improvement that USC made has been dramatic. Evan Mobley just keeps getting better and better and better. They’ve got great personnel.”
No. 19 USC Trojans at CU Buffs men’s basketball
TIPOFF: Thursday, 7 p.m., CU Events Center.
BROADCAST: TV — ESPN2; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: USC 19-4, 13-3 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 17-7, 11-6.
COACHES: USC — Andy Enfield, 8th season (151-106, 192-134 overall). Colorado — Tad Boyle, 11th season (227-141, 283-207).
KEY PLAYERS: USC — F Evan Mobley, Fr., 16.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, .603 field goal percentage; G Tahj Eaddy, 14.3 ppg, 2.6 apg, .385 3-point percentage; F Isaiah Mobley, So., 9.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg; G Drew Peterson, 9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright IV, Sr., 14.5 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.3 rpg; F Jeriah Horne, G-Sr., 11.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, .438 3-point percentage; F Evan Battey, R-Jr., 10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Sr., 8.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg.
WHAT TO WATCH: The Buffs have posted two of their three biggest turnover totals in the past two games, recording 17 during last week’s loss at Oregon and 16 in a win at Oregon State. The Buffs are averaging 11.4 turnovers per game, the lowest mark in Boyle’s 11 seasons, and need a return to form in order to top the Trojans.
NOTES: Boyle on Wednesday did not rule out a return to action by freshman forward Jabari Walker. “He’s day to day. He’s been going at practice a little bit,” Boyle said. “We’ll see how he feels (Thursday). Hopefully we’ll have him, but nothing’s for certain.” Walker has missed the past six games due to a foot injury…USC enters the game ranked first in Pac-12 games in scoring defense (64.4), defensive field goal percentage (.398), and average rebounding margin (plus-7.63). The Trojans also rank second in league games in defensive 3-point percentage (.320)…Isaiah Mobley missed the Trojans’ win on Monday against Oregon due to a strained calf…The Buffs are 5-0 against the Trojans since the start of the 2018-19 season…By averaging five rebounds over the past five games, CU’s Dallas Walton has increased his season rebounding average from 2.3 per game to 3.1…The Buffs have gone 13-for-59 (.220) on 3-pointers over the past three games…CU’s regular season-ending homestand continues on Saturday against UCLA (8 p.m. MT, ESPN2).