Another key opportunity at hand for CU Buffs men’s basketball against No. 13 Tennessee

Top-15 win would provide huge boost to eventual NCAA tourney credentials

University of Colorado Boulder's Jabari Walker ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado Boulder’s Jabari Walker (No. 12) grabs a rebound over University of Maine’s Peter Filipovity (No. 44) at CU Events Center in Boulder on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.
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The analogy was appropriate, given that finals are just around the corner.

In recent weeks, particularly on defense, Colorado head coach Tad Boyle believes the Buffaloes have been fed all the right answers. And yet they still keep botching the exams.

Defense, of course, has been one of the pillars of the program Boyle has built at CU. But that defense has been sorely lacking in recent weeks, even as CU managed to split its first two Pac-12 Conference games. The second of those league games occurred on Wednesday night in a loss at No. 5 UCLA, and rediscovering their defensive spark won’t get any easier for the Buffs on Saturday as they welcome No. 13 Tennessee to the CU Events Center.

“These guys are getting ready for finals, and one of the analogies is that we’re giving you the answers to the test before you take the test,” Boyle said. “You can choose to study them, and commit to them, and get it done. Or you can choose not to. If you choose not to, you’re going to fail the test. We failed the test in Los Angeles.

“We knew what was coming. It was nothing that we didn’t expect. We just weren’t good enough.”

Through two league games, the Buffs’ defensive numbers have not resembled the program’s norm. Those first two Pac-12 foes, the Bruins and Stanford, combined for a .482 mark against the Buffs. That includes a 3-pont percentage of .425 (17-for-40).

The Buffs got a taste of Tennessee last year, dropping a nine-point decision against a 12th-ranked Volunteers squad in a series arranged hastily when both teams suffered early-season game cancellations due to COVID-19. Tennessee sports a mixture of holdovers from that squad, which eventually suffered a first-round defeat in the NCAA Tournament against Oregon State, and newcomers that have made an immediate impact. Four Tennessee players are averaging at least 10 points, and that group doesn’t include sturdy sixth-year senior John Fulkerson.

“Forty-four percent of their scoring is new guys. So it’s a good mix of new versus vets,” Boyle said. “They’ve got Fulkerson back, who I think is a really, really good player. Victor Bailey is back, he’s a good, solid player. Tennessee, they’re well-coached. This is a solid program. Rick Barnes has been around a long time. They’re not going to beat themselves, so it’s a game much like the last two we’ve had. They’re one team that is not afraid to come in this building and run with us.”

The showdown represents a huge opportunity for the Buffs to shape the direction of their season. NCAA Tournament berths aren’t typically won or lost in December, but a victory against the Volunteers would put CU ahead of the early bubble curve with a home date still pending against Kansas ahead of the resumption of Pac-12 play.

“I think obviously we’re going to go into this game thinking we have to win. That we should win,” CU point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy said. “We’ve just got to be more consistent with our effort. Our biggest key is being consistent. We play in streaks right now, and we’ve just got to sustain it for 40 minutes. Our effort should be the same for all 40 minutes.”

No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers at CU Buffs men’s basketball

TIPOFF: Saturday, noon, CU Events Center

BROADCAST: TV—Fox Sports 1; Radio — 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Tennessee 5-1; Colorado 6-2.

COACHES: Tennessee — Rick Barnes, 7th season (128-74, 732-388 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 12th season (239-145, 295-211 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Tennessee — G Santiago Vescovi, Jr., 15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.2 apg; G Kennedy Chandler, Fr., 14.3 ppg, 5.2 apg; F Olivier Nkamhoua, Jr., 10.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg; F John Fulkerson, Sr., 8.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg. Colorado — F Jabari Walker, So., 14.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-Sr., 13.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg; G Keeshawn Barthelemy, R-So., 13.0 ppg, 2.6 apg.

NOTES: This is Tennessee’s first visit to Boulder in almost exactly 40 years, dating back to a 64-63 CU victory on Dec. 8, 1981…Tennessee’s John Fulkerson is a super senior who actually is in his sixth season with the Volunteers. He redshirted after playing just 10 games as a true freshman in 2016-17, and is utilizing the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA for last year’s COVID season…The Buffs shot just .333 during last year’s loss at Tennessee. Jeriah Horne led CU in that game with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Santiago Vescovi and Fulkerson led the Vols with 11 points apiece…CU has won its past six home games against ranked foes…The Buffs’ Jabari Walker has posted four consecutive double-doubles. He is the first CU player to record four double-doubles in a row since Tyler Bey late in the 2018-19 season…Buffs reserve Nique Clifford knocked down two 3-pointers in a game for the first time in his career during Wednesday’s loss at No. 5 UCLA…The three-game series is set to conclude next year in a neutral-floor game in Nashville that won’t be very neutral for CU…This is the first of five consecutive home games for the Buffs before they resume Pac-12 play.