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With offense struggling, CU Buffs men’s basketball leaning heavily on D

Colorado's Julian Hammond III puts up a shot against California Thursday night in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado’s Julian Hammond III puts up a shot against California Thursday night in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Tad Boyle admits it’s tougher to score in February when there are no more surprises among conference foes.

That’s not the most encouraging sign for a Colorado men’s basketball team that already has struggled to score in Pac-12 Conference play.

The Buffaloes were able to stem the downward spiral of five losses in six games by rallying past California in the second half of a 59-46 home win on Thursday night. CU will learn soon enough if it was a temporary remedy or the start of a cure for the stretch run when Stanford visits on Sunday (5 p.m., FS1).

On several occasions during the recent slide, particularly in road losses against USC, UCLA and Oregon State, the Buffs for the most part played strong enough defense to win, only to watch their struggling offense fall short.

In each of CU’s past four wins, all at home, the Buffs have held their opponent to 55 points or less. In three of those wins — Oregon, Oregon State and Cal — the foe failed to top 46. It’s the sort of defense Boyle often has strived for during his 13 seasons at CU, but the lack of scoring punch beyond the Buffs’ top guns is making Colorado’s chances for success entirely dependent on the defense.

“I think (Cal) scored 80 the first game or something like that, and the first half (on Thursday) we only shot 25% and we were only down by three,” CU forward Luke O’Brien said. “Which is a huge credit to our defense. Coach talked about that, and we were going to get our shots in the second half and they were going to fall. We just kept battling on defense and that’s the reason we were able to pull it out.”

The Buffs’ defensive surge has pushed them into second in conference games in scoring defense (62.5), fourth in defensive 3-point percentage (.309) and fifth in total defensive field goal percentage (.421). Four of CU’s final seven regular season games are against teams ranked in the top five in league games in scoring, including Stanford (68.6 in conference games, which ranks fifth).

While competitive defensively, the Buffs’ struggles offensively could deepen if forward J’Vonne Hadley misses extended time. Hadley, CU’s top rebounder and third-leading scorer, was injured early against Cal and didn’t return. Late Friday afternoon Hadley indicated the injury to his right hand could be season-ending, posting via social media “God Got Me. Till Next Year 13. About to be the best chapter yet.”

The Buffs have struggled to score beyond their top two scorers, Tristan da Silva and KJ Simpson.

Javon Ruffin returned from a four-game injury absence against Cal, but it might take time for him to regain the form that produced two of his four double-digit scoring games just before getting sidelined. O’Brien contributed nine valuable points off the bench against Cal, but he scored just five points total in the previous three games. Julian Hammond III scored a career-high 18 points against Washington on Jan. 19, but in his other six most recent games he has scored a combined 16 points. Nique Clifford was held scoreless against Cal for his third shutout in the past seven games. Yet in perhaps a microcosm for the Buffs in general this season, Clifford also produced one of the best games of his career in that span, with a career-high 17 points, three rebounds, three steals and only one turnover in 28 minutes at Oregon.

Hadley entered the Cal game averaging 8.3 points and 6.1 rebounds. The junior college transfer got off to a fast start, scoring in double figures in five of his first nine games despite missing two games due to a shoulder injury, but he hit double figures just twice in 12 games going into Thursday’s win against Cal.

“We’ve just got to play smarter,” Boyle said. “In February in league play, everybody knows what you’re doing. We know what Cal’s doing. We’re going to know what Stanford’s doing on Sunday. Stanford’s going to know what we’re doing. You’re scouted. Your players are scouted. It gets more and more difficult to score in February in league play because there’s so much data out there.”