The profiles are similar.
The Colorado men’s basketball team and especially Utah are among the top defensive clubs in the Pac-12 Conference. Both are solid on the glass but have struggled offensively. And both rotations still are adjusting to the recent loss of a key scorer.
Utah is fighting to secure NCAA Tournament credentials. The Buffs are fighting for their postseason lives. All of which could lead to a rugged, low-scoring collision when the teams meet for the first time this season on Saturday night in Salt Lake City.
“It’s kind of crazy, because they have like pretty much the same team as last year. But I think their mentality has just been way different,” CU point guard KJ Simpson said. “I think for us, we just can’t get caught up in that. As coach says, it’s going to be a principle game. And if we just stick to our principles on defense, do what we do best (like) rebound, get out in transition … everything will take care of itself.”
Utah finished 4-16 in the Pac-12 in its first season under coach Craig Smith a year ago and was picked 10th in this season’s conference preseason media poll. Yet Smith has orchestrated a swift turnaround, with Utah ranking as the league’s surprise team. The Utes opened conference play in December with a stunning upset against Arizona and have continued to get the job done through defense.
In Pac-12 games, Utah leads the conference in overall defensive field goal percentage (.396) as well as defensive 3-point percentage (.279). The Utes rank second in conference games behind UCLA in scoring defense (66.9) and boast one of the Pac-12’s top rim protectors in 7-foot center Branden Carlson, who ranks second in the league with 2.2 blocked shots per game.
That doesn’t bode well for a Buffs attack that has had more shots blocked than any other team in the league (5.3 per Pac-12 game). Still, CU has more than held its own defensively as well, ranking third in league games in defensive 3-point percentage (.301) while forcing the most turnovers per game (5.3).
On the flip side, the Utes haven’t lit the world on fire offensively, either. Whichever attack can take better advantage of the opportunities afforded by their defenses likely will make the difference.
“We’ve got to show great toughness and discipline on offense. Because Utah does not beat themselves,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “They’re rock solid. They’ve got tough kids. Really good one-on-one defenders, and they’re also good team defenders. And they have a shot blocker in Carlson. They’ve got all the ingredients it takes to be a good defensive team, and they are one. If not the best, one of the best in our league.”
Utah suffered a setback during its Jan. 28 loss at Oregon when Gabe Madsen exited with an injury. Last week Smith announced that Madsen, Utah’s second-leading scorer and a 37% 3-pointer shooter, will be sidelined at least a month. The Utes stumbled at home against Stanford last week in their first game without Madsen but salvaged a split by topping California.
The Buffs essentially have played the same two games without leading rebounder and third-leading scorer J’Vonne Hadley, who suffered a season-ending injury against Cal the same night Utah lost to Stanford.
“When you close games, players make plays,” Boyle said. “Sometimes it’s the opponents’ players. Sometimes it’s the Colorado players. That’s what has to happen whether you’re at home or on the road. But it’s even more important on the road because you don’t have the home crowd behind you. Sometimes the whistle doesn’t go your way. You have to overcome more things on the road than you do at home. That’s why the mental aspect, the ability to make plays down the stretch in key possessions is critical to win games.”
CU Buffs men’s basketball at Utah Utes
TIPOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. MT, Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.
TV/RADIO: TV — FOX Sports 1. Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: Colorado 14-11, 6-8 Pac-12 Conference; Utah 16-9, 9-5.
COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 13th season (268-166, 324-232 overall). Utah — Craig Smith, 2nd season (27-29, 108-102 overall).
KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Jr. (16.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, .526 FG%, .429 3%); G KJ Simpson, 6-2, So. (16.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 apg); G Nique Clifford, 6-6, Jr. (6.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg); F Luke O’Brien, 6-8, Jr. (4.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Utah — C Branden Carlson, 7-0, Sr. (16.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .376 3%); G Lazar Stefanovic, 6-7, So. (10.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .387 3%); G Marco Anthony, 6-6, Gr. (9.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg); G Rollie Worster, 6-4, Jr. (9.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.2 apg).
NOTES: The Buffs have won their past two games at Utah after losing in their previous eight visits to the Huntsman Center. … Given Colorado’s top-heavy offense led by da Silva and Simpson, any chance of victory might follow last year’s blueprint in a win at Utah, when Jabari Walker and Evan Battey combined to score 49 of CU’s 84 points. … Utah (62.1) and the Buffs (62.5) are ranked second and third, respectively, in scoring defense in league games. … The Buffs are 1-7 in true road games and Utah is 11-3 at home, although the Utes suffered a home loss against Stanford last week. … The Utes have shot less than 40% in three consecutive games. … Worster ranks third in the Pac-12 in assists. … The Buffs have struggled at the free throw line all season but have slowly shown signs of improvement, going 49-for-65 (.753) over the past four games. … CU will be on the road again next week with a two-game trip through Arizona that begins Thursday at Arizona State (6 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network).