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Solving UW zone the key to Pac-12 tourney advancement for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Nique Clifford and the rest of the Colorado Buffaloes take on Washington in the first round of the 2023 Pac-12 tournament. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Nique Clifford and the rest of the Colorado Buffaloes take on Washington in the first round of the 2023 Pac-12 tournament. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Tad Boyle often jokes he can’t remember things as well these days.

The man did turn 60 this winter, after all, and it would be understandable if, after coaching the Colorado men’s basketball program for 440 games, a few of those contests blurred together.

Still, asked if he had ever utilized a zone defense in 17 years as a Division I head coach as exclusively as the Buffaloes did during a Saturday victory against Utah, Boyle didn’t have to think long about the response.

“No,” said Boyle, a devout disciple of man-to-man defense. “My memory’s not very good. I forget a lot of things. But we decided to start in it just to see. They weren’t going to be expecting it. Our matchups weren’t great when we first started the game, personnel-wise. It was effective. We stayed with it.”

Usually it’s a clash of styles when the Buffaloes meet the dedicated zone defense of Washington. That may not be the case on Wednesday, when the ninth-seeded Buffs square off against the eight-seeded Huskies in the opening game of the Pac-12 Conference tournament at T-Mobile Arena.

CU’s chances of advancing and keeping its precarious NIT hopes alive might be less contingent on what form of defense the Buffs deploy than CU’s ability to execute offensively against the Huskies’ zone. UW won both regular season matchups against the Buffs, who committed 18 turnovers in a Dec. 4 loss in Seattle before going 3-for-19 on 3-pointers at home while losing to the Huskies on Jan. 19.

In the two games combined, CU shot just .222 (8-for-36) from long range.

“They like to gamble a lot and they get a lot of steals in there,” CU forward Tristan da Silva said. “They want you to settle for jump shots early in the possession, or just swing it back-and-forth and settle for a 3-pointer. But we’ve got to attack their zone. We’ve got to get the ball inside and then kick it out for open shots or get easy buckets at the rim.”

In a dramatically inconsistent season that has balanced extreme highs (a win against Tennessee in Nashville on Nov. 13) with embarrassing lows (like being one of the victims of the 3-28 California Golden Bears), Buffs fans might struggle with managing the odds in Las Vegas.

The Buffs enter the tournament shorthanded. Da Silva was solid against Utah, but still is recovering from a sprained ankle. CU has been without leading rebounder J’Vonne Hadley since Feb. 2, and starting point guard KJ Simpson will miss the conference tournament due to mono. Boyle on Monday confirmed that reserve guard Javon Ruffin will remain sidelined in Vegas due to a knee injury.

On the other hand, in 12 previous seasons under Boyle, the Buffs have lost the opening game of a conference tournament just once. And, in retrospect, that lone defeat ultimately didn’t matter, as CU’s loss against Washington State in the first round of the 2020 Pac-12 tourney was one of the final games completed before the start of the COVID pandemic canceled the remainder of the college basketball season.

“It’s something we talk about at the beginning of the year. College basketball has four seasons,” Boyle said. “You’ve got the (nonconference) games. You’ve got conference play, which is a 20-(game) marathon race. And then you’ve got the Pac-12 tournament. Which is a very, very shot season. You’re guaranteed three seasons. You’re not guaranteed a fourth.

“We’ve just tried to talk about that from the beginning of the season. And then when we get to this point, they’ve heard it. They understand it. They hopefully are going to make the most of it.”

(9) CU Buffs men’s basketball vs. (8) Washington Huskies

TIPOFF: Wednesday, 1 p.m. MT, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.

TV/RADIO: TV — Pac-12 Network. Radio — KOA 850 AM or 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Colorado 16-15, 8-12 Pac-12 Conference; Washington 16-15, 8-12.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 13th season (270-170, 326-236 overall); Washington — Mike Hopkins, 6th season (101-90, 105-95 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Jr. (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .507 FG%, .402 3%); F Luke O’Brien, 6-8, Jr. (5.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg); G Nique Clifford, 6-6, Jr. (6.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); G Julian Hammond III, 6-3, So. (6.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg). Washington — F Keion Brooks Jr., 6-7, Sr. (17.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg); G Keyon Menifield, 6-1, Fr. (10.0 ppg, 3.0 apg); C Braxton Meah, 7-1, Jr. (9.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, .711 FG%); G Cole Bajema, 6-7, Sr. (8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, .354 3%).

NOTES: Washington has won nine of the past 12 meetings against the Buffs, including both games this season and four of the past five. … This battle could be decided at the 3-point arc. In conference games, the Buffs rank 10th in 3-point percentage (.313) while UW ranks 11th (.312). The Buffs own the top defensive 3-point percentage in Pac-12 games (.302) and the Huskies rank fourth (.314). UW has enjoyed the advantage head-to-head, shooting .410 (16-for-39) in two regular season wins against the Buffs while CU shot .222 (8-for-36) from long range. … UW’s All-Pac-12 honorees included Brooks, who was named second team all-conference, as well as Meah (all-defensive team) and Menifield (all-freshman team). … Meah went 10-for-13 while averaging 13.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Huskies’ two wins against CU this season. … UW went 4-9 away from home this season, including a 2-0 mark in neutral-floor games. One of those wins was a November victory against current No. 16 St. Mary’s in Anaheim. … The winner will play top-seeded UCLA in the first quarterfinal game on Thursday (1 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network).