The wait is over. It’s tournament time!
After a regular season that gave Colorado fans the highest of highs (Booker’s game winner) and the lowest of lows (Dinwiddie in Tacoma), the Buffaloes tip off in the Pac-12 Tournament against the Trojans of USC tomorrow afternoon.
What: Pac-12 Tournament 1st Round- #5 Colorado (20-11, 10-8) vs. #12 USC (11-20, 2-16)
When: Wednesday, March 12, 3:30 MT
Where: MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: 850 KOA
Once ranked as high as #15 in the nation this season, a 5-seed in the Pac-12 Tournament isn’t what Buff fans dreamed of back in January, before star guard Spencer Dinwiddie blew out his knee.
But Colorado has been resilient, establishing a new identity led by a “Big 3″ featuring junior Askia Booker and sophomores Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson. While CU is no longer a team destined for the sweet sixteen, the Buffs do appear to be a lock to make the NCAA tournament, but a loss to struggling USC could put the Buffaloes right back on the bubble.
As for the Trojans, Andy Enfield’s first season in LA has pretty much been a disaster. USC limped to a 2-16 final record in Pac-12 play, while losing by double digits 13 times. A bright spot for USC has been junior guard Byron Wesley, who leads the team with 17.6 PPG.
Wesley struggled in the first meeting between the two teams, shooting 3/14 for just 9 points in an 83-62 beatdown, but played better in the second contest, scoring 21 points in a closer game which CU eventually won 83-74. Wesley will have to have a big night if USC hopes to compete.
Keys to the Game
Colorado is a more talented team than USC. They are better coached and they have more to play for. The only way the Buffaloes lose to the Trojans is if they beat themselves. Therefore, the three keys to the game are Colorado’s “Big 3.”
The Big Ambidextrous
Recently named First Team All-Pac-12, Scott needs to be effective down low against the Trojans. The sophomore big-man had a combined 37 points and 15 rebounds against USC in the first two meetings between schools this year. Scott can score with either hand around the basket, can step back and make a 15-footer effectively, and is very good from the free throw line (82%). He’s become a nightmare to defend and Colorado’s best player.
Forward Xavier Johnson, like the Buffaloes themselves, has had an up-and-down season. Johnson, who has been battling knee pain throughout the campaign, shows flashes that he can be a star in this league. The sophomore wing scored 20+ points five times this season, all after Dinwiddie’s injury.
But there are times where Johnson disappears as well. Four times this season Big X scored five points or fewer. And what’s worrisome to Buff fans is that it happened in four of the biggest games of the year. While Colorado survived Johnson’s scoreless night at Colorado State, his three points against Oklahoma State, two at UCLA, and five against Arizona all came in CU losses.
Johnson is one of the main reasons the Buffs have been able to stay competitive since the loss of Dinwiddie, and has played well late in the season averaging 16.1 PPG during the final nine regular season contests. Colorado needs XJ to make sure he brings his game with him to Vegas if it wants any shot at a conference title.
The X-factor for Colorado over the past two seasons has always been Askia Booker. The junior shooting guard gives the Buffaloes speed and swagger, and when he plays smart and in control Booker is one of the premier players in the league.
But often-times Booker’s shots don’t fall. And while Colorado needs his fearlessness, when Ski’s shots aren’t going in it doesn’t stop him from taking them. Booker hasn’t exactly been shooting lights out as of late, going 13/42 from the field in CU’s final five games.
The only way I can see Colorado not making the NCAA tournament would be to lose this game. Coach Tad Boyle will have CU fired up and ready to go, and Colorado will dominate USC and advance to the quarterfinals.
Final Score: Colorado 83 – USC 59
– In its third season in the Pac-12, Colorado is 5-1 in Pac-12 Tournament play (the Buffs won the whole ball of wax in 2012)
– It will be interesting to see if freshman guard TreShaun Fletcher plays for the Buffs. Fletcher, seen by some as Colorado’s best freshman, has not played since a knee injury on January 12th but has dressed the last two games.
– This will be Colorado’s second game of the season at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Then #7 Oklahoma State defeated the Buffs 78-73 in December.