Washington Huskies (12-5, 4-1) vs. Colorado Buffaloes (14-4, 3-2) Wednesday January 20th, 7:00pm, Pac-12 Networks.
In a crowded Pac-12 field, Tad Boyle's Buffaloes are receiving very little attention for what has been a quietly successful season. The Buffs finished the non-conference schedule 11-2, with the two losses bookending a thirteen game slate. Losing 68-62 on a neutral court to a ranked Iowa State team is hardly something to be embarrassed about. Falling 66-70 to undefeated, ranked SMU on yet another neutral court is also understandable.
Yet, due to the fact that Iowa State and SMU represented the two best opponents on the schedule, the Buffs failed to record a signature non-conference win.
The Pac-12 slate got off to a rough start in Berkeley when the Golden Bears dispatched Colorado 65-79.
After rallying to beat Stanford 56-55 two days later, Boyle's squad fell just two points short in the home-opener against Utah. Sporting a precarious 1-2 conference record, the Buffs hosted the Oregon schools and sent them both back home winless.
So now the Buffaloes stand 14-4 (3-2), still very much in the running for an at-large bid if they can continue to win in the conference. No doubt Coach Boyle is preaching the importance of the Washington-WSU road trip to his players, knowing both how deceptively tough that Northwest excursion can be and how badly his team would prefer 5-2 over 3-4.
Projected Starters: G Dominique Collier (So., 6-2, 170), G Josh Fortune (Jr., 6-5, 205), G George King (So., 6-6, 220), F Wesley Gordon (Jr., 6-9, 240), F Josh Scott (Sr., 6-10, 245).
Key Bench Players: F Tre'Shaun Fletcher (Jr., 6-7, 210), G Xavier Talton (Sr., 6-2, 185), G Thomas Akyazili (Fr., 6-2, 180), F Tory Miller (So., 6-9, 255).
Josh Scott is a major contributor for a fourth straight season, and he has improved every single year. Now a senior, he is a double-double machine that serves as the team's leading scorer and rebounder in the same vein as Josh Hawkinson for the Cougars.
He picks up his average of 17.8 points on 57% shooting from the field, including 77% shooting from the free throw line. His season line is 9.8 rebonds, though he has surpassed that total in his last four contests.
Scott is a respectable passer, dishing 1.8 assists to only 1.3 turnovers, which is especially impressive considering his high usage rate. The senior forward is also a solid defender who is himself slightly bigger than Washington's biggest player, Noah Dickerson. He is second on the team to Wesley Gordon in shot blocking, averaging 1.8 blocks.
The aforementioned Gordon is a smooth offensive machine like his front court partner. Instead, Gordon blocks shots (2.3 per game) and grabs boards (7.3, 2nd to Scott) as Colorado's resident defensive grinder.
The man principally charged with running the offense has been Dominique Collier. A marginal threat to score in the paint, Collier has nevertheless shown improvement as an efficient, low-volume three-point shooter. He has managed a team high 3.3 assists average while keeping the turnovers down (1.8).
Josh Fortune has served as a second ball-handler and an important scoring asset. Despite averaging nearly as many assists as Collier (2.7 to 3.3), Fortune leads the team in turnovers (2.4).
His greatest asset has been his three-point shooting. Fortune average just over double-digit points (10.4) largely by attempting 4.4 threes per game and hitting 42% of them. Like Collier he rarely scores in the paint, as free throws and three-pointers account for over two-thirds of his scoring production.
Only one player shoots threes more frequently and more efficiently than Fortune: fellow starter George King. King averages 13.8 points on 47% shooting. Roughly half of his attempts come from beyond the arc, and he converts an elite 44% from deep.
As for the bench, Fletcher is often the sixth man. He hails from Tacoma and plays a bit of a G/F hybrid role at 6-7. He is a hustle player that will play heavy minutes if Colorado falls into foul trouble. It's worth mentioning that though he has only hit 30% of his attempts, he is willing to attempt plenty of threes. He is fresh off of a big 14-point showing in the win over Oregon.
Xavier Talton and Thomas Akyazili are Colorado's backup guards, and both seem most adept at running the offense and distributing over any obvious scoring role. Akyazili is intriguing in that he is a true freshman who attended high school in Belgium.
Miller provides Coach Boyle with a big body off the bench to board and play defense. He scored 12 points against Oregon in only 16 minutes.
Colorado is well-constructed to challenge the Huskies. While not a massive team, the Buffs boast the bigger front line with Scott and Gordon, and Miller off the bench. I expect Scott to give the Huskies fits inside. He is skilled and patient and is very comfortable earning and shooting free throws, and that's a recipe for continued foul trouble for players like Dickerson and Chriss.
Complementing Scott's inside scoring is the presence of two long-range marksmen in Fortune and King. Both players have hit over 40% of their shots from beyond the arc. It's not hard to imagine one of these two left open on the perimeter as the defense overreacts to Scott getting the ball in the post, with disastrous results.
The biggest thing for Washington is simply playing this game at home. Colorado has only lost once at home this season, to Utah by a margin of two points. Meanwhile, the Buffs have only played four true road games. They dispatched relatively weak Auburn and Colorado State teams, lost badly at Cal, and barely held on at Stanford.
There is every reason to believe that Colorado will be a formidable opponent tonight, but it's undoubtedly preferable to a trip to Boulder. Boyle's teams have seemed to maintain a more drastic home-away split than many other Pac-12 teams over the past few years.
Specifically, I think to win comfortably the Huskies need to keep one of these two things from happening: 1.) Scott has his way in the paint, records double-double 2.) Fortune and King are left open for open threes, which they convert at their season rates.
I'm not that worried about the Huskies scoring points. I am worried about limiting Scott without fouling out Chriss/Dickerson/Dime, and I'm worried about a team emphasis on controlling inside scoring resulting in a deluge of deep shots. Let both these dominoes fall and I expect the Huskies will have their work cut out for them.
That being said, Romar's team has also shown a tendency to scrape out close wins even when the defensive game plan goes all to hell. It hasn't been part of the plan for Washington to finish games with its top three bigs in foul trouble, but it has been a regular occurrence in games the Huskies ultimately win.
I'm not sure if it's sustainable, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt tonight considering this game is at home and the opponent is not Arizona.
Prediction: Washington 89, Colorado 85