Sunday, January 20, 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Free NCAAB Pick: Buffaloes ATS
Best Line Offered: BetOnline
Utah has regressed because it’s struggling defensively. Last year, they ranked 63rd in defensive efficiency. This year, they rank 278th. The main culprits are lack of depth and inexperience. They lost Lahat Thioune and Vante Hendrix to injury, which has generated attrition in their rotation. Also, they rank 243rd in experience, 210 spots lower than last year. Because they can’t rotate as many fresh bodies and don’t have as many players well-versed defensively, the Utes aren’t able to trap and otherwise pressure the opponent as coach Krystkowiak would like. This inability makes it harder to force turnovers and uncomfortable shots. They rank nearly 200 spots lower than last year in opposing field goal percentage and are one of the worst teams at forcing turnovers.
The fact that Utah won its last game 88-70 against Washington State can only create more value on the NCAAB oddsboard for Colorado. This result did not come from any improvement in Utah, but from Wazzou’s continued inability to play well offensively without its top player, Robert Franks. The Cougars looked lost on offense, committing sloppy turnovers, bricking tons of makeable shots, and so on. Against competent offenses, like the two Arizona teams that scored 80+ against them, the Utes struggle to guard the ball and to stop both the dish-and-drive and three-pointer.
Defense is also important for Utah’s offense. It thrives by getting out in transition and driving inside. In their last victory, they accrued 24 fast-break points and 48 points inside, after failing to come close to either figure in a 69-53 loss to Washington. When Arizona State blew out Colorado 83-61, Colorado shot abysmally and the Sun Devils accrued 29 defensive rebounds, pushed tempo, and thrived inside. Utah will likewise want to collect many defensive rebounds to gain massive efficiency in inside scoring. Points in transition will be crucial against Colorado because the Buffaloes enjoy a tough half-court defense. They rank fifth nationally in opposing rate of assists per field goal.
The Buffaloes can travel well with a defense that ranks 67th in efficiency. They guard the perimeter well as well as the opposing man. Two guards, McKinley Wright and Shane Gatling, rank in the top 330 in steal rate. Their top defender is in the interior, Tyler Bey. The power forward has quick feet and plays taller than his 6″7 height suggests. His active hands help him rank 423rd in steal rate and 95th in block rate. The Utes will need Colorado to take many bad shots on offense, so that they can run down the court before Colorado sets up its defense.
In order to prevent Utah from accruing too many defensive rebounds off bad shots, Colorado will need to be creative on offense. Its leader is point guard McKinley Wright. Wright is listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game and I expect that his absence would create a more favorable line for us. He ranks 34th in assist rate partly because he is so effective at distributing the ball and partly because Colorado has been so reliant on his creativity. He had been trying to play through his shoulder injury. He almost didn’t play at Arizona, a 56-64 loss, in which he scored 17 points, but turned it over six times.
Turnovers have been an issue for Wright. It’s easier for a point guard to accrue many assists when he’s willing to take more risks or to be more careless with the ball. Wright chose to come to Colorado because he wanted to be the main guy and this mentality hurts him because he tries to do too much. If Wright can play, he would benefit from facing a Utah defense that barely steals the ball. If not, Shane Gatling has stepped up in his absence. Gatling had been benched after turning it over three times on December 11 in New Mexico. But since then, he’s turned it over twice in one game and once in every other. Against Washington, after Wright left the game, he led Colorado on a big run, accruing six assists in the process, one fewer than Wright’s season-high. He ranks 313rd in turnover rate and his creativity and ball security would propel a Colorado offense that has efficient scorers like Bey inside and Lucas Siewert behind the arc.