Fresh off an incredible run down in Orlando culminating in UConn's first conference tournament championship since 2011, the Huskies now focus their attention on their bread and butter, the NCAA Tournament.
While all eyes are naturally drawn to the Round of 32, where a potential date with the No. 1 overall seed Kansas awaits and would be confirmed with a single victory (apologies, Austin Peay), UConn's season will abruptly end should it take Colorado too lightly on Thursday (1:30 p.m. tip, TNT).
Colorado (22-11, 10-8 Pac-12), which has become somewhat of a Big Dance staple under coach Tad Boyle, finds itself as an 8-seed for the second time in three seasons. (Colorado lost to No. 9 Pitt, 77-48, in 2014.)
The Buffaloes enter the NCAA Tournament having lost 6 of their past 11 games, and their resume leaves much to be desired—particularly away from home—but they also claim the country's 27th-best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and surround two-time All-Pac 12 First Team center Josh Scott (16.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG) with many capable outside shooters (38.9% from deep- 16th in America).
Colorado also owns a 55.9% Rebounding Rate, tied with Baylor and Mercer for 9th-best nationally. The Buffaloes are long, extremely physical and built to win ugly at times- a style not always associated with the Pac-12.
That is a style, however, that UConn is no stranger to. The three rock fights with Cincinnati (across 160 combined minutes) could really come in handy on Thursday.
The Numbers Game
UConn has struggled occasionally this season with opposing big guys, and Josh Scott is as good as it gets on the interior at the college level. Although admittedly arbitrary, Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis, Maryland's Diamond Stone, Georgetown's Bradley Hayes, and Temple's Jaylen Bond (in three games) have averaged an impressive Offensive Rating of 121 against UConn this season (Individual Offensive Rating measures offensive efficiency and is quantified by points produced every 100 possessions). To put that into perspective, Jakob Poetl's Offensive Rating is 125.2.
Scott, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound center who also cracked the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team, has had two of his best games recently against Arizona's stacked frontline (117 Offensive Rating, 21.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG in those contests). Scott is very polished on the low block, mixes in a face-up game from time-to-time (though he seems to considerably prefer banging inside), and draws fouls frequently (131-175 FT this year). UConn could obviously overcome Scott's hypothetical 13th double-double on the season and still come out with a win, but too many whistles on Amida Brimah and Shonn Miller would be all but a death sentence.
Now that we're on the topic of Brimah and Miller, it's only right to commend the Huskies' frontcourt combination on their offensive contributions. Miller (12.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 58.7 FG%), UConn's leading scorer and most consistent player this season, has come up big in a similarly arbitrary sample of games, dropping 16.3 points and an average Offensive Rating of 124 in the Gonzaga, Maryland, Georgetown, and most recent Temple meetings- in two of those, he was even awarded Game MVP by KenPom.
That should come as no surprise for the Cornell transfer, whose 127.6 Offensive Rating on the year is 5th-best in America for players used on at least 20% of their team's possessions. Between Miller's patience and efficiency in a back-to-the-basket setting, his near-automatic face-up game, and that devious freaky athleticism he displays, I'm ready to say that the NBA is in Shonn Miller's future.
As for the 7-foot, 232-pound Brimah, he enters the NCAA Tournament with some serious momentum. In a three-game span leading up to the AAC Tournament final, Brimah averaged 8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, about a million shot alterations, and an Offensive Rating of 159 (!). Quite honestly, one could argue that even more than Daniel Hamilton's confidence, Rodney Purvis' jumper, and Jalen Adams' mindset, UConn's day-to-day success is most contingent on Brimah staying on the court and providing a constant, unrivaled presence on both ends of the floor.
- It's mostly irrelevant now, but I'm a bit skeptical as to how Colorado got an 8-seed in the first place. The Buffaloes have an RPI of 35 and a strength of schedule of 39 featuring wins over Oregon, Cal, Arizona, and Oregon State- but the common theme in those victories is that all took place at home. Away from Coors Events Center, Colorado is 6-10, with its best win at a road/neutral venue coming at Stanford (ranked 87 in the RPI). You don't have to be Joe Lunardi to know that's not very good.
- Colorado is able to withstand its dreadful two-point field goal percentage (43.7%, 336th out of 351 D-1 teams) by taking more two's than its opponent thanks to the nation's 33rd-highest Offensive Rebounding Rate. CU's primary catalyst in that department is Wesley Gordon (7.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 blocks per game), who might just be the best offensive rebounder in the Pac-12.
- Colorado sophomores George King (13.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG) and Dominique Collier (7.5 PPG, 2.7 APG) are two of just 30 players in America this season to have made at least 39 three-pointers this year while shooting over 45.0% from behind the arc. King, who spent last year redshirting in order to work on his game, was named the Pac-12's Most Improved Player.
1) What are Colorado's strengths and weaknesses?
Their weaknesses are shooting and forcing turnovers. They missed 50 shots in the conference tourney game against Arizona, but when you pull down 26 offensive rebounds, you can overcome that with relative ease I guess. The Wildcats turned the ball over against everyone this year, but Colorado is 307th in the country in turnovers forced, and with the exception of the second half of the second game, Arizona didn't turn the ball over very much against them.