Colorado preview: A battle of mediocrity

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Both Cal and Colorado enter their matchup Thursday night struggling in conference play, with the Bears (5-13, 0-6) still looking for their first Pac-12 win of the season after being blown out by both Washington and Washington State on their Pacific Northwest road trip.

The Buffaloes (10-7, 1-4) are looking to regain their footing since losing to both Washington and Utah in their latest two games after easily defeating Washington State on Jan. 10.

Colorado snapshot

The Buffs have had a difficult season due in part to the rash of injuries the squad has suffered during the 2018-19 campaign. Coach Tad Boyle has been forced to reshuffle his rotations throughout the year, starting with the preseason ACL tear of 7-footer Dallas Walton and, more recently, the shoulder injury to starting point guard McKinley Wright IV, the team’s leader in scoring and assists.

These injuries, compounded by the loss of guard Deleon Brown to academic ineligibility and the absence of Namon Wright for three games because of a foot injury before he returned this past Sunday against Utah, have made life especially difficult in Boulder.

Coach Boyle has been forced to play inexperienced players in order to fill in the gaps, and so far, he’s had varying levels of success.

Junior transfer Shane Gatling has been handed the keys to the offense since the injury to Wright and performed reasonably well, even scoring 21 points in a loss to Utah. 6’8” redshirt freshmen Evan Battey has averaged about 20 minutes a game and been effective for the Buffs, though his production has dipped as of late.

Junior forward Lucas Siewert averages about 12 points a game as a floor spacer for Colorado, as the 6’10” junior shoots about 47 percent from beyond the arc on about three attempts per game.

Sophomore guard/forward Tyler Bey is averaging nearly a double-double in points and rebounds for Colorado with an effective field percentage of 54 percent while also proving to be one of Colorado’s best defensive players.

D’Shawn Schwartz has been a valuable two-way player for the Buffs as well. He’s come on as of late, scoring 16, 22 and 11 points in his last three games. He could be a difficult case to deal with for Cal’s wings.

What Cal needs to do to win

Play defense.

It’s pretty simple, but if the Bears are going to have any hope of ending their seven-game losing streak, they need to improve on the defensive side of the ball, where they’ve been not only one of the worst defensive units in the conference, but also the country.

According to KenPom, the analytics-focused college hoops website, the Bears rank 335th in the country for adjusted defensive efficiency, while College Basketball Reference has the Bears ranked 352nd out of 353 teams in defensive rating.

Yikes.

The good news is that Colorado doesn’t have the typical bruising big man who has feasted on Cal this season (see Nick Rakocevic and Myles Carter for reference) but instead rely on creative wings and strong guard play to generate offense for the Buffs.

Unfortunately, the Bears haven’t fared much better against strong wings or guards either (see the entire season for reference).

Perhaps head coach Wyking Jones will continue to tinker with the lineup in order to see if any combination can spark the Bears’ defensive instincts. I would like Jones to insert the two-big-freshmen frontcourt of Andre Kelly and Connor Vanover for its scoring and size, but given that Vanover only played three minutes in the loss to Washington, I wouldn’t count on it.

Best-case scenario

Colorado is unable to hit shots from the perimeter while Vanover, Kelly, Roman Davis and Justice Sueing protect the rim. Backcourt players Paris Austin and Darius McNeill force a few turnovers that lead to easy transition opportunities.

Kelly has a double-double, while Matt Bradley erupts for four 3-pointers off the bench, energizing the crowd and demoralizing Colorado. All starters score in double figures, while Gatling and Schwartz are held well below their season averages.

We outrebound Colorado and actually look functional on defense.

Worst-case scenario

Schwartz, Gatling and Siewert all have career-high scoring nights against the Bears. Colorado wins the turnover, rebounding and free-throw battles.

Prediction

Colorado wins by 11.

Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].