Scouting Report: Colorado

Scouting Report: Colorado

Sunday evening, the Air Force Academy men's basketball team will encounter its toughest challenge of the young season. The kind of test that awaits in the Mountain West season will be modeled and previewed by the state of Colorado's most ascendant college basketball squad.


The preliminaries are mostly over. Now begins the time to do some heavy lifting… or at least, some heavy learning.

Air Force has polished off five markedly inferior foes to start the new season. Yes, winning those games with a certain degree of comfort should be seen as a positive development, but collegiate sports are chock-full of instances in which teams load up on lower-tier schools – within or outside Division I-A competition – only to find that when they take on the big boys, they're not equipped to conquer the opposition. This weekend in Boulder, Air Force will begin to truly know what it can and can't do on the court. This realization is laced with a degree of fear, but it should ultimately be an exciting and hopeful time for Dave Pilipovich, a man who enjoys ownership of this program and knows that he'll be able to shape the Falcons' long-term response to this coming week.

The Colorado game isn't the only big game on the near horizon for Air Force. After another relatively manageable contest against Jackson State on Nov. 28, the Falcons will play one of the toughest mid-majors in America, the Wichita State Shockers, as part of the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge. The Colorado-Wichita State double will do much to influence Air Force's RPI rating and the Falcons' non-conference profile. Following the Wichita State game, Air Force will play only three more times in 2012, one of them being against Florida on Dec. 29.

You can see that although there's still one full workweek left in November, the urgent portion of Air Force's schedule has already arrived. On the morning of Dec. 3, the Falcons know that they'll have only one more chance to make a major splash in non-conference competition. A complete break from basketball over a two-week stretch (Dec. 8-22) will not give this team the ability to play its way into a regular rhythm. The Falcons obviously hope that their five tune-ups will enable them to engage Colorado on even terms, but it's far more likely that Air Force will need the Buffaloes to define what is – and isn't – possible for this team when Wichita State and Florida come calling.

Want to learn what Pilipovich And Pupils are made of? That's fine – they're about to learn what they're capable of against upper-tier competition. In many ways, the Pilipovich story will finally deepen and acquire fuller, richer textures at the Coors Events Center on the University of Colorado campus.

COLORADO AT-A-GLANCE

Tad Boyle, the head coach of the Buffaloes, is a household name in the state of Colorado. A star high school player at Greeley Central, Boyle led the Wildcats to the 1981 state championship, parlaying that title run into a scholarship at Kansas. Boyle became a Jayhawk when Ted Owens was the coach at Kansas, but when Boyle became an upperclassman, Larry Brown became his new head coach in Lawrence. Boyle had the chance to learn from one of the best coaches in basketball, gaining the insights that would lead to a coaching career.

Boyle worked his way up the ladder and took over the Colorado job in 2010. At that point in time, the Buffaloes were adrift in the Big 12 Conference and in need of a fresh vision. Boyle promptly gave his new players the kind of guidance they were looking for. Colorado compiled what most basketball experts felt was an NCAA tournament-worthy resume, beating Kansas State for the third time in the 2010-2011 season in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament (the 5 versus 4 quarterfinal, not the 7 versus 2 quarterfinal). Colorado had seemingly won the bubble games it needed to win to put itself on the 11 or 12 line as one of the final at-large teams in the field. However, the selection committee snubbed Boyle's boys. A solid run to the NIT semifinals did not – and could not – wipe away the pain of a Selection Sunday without a Dance card.

Last season, Colorado limped to a sixth-place finish in a very weak Pac-12 Conference, a league that arguably did not deserve a single at-large team in the field of 68. California became the league's only at-large team, but it was shipped to a First Four play-in game, an acknowledgment that its tournament ticket was not automatically good for the round of 64 (formerly known as the first round). Colorado knew that it needed to win four games in four nights at the Pac-12 Tournament to make the Big Dance. The odds were long, and after an ugly win over 11th-seeded Utah in the first round, it seemed that Colorado's time in Los Angeles was going to be very short.

Yet, that's when the Buffaloes found themselves. Relying on their active defense and relentless rebounding, the Buffs locked down Oregon, California and Arizona en route to an automatic bid in the NCAAs. Colorado did not allow more than 62 points in those three games. Over the course of the four-day Pac-12 Tournament, CU conceded an average of only 53.25 points per game. One point worth emphasizing is that in the process of beating Oregon, Cal and Arizona, Colorado defeated three foes who received first-round byes in that Pac-12 tourney. Colorado was smothering opponents who had fresher legs, proving just how much the Buffs maxed out last March.

In case anyone thought that Pac-12 run was an aberration, Boyle's boys Buffaloed highly-regarded UNLV in the NCAA tournament's round of 64, decisively outplaying the Running Rebels and thereby announcing themselves as a team to be taken seriously in the Western United States. Colorado's run in March Madness ended against Baylor, but a round of 32 appearance plus the Pac-12's only NCAA win made the 2011-2012 season far more successful than Boyle ever could have imagined. In the 2010-2011 campaign, Boyle was able to rely on Alec Burks, a lethal shooter-scorer who has a bright future ahead of him in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. Last season, Colorado didn't have anyone who could score or self-create the way Burks did, which only magnified the immensity of the Buffs' achievements.

In this autumn of 2012, Colorado has not flinched or let down its guard. The Buffaloes – in a sharp departure from their football program – are becoming even better in the realm of roundball.

The NCAA tournament loss to Baylor has already been avenged, giving this team an enormous amount of positive psychological and emotional reinforcement for the road ahead. The Buffs bested the Bears in the semifinals of the Charleston Classic, and they did so – once again – with defense. Colorado won, 60-58. What was supremely impressive about this victory is that the Buffs pulled it off despite hitting only 4 of 18 free throws. Time and again, Colorado masked one of basketball's cardinal sins with one of its crowning virtues: untiring defensive effort. The Buffs have built their basketball brand on defensive energy, and it was enough to propel CU to the Charleston Classic championship, won this past Sunday against Murray State. Colorado has limited three of its four opponents this season to fewer than 60 points. Air Force must know that it's in for a street fight in Boulder… against an opponent that is completely free of self-doubt at the moment.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Andre Roberson –
Junior, 6-7, 210 2012-13 STATISTICS: 9 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game, 2 assists per game. 2011-2012 NOTE: Averaged 11.1 rebounds per game last season.

Roberson is Colorado's best athlete. Moreover, he has the work ethic which enables his talents to spill out in full flower on the court. "Aggression" is Roberson's middle name. Having played as a guard last season, Roberson is now considered a forward, but that label means very little. This force of nature plays the same way now as he did last season. You will note that Roberson is a consistent double-figure rebounder. He knows how to find his way to the ball and use his body to seal off opponents. Doing any sort of damage against Roberson when Air Force has the ball will rate as an achievement for the Falcons. Containing him on the glass is a first priority for the academy on Sunday evening.

Forward – Josh Scott – Freshman, 6-10, 215; 2012-13: 12.2 ppg, 5 rpg. 2011-2012 NOTE: No stats

Scott has immediately made a considerable impact on this team. He is not only starting as a freshman, but instructively, he's justifying Boyle's decision to start him. Scott offers CU just enough size on a roster that primarily consists of guards and tweener forwards. As good as he's been, though, Scott still represents the only first-year member of CU's starting five. As such, he's the player the Falcons and Taylor Broekhuis have to attack on Sunday, especially when Air Force has the ball.

Guard – Sabatino Chen – Senior, 6-4, 190; 2012-13: 5.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg. 2011-2012 NOTE: Averaged 10 minutes per game, meaning that his workload is substantially larger as a starter this season.

The important point to make with Chen is that his numbers do not reflect the full measure of his value to the Buffaloes. Chen is enabling Colorado to remain a superb defensive team – that's his foremost contribution to the roster. His presence is felt at the defensive end of the floor, which makes him different from Scott, a player who provides scoring punch but still has a lot to learn about how to defend the low post. Air Force's halfcourt offense needs to work away from Chen. It needs to focus on exploiting Scott. On a larger level, it's important for any basketball team to force an opponent's offensive threats to work especially hard at the defensive end. You don't challenge a defensive stopper; you try to make him as irrelevant as humanly possible.

Guard – Spencer Dinwiddie – Sophomore, 6-5, 190; 2012-13: 12.5 ppg, 5 rpg. 2011-2012 NOTE: Averaged 10 points per game and hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts.

If Roberson is the best athlete on the Buffaloes and Askia Booker (see below) is the team's best scorer, Dinwiddie is probably Colorado's most complete player. He doesn't rebound as well as Roberson, but he helps out a lot on the glass from his position on the perimeter. He doesn't score as well as Booker, but he's a capable second or third scoring option who possesses a slightly better shooting touch from long distance. His length at 6-5 enables him to be a very effective perimeter defender and therefore a tough matchup for CU's opponents. Air Force will have its hands full against Dinwiddie, especially when the Falcons try to run some sets.

Guard – Askia Booker – Sophomore, 6-1, 170; 2012-13: 17.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg. 2011-2012 NOTE: Averaged 9.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.

Last year, Booker blended into the Buffaloes' starting five, allowing the likes of Roberson, Dinwiddie, and forward Carlon Brown (now graduated) to handle more of the workload. This year, Booker has announced himself as the prime scoring threat on the team. He poured in 19 points in the win over Baylor in Charleston. Moreover, Booker clearly outplayed Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, who was the most consistent performer on the Baylor team that not only knocked CU out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but reached the Elite Eight before losing to Kentucky in the South Regional final. If you can outplay Pierre Jackson, you're a big-time point guard in major college basketball. Booker rounds out a starting five that is comprised of three terrific all-around players plus a mature freshman pivot (Scott) and a defensive stopper (Chen). The delineation of roles on this team, combined with its dedication to defense, makes Colorado a thriving basketball force.

Bench

Boyle uses a nine-man rotation. Of his four bench players, only one – small forward Xavier Johnson - leaves any appreciable statistical footprint. Johnson averages 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game to add ballast to the Buffaloes' offense. Big man Shane Harris-Tunks will sometimes get extended minutes to give Scott a breather in the low post. Eli Stalzer and Xavier Talton give Dinwiddie and Booker brief breaks, normally before television timeouts.

Keys to the Game

1) Match Colorado's effort level.
This is much easier said than done, but it should be the foremost aspiration for Air Force on Sunday. Colorado is an effort team. In other words, it derives its success from its work ethic and the benefits it brings, particularly on defense and the glass. This isn't Montana State or Army. This is a team that won an NCAA tournament game last season and has already avenged its Big Dance loss. Air Force might intellectually know how hard it must play to win this game; the Falcons, however, cannot be expected to punch Colorado in the mouth from the opening tip onward. Air Force simply hasn't been challenged by its schedule. The Falcons will almost certainly be knocked back before the first television timeout. How Pilipovich and his players respond in the under-16 timeout of the first half will have a lot to do with the flow of this contest.

2) Stop Booker and Dinwiddie. If you have to pick your poison against Colorado, aim to lock down the guards and force the Buffs' frontcourt players to hit mid-range shots. If Air Force can employ a rugged defensive approach that keeps every CU player at least five or six feet from the rim, the Buffaloes will have to hit medium-range jumpers at some point, and if the Falcons can muscle their way to enough loose balls, they can turn Colorado into a one-and-done team, denying second-chance points to Tad Boyle's crew. Colorado wins with defense, so Air Force can't expect to gain a lot of easy baskets. The path to victory for the Falcons lies in their ability to defend even better than CU can on Sunday evening.

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