Back on January 21, WSU beat Colorado in overtime to snap a four-game losing streak and improve to a respectable 3-4 in conference while simultaneously sending the Buffaloes to their seventh consecutive defeat to start the Pac-12 season.
Both starts to the conference season were strange in their own way. After an awful non-conference record (7-5 with home losses to New Orleans and San Jose State), some fans wondered if WSU could exceed its Pac-12 win total (one) of a year ago; suddenly, the Cougs had tripled their win total and were just a game under .500 nearly halfway through league play. Meanwhile, Colorado was somehow in last place after being considered an NCAA tournament contender after non-conference wins over Texas and Xavier.
After that? WSU went 3-8 to finish in a tie for ninth place, Colorado went 8-3 to finish in seventh place, and now the Buffaloes are the higher seeded team in the rematch tonight at the Pac-12 Tournament.
The turnaround wasn’t all that stunning to people who paid close attention. In going 0-7, the Buffaloes’ point differential was minus-48; with three more wins in hand, the Cougars’ point differential after seven games was minus-74. There was a strong case to be made that Colorado was playing better despite the record. And the rest of the season bore that out.
Which now means that WSU has to play a team that it has defeated once, but is playing much better lately, picking up wins over Oregon and California in that 8-3 stretch while beating up teams like WSU in the bottom half of the conference.
The Cougs had one of their best offensive performances of the year in the first matchup, scoring a whopping 1.20 points per possession thanks in large part to a ridiculous evening from distance in which they went 13-of-26. In fact, 43 percent of WSU’s points came from beyond the arc — that number is usually around 30 percent for the Cougs. They also made 56 percent of their twos.
Colorado isn’t as good on defense this year as it typically is under Tad Boyle, but that was still an exceptional performance — it was WSU’s second-best shooting performance in Pac-12 play and fourth best performance from an efficiency perspective.
And yet, WSU still had to eke it out in overtime. A big part of that was the Cougs’ own interior defensive woes, as they gave up 57 percent on 2s in the contest while also being unable to secure defensive rebounds: The Buffs grabbed 12 offensive rebounds — a robust 34 percent of their own misses — on their way to 11 second-chance points. That’s how you nearly win despite shooting less than 30 percent from deep.
Derrick White is Colorado’s leading scorer, and he led the comeback against the Cougs in the first one, scoring 19 points in the second half as the Buffs erased a 10-point WSU lead over the final 3:30. He’s a matchup nightmare for WSU: At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds and able to score from anywhere on the floor, the Cougs don’t have an obvious defensive matchup for him. Malachi Flynn, Ike Iroegbu and Charles Callison — WSU’s starting guards — are 6-1, 6-2 and 6-0 respectively.
If White gets going hot, will Ernie Kent try and cook up something creative to deal with him? Like, say, put 6-foot-7 Robert Franks on him? Or zone Colorado? Or maybe junk it up with a box-and-one?
Or maybe it won’t matter: All of Colorado’s starters are at least 6-5, meaning a guy like George White could be primed to go off.
One other thing to keep an eye on: Kent’s been willing to role with Franks earlier and longer as we’ve reached the end of this season. I presume Conor Clifford will still get the start, but given the athleticism on Colorado’s front line — which isn’t particularly tall — I’m also presuming Franks will play heavy minutes and get a chance to impact the game.
Kenpom.com predicts a 77-69 win for Colorado with the Cougs having a 23 percent chance of winning based on each team’s adjusted efficiency margin to date.