AUSTIN, Texas – Illinois’ strength is the long ball, Colorado’s antidote is long limbs.
The Buffaloes believe the physical length of 6-7 Andre Roberson and 6-6 Spencer Dinwiddie will deter the long-range marksmanship of the Illini’s Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in Friday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Erwin Center (2:40 MDT, TNT).
Roberson, the Pac-12 Conference’s Defensive Player of The Year, will match up first with the gifted Paul, a 6-4 senior who leads Illinois in scoring (16.6 ppg). Dinwiddie will check the 6-3 Richardson, who leads his team in three-pointers attempted (237) and made (78). But Dinwiddie also likely will take a turn or two on Paul.
The Illini are wild about the three-pointer, and Paul and Richardson are the wildest of the gunners. Illinois’ 815 trey attempts this season were the most in the Big Ten Conference, and Paul (223) and Richardson (237) accounted for more than half of those.
The Illini made 265 of their trey attempts, slotting them at No. 9 in the conference in three-point field percentage (32.5). But their 7.8 made treys per game tops the conference, and they’ve hit 10 or more treys in 10 games.
Roberson’s defensive plan for Paul is simple and straightforward: “Try not to give him any breathing room, dictate where he goes – not where he wants to go,” ‘Dre’ said at Thursday’s news conference. “Try not to let him get shots off because he’s a dangerous player and he likes the three ball.”
Paul’s rebuttal for Roberson: “I know he’s real athletic, so it’s going to be a challenge. But we put ourselves in position to be successful. And I know my teammates are going to do a good job of getting me in positions to score.”
Dinwiddie, who has proven his defensive value time and again this season, said when Illinois is mentioned he instantly thinks “three-point shooting and Brandon Paul. Those are the two things that come to your mind instantly. The third thing would be D.J. Richardson. Those are the three things you want to stop.”
For CU coach Tad Boyle, who unknowingly took on a new identity in Thursday’s news conference quote transcript (Coach Thomason), the critical issue for Roberson, Dinwiddie and whoever else in checking Paul is to never lose touch with him.
“You have to be there when he catches it,” Boyle said. “He’s got deep range, he’s got the green light. He’ll let it fly when he catches it . . . the one thing Andre’s got is great length, he’s got great athleticism.”
But Boyle knows Roberson’s athleticism won’t be enough by itself. Toughness in fighting through screens is a must. “He’s going to have to get through a lot of screens,” Boyle cautioned. “He’ll have some bumps and bruises tomorrow, but using his length and athleticism to be there on the catch and play Brandon’s shot high is the key.”
Paul, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, said he and his teammates were not “real concerned” about the overall length of Roberson and his CU teammates. “We’re a pretty athletic team,” Paul said. “We got guys, (even) if our guys are smaller, they make up with the athleticism. (CU) is a team that has a lot of balanced scoring and a lot of size. But as long as we play our game, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
While the Roberson-Paul matchup might be pivotal, first-year Illinois coach John Groce said he wanted to “make one thing crystal clear: It’s not Roberson versus Paul (Friday), it’s Illinois versus Colorado. I think Brandon, as our oldest player, understands that. Obviously he’s an important part of what we do, just like Roberson is an important part of what Colorado does. So we’ll take that for what it’s worth.”
CU (21-11, No. 10 seed) is making its second NCAA Tournament appearance in as many seasons while Illinois (22-12, No. 7 seed) is in the Big Dance for the first time since 2011. Groce said he and his team were relieved to finally be free of the cannibalistic Big Ten for an NCAA Tournament game.
“No question,” said Groce, whose team finished 8-10 in conference play. “Obviously it was a lot of fun though. It was tremendous challenge all 18 games plus the Big Ten Tournament. I think you learn a lot playing the competition we played against, the venues where we played, different styles that we played, the different coaching philosophies and coaching styles as well . . . it was great. We learned a lot about our team.”
But Boyle did too in the Buffs’ trek through the Pac-12. Last season’s NCAA team was heavy on senior leadership – starters Nate Tomlinson, Carlon Brown, Andre Dufault – but this season’s NCAA entry featured a lone upperclassman – Sabatino Chen.
“It’s been a work in progress,” Boyle said of the evolution of this year’s leadership. Chen, said his coach, was “kind of our leader by default early.” Also, Chen began his final college season as a silent type, but has grown out of that. And Roberson’s voice is being heard more, as well as Dinwiddie’s.
“But it’s been a work in progress and there have been some bumps in the road,” Boyle said.
The Big Ten placed seven teams in the NCAAs – one less than the Big East – while the Pac-12 got five in. All season, and with good reason, the Buffs have heard about the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom power. But they believe the Pac-12 has teams – CU included – that can play with any conference.
Yes, there is a pride factor in play here.
“Definitely,” Roberson said. “With the Big Ten being talked about all the time, I feel like our conference has grown a lot since last year . . . I feel like we’re definitely going to show it when we play. A couple of us are matched up with a couple of Big Ten teams. So I think we’re going to show what we got.”