BOULDER – December has arrived, but you’re not going to find the Colorado men’s basketball team counting shopping days or compiling gift lists. Not just yet, anyway.
The December schedule features only five games, with CU playing four times before Christmas and once after. But the year’s final month, beginning with Tuesday night’s game at in-state rival Colorado State (7 p.m., ESPN3), will be telling for the still-formative Buffs as they try to deal the Rams their first loss of the season (6-0 at home, 6-2 overall) in raucous Moby Arena.
“It’s going to be a heck of a game,” predicted CU coach Tad Boyle, who has sampled Moby madness. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Colorado State, the way they play and the atmosphere up there.”
CU is 7-1 after completing a six-game home stand unbeaten and winning handily (81-57) at Air Force on Saturday. The Buffs lost their opener to then-No. 25 Baylor 72-60 in Dallas, but since then Boyle says his team has improved in offensive execution, overall on defense and in adjusting to the new hand-checking rules and is rebounding more efficiently.
“But I’m not sure we’ve been tested on boards, maybe in the Harvard game, like we will be Tuesday night,” Boyle said, referring to a hard-earned 46-29 rebounding edge the Buffs compiled against the Crimson.
CSU, which lost the bulk of its contributors from last season’s 26-9 NCAA Tournament at-large entry, has outrebounded its eight opponents this season by a 38.4-33.0 margin. Boyle says Rams coach Larry Eustachy “probably coaches rebounding better than any coach in the country, in my opinion. They’re like a machine; three guys going to the offensive boards every time, two guys getting back. They try to take you out of transition and offensive rebound. There are very few teams that can do that effectively, but they’re one of them.”
CU has been outrebounded only once this season – 42-39 in the Baylor loss – and holds a 40.0-28.9 average board advantage in its eight games. Said Boyle: “The tougher team on the boards is going to win (Tuesday), so we’re preparing for that.”
Boyle hopes the older members of his mostly young squad have long memories – specifically in recalling Rams students and fans rushing the Moby Arena court two years ago after a 65-64 CSU win on Nov. 30, 2011. That reaction, said Boyle, underscores (at least for him) the magnitude of the rivalry.
“It’s big, no question,” he said. “Every game on our schedule is big but Colorado State is a special one. Anytime you lose like we did up there two years ago and they rush the floor, you know it’s a big game for them. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time. It’s one game – we can’t make it bigger than it is, but you don’t have to worry about the Buffs overlooking this one.”
CU freshmen like forward Tre’Shaun Fletcher have been briefed by upperclassmen such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker about what to expect in Moby. “They say it’s going to be loud, the fans are going to be talking trash,” Fletcher said. “It’s going to be fun, an up-and-down game, real intense. And they told me they don’t like CSU, so I’ve got to get on board with that.”
Dinwiddie hasn’t attempted to mask his dislike of CSU, last season dubbing the Rams the Buffs’ “little brother” in the state, then scoring a career-high 29 points in a 70-61 win at the Coors Events Center. Afterwards, Dinwiddie contended his comment had been misinterpreted and he had the utmost respect for the Rams.
As for his dislike of the school to the north, he said it mostly stems from a Rams fan showing Dinwiddie a less appealing side two seasons ago at the CU-CSU football game in Denver. “One of their fans mooned me,” Dinwiddie said. “This year I’m not into guaranteeing points. I always guarantee the win, so I just want to go there and win the basketball game . . . but I just don’t really like them. It’s bad blood, I don’t know. It’s up to you guys however you want to say it.”
Added Dinwiddie on his newfound diplomacy toward CSU: “I got lectures (from several athletic department coaches/staffers) telling me not to say anything about ‘little brother.’ I’m trying not to say something; you kind of let the little guy sit over in the corner.”
Boyle says the Rams, whose two losses were at Gonzaga (93-61) and UTEP (82-74), will attempt to take the Buffs out of their running game, slowing them in transition by sending three players to the boards and dropping two back on nearly every shot attempt. CSU’s leading rebounder is 6-4 junior guard Daniel Bejarano, a transfer from Arizona who is averaging 8.6 and coming off a 15-rebound performance.
Boyle calls 6-7 J.J. Avila, a junior transfer from Navy, “kind of a point forward . . . he passes, he puts the ball on the floor.” And he averages a team-best 19.0 points and 5.8 rebounds – second behind Bejarano.
In addition to the 6-7 Fletcher, CU has used three other true freshmen in non-conference play – 6-7 Dustin Thomas, 6-5, Jaron Hopkins and 6-5 George King. Hopkins is averaging 15.5 minutes, Thomas 14.5, Fletcher 10.1 and King 6.3. Hopkins’ 5.8-point average leads the first-year quartet.
Boyle is anxious to see their response to the Moby environment: “They’ve got to understand play time’s over; this is real basketball and the stakes get higher the further we get into December and January and February. The gift minutes are over with. They’ve got to earn everything the get from here on, in practice and in games. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in them; they’re a talented group of guys.”
Fletcher, whose 55.0 field goal percentage is second only to King’s 58.3 among the four newcomers, believes he has “come a long way since I got here in the summer. I’m trying to go out and play as hard as I can and let the coaches build trust in me. I’m just trying to do what I can do to help the team right now.”
After Tuesday night – and Boyle is pretty sure it won’t be before – CU can turn its attention to No. 6 Kansas, which visits the CEC on Saturday (1:15 p.m., ESPN2). He said fully focusing on the Rams shouldn’t be difficult: “We’ll see . . . see how we play Tuesday night. If we come out lackadaisical, lethargic and with no energy, then, yeah, it’s tough (to focus). But I don’t think we will. The good thing, we’ve got guys like Spencer, ‘Ski’ (Booker) and Ben (Mills) who were here two years ago when we lost up there . . . they remember what it was like, the environment and them rushing the court. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.
“They want to beat us, but guess what? We want to beat them too. It’s a great game for college basketball in the state. Our guys will be ready for the challenge.”