I spent part of Friday exchanging question-and-answer emails with Christian Caple, who covers Washington State for the Spokesman-Review newspaper and was traveling from Salt Lake City to Boulder.
Here are my answers to Caple’s questions:
Q: Colorado was a bit of an unknown entering the conference season. But they seem to have everyone’s attention after winning five straight, including a blowout over Washington. What’s been the key to this recent surge?
A: Freshmen guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker have played more aggressively and understand their roles on the team this season. Andre Roberson has responded to a bad game at Colorado State by consistently playing like an all-conference type of player and team leader. And the bench is starting to make the type of contributions Tad Boyle was counting on.
Q: Andre Roberson has been a monster on the glass this year – and some consider him a guard. How would you describe his game?
A: I see Roberson as a forward but his offensive game and shooting range have improved from last season. I would describe his game as Worm-like. The skinny, 6-7 sophomore has a knack for getting to the ball on the offensive or defensive glass like Dennis Rodman used to do.
Q: With the Pac-12 as down as it is this year, is there a feeling in Boulder that Colorado could contend for the conference title?
A: I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from the 2011-12 Buffs entering the new conference due to the loss of Alec Burks to the NBA and a great senior class that included CU’s all-time leading scorer (Cory Higgins, now with the Charlotte Bobcats). This transitioning roster would struggle on the road in the Big 12, but I think coaches, players and fans are starting to see an opportunity for CU, and about six or seven other teams, to contend for the Pac-12 title.
Q: Jaws dropped upon seeing that Colorado-Utah score last week. How were the Buffs able to jump on Utah like they did, and does Utah’s win over WSU give CU confidence they can do the same to the Cougs?
A: The Buffs played well but the Utes played like a team vying for “Worst team ever from a BCS conference.” CU’s players and coaches, for the most part, were very surprised when they saw that Utah had defeated Washington State. Boyle will do his best to prevent overconfidence on Saturday, which was an issue on a couple of occasions against lesser non-conference opponents.
Q: Is Colorado overachieving right now? Or are they maybe a little better than most gave them credit for before the season?
A: CU was picked 10th (tied with Washington State) in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. I voted the Buffs seventh because there is some real talent on the roster and they have a great home-court advantage (27-3 at Coors under Boyle). Based on the conference’s weak performance in November and December, I think CU will finish in the upper half of the standings.
And Caple’s answers to my questions, including a prediction for Saturday’s CU-WSU game:
Q: CU is in a transition year with the loss of Alec Burks early to the NBA Draft and a top-25 recruiting class signed for 2012. How much did Klay Thompson’s decision to leave early impact the outlook for Washington State in 2011-12?
A: Well, it certainly hurt. Thompson was a once-in-a-decade type of scorer, and there isn’t anyone on this year’s team who can really take over a game the way he could. But I think the loss of junior forward DeAngelo Casto was a pretty big blow, too, since most figured Thompson was taking off. Casto’s departure wasn’t a stunner, but it was a bit more surprising, I think. And he provided a tough defensive presence inside that isn’t there this year. Those two guys accounted for 46 percent of the team’s scoring last year.
Q: How good is Brock Motum? Statistically, it appears the 6-10 junior forward is very capable of being an all-conference player this season.
A: He has a really nice touch around the rim, and he shoots from outside well enough to force post defenders to guard him 20-22 feet from the hoop. It was obvious last night that Utah couldn’t stop him – he made 10 of 12 shots and scored the Cougars’ first nine points of the game. WSU would do well to run their offense through him, especially against teams that don’t have the interior firepower to keep up with him. He tied a career-high against Utah with 27 points, but was so disappointed by the loss afterward that he deflected any praise of his play and simply said he wanted to win. So not only is he producing, but he’s got the kind of personality coaches love, too.
Q: What are the Cougars’ strengths and weaknesses this season? Other than Motum, who needs to play well for Washington State in Pac-12 play?
A: We saw good WSU last week against Oregon State, then bad WSU on Thursday night against Utah. Against OSU, they were so efficient offensively, mostly because point guard Reggie Moore took care of the ball and played within the offense very well – he had nine assists and just one turnover in that game. And they were fairly active on the defensive end playing a 2-3 zone. But their weaknesses were pretty much all on display against Utah in the first half: they turned the ball over eight times and had a season-low 23 points at halftime. And they finished the game 10-22 at the free-throw line. The big problem, though, as Motum and Ken Bone both said afterward, was simply their lack of aggression and energy from the opening tip. They have a tendency to let equal or inferior teams hang around with them and let opponents believe they can win, and that’s not a formula that works well for anyone. Bone wants to see them display more of a “killer instinct” from the get-go instead of waiting until the second half to finally flip the switch.
When Moore is playing well, getting dribble penetration and distributing the ball, the Cougars can be a very solid offensive basketball team. When Faisal Aden is making his shots, they’re tough, too. But that hasn’t happened enough this season.
Q: The CU players and even the coaches were surprised to see that Utah beat Washington State on Thursday night after the Utes were crushed 73-33 in the Pac-12 opener at the Coors Events Center. What happened?
A: I guess I addressed this a bit in the previous answer, but essentially, WSU was too sluggish in the first half and not assertive enough with moderate leads down the stretch. And they missed 12 of 22 free throw attempts. Utah led by six at halftime, Motum sparked a run that put WSU ahead by eight a little more than midway through the second half, but the Utes just kept making outside shots every time the Cougars really needed a stop. The Utes hung in it just long enough to believe they could win. The crowd got into it. Momentum kept building. Then Josh Watkins made a couple clutch baskets, and wham – major upset.
Q: What is your prediction for Saturday’s game?
A: With the way Colorado is playing, the Cougars really, really, really can’t afford to keep this Utah loss in their brains much longer. Easier said than done, of course. Bone pointed out that WSU did respond well to their last tough loss to Oregon by winning their next game, but he conceded that he’s not sure what to expect this time around. I’m not either. But I think the Utah loss assures that the Cougars should at least show a little more fire this time around, and I think there may be a bit of desperation from not wanting to come away from this trip with a sweep. Still, hard to ignore what Colorado has done lately, so I’ll take the Buffs, 70-63.