Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Colorado

OPPONENT Colorado (6-2, #57 KenPom)
(23-9, Round of 32 in 2020-21)
LOCATION CU Events Center
Boulder, CO
Sed Bonner (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -3
Torvik: Tennessee -5.1

As part of a hastily-scheduled trip to Knoxville last season, Colorado gets to welcome Tennessee to the CU Events Center for the second time ever and the first time since 1981. Next year, they’ll play again, but it’ll be one of those neutral-site games that is very much not a neutral site (Bridgestone Arena in Nashville). These are the things you do when you have to figure out a quick fix for a COVID-induced hole in your schedule.

Colorado is coming off of a season that I would genuinely describe as possibly their best ever: a 23-9 record (T-most wins in the last 50 years), a Round of 32 appearance, and the #8 ranking in KenPom. Because good things unfortunately don’t last long for them, they’ve had to replace a ton of scoring and talent and appear to be in a transitional year. I suppose this is a nice time for Tennessee to figure out how they react to playing way above sea level.

Colorado’s offense

All numbers via KenPom and Hoop-Math. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING until December 23 or so.

As you can imagine, I figured that this side of the equation was going to be more difficult for Colorado. The Buffs lost five of their top seven scorers due to graduation or transfer, and they already weren’t a great shooting offense – a pretty good one, but not great. Points seemed like they might be hard to come by early in the season. The answer so far is that it’s unsurprisingly more difficult than it was in 2020-21, but this half of the team is far ahead of the defensive side of the ball.

Colorado has passed scoring responsibilities down to three guys: Jabari Walker (14.9 PPG, Samaki Walker’s son), Evan Battey (13.5 PPG), and Keeshawn Barthelemy (13 PPG). All three play a unique role in the offense, which probably makes it unsurprising to hear that the three have pretty similar usage rates. This is an offense that’s working to overcome some serious departures by committee, and it’s a step ahead of the defense thus far. The main goal, as evidenced in that above graphic: get to the rim at all costs. When they get there, they convert at a solid rate (a hair above 60%) and have been tough for undersized opponents to handle.

Walker serves as Colorado’s power forward and is part of a massive starting lineup that goes 6’10″/6’9″/6’8″. (Yes, this is correct; 6’10” Tristan da Silva is the small forward.) Walker’s a tough cover: he’s predictably good at bullying opponents in the post, but he’s also an acceptable jump shooter that can extend out to 23-24 feet. I would be less worried about the latter portion of this equation because he’s at 29% on 24 three-point attempts this year, but he was at 52% on 44 last year. The truth is likely somewhere in between. Don’t take your eyes off the guy on the perimeter, because he is a real threat.

Walker is also going to be tough to handle down low, as he’s currently drawing 6.4 fouls per 40 and has nearly as many free throw attempts (48) as two-point attempts (55). Walker is considered a legitimate NBA prospect for a reason, as he simply moves better and appears more naturally talented than anyone else on the Colorado roster.

Battey, the 6’8″, 259-pound center, is a strange draw. With that size, you would imagine he’s up to bully everybody in the post; indeed, he is Colorado’s most frequent post threat. However, he’s a hair less efficient than Walker. To make up for this, he has randomly become the best jump shooter on the team, which I think could be chalked up to small sample size goofs…but yeah, you gotta deal with it. Battey came into this season shooting 28.5% for his career on mid-range jumpers (per Synergy) and 22% on threes, but is currently hitting 55.6% and 66.7% of both. I would still force him to shoot, though, because historically, he’s just much better when he gets down low. Such is the life of a 6’8″, 259-pound center built like a stove pipe who is better than your average center at dribbling and driving.

Last is Barthelemy, a player I was not excited about Tennessee drawing last season but turned out to not be a worry. Barthelemy is the least-efficient of Colorado’s big three but is perhaps most important to the offense’s fortunes on a given day as the starting point guard and best ball-handler. (K.J. Simpson, Barthelemy’s backup, is actually far more likely to use a ball screen and is a better passer…but commits way more turnovers.) Whereas Battey and Walker are big bulldozers that kind of have to be watched everywhere from 0-25 feet, Barthelemy is genuinely bad at finishing at the rim (46% on 50 attempts for his career) and isn’t *as* prone to driving as his friends are. So he shoots, and he shoots more than anyone else on the team.

Barthelemy is 11-for-24 on threes this season and is also prone to taking a mid-range jumper or two each game. He’s very much unafraid of any sort of shot, which you have to respect; Tennessee simply cannot leave this guy open. Something of note, which isn’t a shock when you’re right-handed, is that Barthelemy is not quite as comfortable driving to his left as he is to his right. (A very similar trend exists with Battey and Walker.) I assume Tennessee’s coaching staff probably knows this and will work on ways to force that issue.

Beyond these three, it’s a combination of less-efficient guards (Simpson, Eli Parquet), intriguing-but-incomplete forwards (da Silva, Nique Clifford), and…well, that’s basically it. Colorado has a nine-man rotation, but only the three players we’ve explored really stand out in a positive manner.

SOMEWHAT NEW STUFF ALREADY USED IN THE LAST PREVIEW! Here is a chart that answers a very simple question: is this player a serious threat to score from three/midrange/at the rim, and should I be mad when they do?

Colorado’s defense

All numbers via KenPom and Hoop-Math. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING until December 23 or so.

On the other hand, this appears to be a crushing disappointment. Tennessee observers will remember Tad Boyle scrambling to a zone defense that befuddled Tennessee last year after getting roasted in man-to-man. Considering Tennessee has played all of 14 offensive possessions against zone defenses, similar fear here would be rational. And yet: Colorado once again is 98% likely to run man-to-man on an average possession, and that man-to-man defense is currently ranked one spot ahead of North Carolina’s. You saw North Carolina. I saw North Carolina. I think everyone would be okay with North Carolina again.

The problem with this defense is tri-fold:

  1. Colorado has never been a defense to force many turnovers, more often relying on walling off the paint and three-point line while funneling opponents into the Murky Middle.
  2. That is not the case this year, as Colorado is allowing a higher three-point attempt rate than ever before under their coach;
  3. While simultaneously allowing their highest FG% at the rim since 2012-2013.

Are a couple of these potentially Small Sample Size! concerns? Uh, sure. Colorado has consistently been one of the nation’s best at forcing hard attempts at the rim despite rarely having a frontcourt that blocks a lot of shots. This year, they’re actually better than they’ve been in a few years at blocking shots, with 6’4″ Eli Parquet of all players taking lead:

But beyond that, this is bizarrely bad. Colorado’s not forcing many tough shots anymore – only 22.7% of opponent attempts have been in the mid-range – and they seem to simply have some serious structural issues. Synergy ranks out Colorado’s ball-screen defense as being in the 60th-percentile overall, but in the 8th-percentile when they switch. The issue is that their strategy appears to not be too consistent from player to player; here’s one where Tristan da Silva switches on the first ball screen but doubles on the second and loses his man entirely for an open three.

Maybe this is just a temporary thing; maybe Tad Boyle gets this figured out by year’s end. I would believe it won’t be this bad forever, because Boyle’s defenses have been awesome year after year and to see Colorado struggle like this for any length of time is genuinely surprising. But man…I don’t know what the immediate fix is here?

Like, your small forward is 6’10”, which is great for rebounding, but pretty awful when his matchup is smaller and a heck of a lot quicker. Point guard Barthelemy rates out horrifically as a ball-stopper both on Synergy (15th-percentile) and Torvik (-0.3 Defensive Box Plus-Minus, which would be the worst among Tennessee’s ten-man rotation by some distance). The best defender is backup Luke O’Brien, a player who appears to be a legitimate negative on offense. Even Evan Battey, who grades out as the best (+0.9 DBPM, 44th-percentile Synergy) defender among the starters, has been a bad post-up defender, with Walker rating out even worse.

When you can’t stop drives to the basket and neither of your post players appear to be good defenders and the shot selection you’re allowing is better for offenses than the national average, you’re simply unlikely to have a good time playing basketball. Colorado does at least seem to be doing a decent job of guarding catch-and-shoot threes (61/39 Guarded/Unguarded; nat’l average 55/45), but that’s simply not enough to make up for all the inherent issues they’ve got.

I do think it’ll get better for them. Parquet was the team’s second-best defender a year ago; Walker was also much better last season. (Battey has essentially always been a forgettable defender; Barthelemy was terrible last year and hasn’t improved much this season.) But man: you look at this and you’re like, okay, you couldn’t hold Montana State, Southern Illinois, or Duquesne below a point per possession. What makes you think you’ll do that against Tennessee?

How Tennessee matches up

In an attempt to avoid turning this into a recap, I’ll post this here and move on:

We’re far enough into the season that you can slowly begin to open up to I Trust It and It’s There territory. I’m getting there. I need until, like, December 22 to make that call for myself…but closer, day by day.

I bring this up because this game is honestly a key test for how real Tennessee’s rim-and-threes increase is. Tennessee is drawing a Colorado team that forced the Vols to take almost half of their shots from the midrange last year. Colorado’s roster looks way different now, but it’s still Tad Boyle as the coach and some of those same players with the same mindset. Tennessee has done a solid job of upping the amount of layups/dunks/tips they find for themselves by way of pushing the pace offensively and having a far more confident ball-handler in Kennedy Chandler, but still: same team that made you look foolish a year ago.

To go with this, Tennessee won’t play a game of basketball at a higher elevation this season, and possibly ever. (I’m willing to hold out hope they randomly travel to Wyoming someday.) Colorado’s arena sits roughly 5,400 feet above sea level. Home court advantage is a fungible thing to figure out, but KenPom rates Colorado as having the best home court advantage in the sport (4.9 points!) because of the elevation. Look at this:

  • Colorado at home versus Quadrant 1 + 2 opponents, 2018-19 to present: 39.3% 3PT%, 54.9% 2PT% (opponents: 31.1% 3PT%, 49% 2PT%)
  • Colorado away from home versus Q1/Q2, 2018-19 to present: 32.7% 3PT%, 47.4% 2PT% (opponents: 33.8% 3PT%, 48.9% 2PT%)

That is stark. Like Ned! Colorado’s 6.6% 3PT% difference is one of the largest in the sport; they also have far and away the biggest home/away foul differential in the Pac-12. So: Tennessee is going into an environment where jump shooting teams typically don’t have a ton of success, get gassed easily, and generally get into foul trouble. What do you do? Easy: let Kennedy Chandler push the pace off of Colorado’s misses and force a team that rarely has to defend in transition to do so.

When this inevitably gets into a half-court game, Tennessee should continue to force the issue in the paint. I think that they might have a serious mismatch with Justin Powell, particularly if it’s da Silva who has to draw him. I don’t think Battey will leave the paint if he doesn’t have to; Walker is obviously more mobile but probably draws Nkamhoua. Powell is far quicker than his theoretical matchup, and this can be exploited in a variety of ways; Powell can run off of screens to get open on the perimeter or he can use backdoor cuts and screens to get easy points at the rim. Alternately, I wouldn’t mind seeing him test da Silva off the dribble and forcing a 6’10” guy with two blocks in a 32-game career to follow him to the rim.

If Tennessee creates pressure at the rim early in this game, Colorado will be forced to draw into the paint, which will open more shots outside for Tennessee’s litany of shooters. The true inside-out game!

Tennessee’s defensive assignment here is more difficult. Both of Colorado’s main post players are decent shooters, so Fulkerson/Nkamhoua will likely have to guard out to 20+ feet and hope that they stay in front of Walker/Battey all the way to the rim. (It goes without saying, but this is very much not a game for Uros Plavsic. If he gets more than four minutes of action, you’re free to riot.) This is a good test of two things in particular: how well does Tennessee handle Colorado’s ball screens, and how well can Tennessee limit drives to the basket?

Just like in other affairs, Tennessee’s done an okay job of icing these screens, doubling them and forcing the ball-handler further from the basket. If Tennessee can continue to do that, not only will they force worse shots on average, they should be able to force more turnovers. The best way to beat Tennessee’s icing strategy is ball reversal (AKA, swinging it from one end of the court to the other and either getting an open shot or clearing out for the post player to handle the ball), which most college basketball teams are not going to be hyper-efficient at. If Tennessee denies the first action of desiring to drive off of the screen and forces the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands, they should be able to force Colorado to make tough shots.

The second of these is similar to the first, but it’s unusual in that you’re not worrying about the guards quite as much. Battey/Walker are going to want to score down low first and outside second, and both are a serious bear to deal with. The best strategy is to force these guys to post-up. Wait, what? Yes, this is accurate: you want Battey and Walker to post up. I don’t want these bulldozers driving to the rim; I want them attempting to back down Fulkerson, Nkamhoua, and Huntley-Hatfield because it’s less efficient over the course of an average game.

Colorado’s worst play type this season in terms of offensive efficiency is the post-up, where they rank in the 29th-percentile nationally. Neither Battey nor Walker are terribly great at scoring in post-ups, and any time you can get this (roughly 7-8 times a game) versus a three or a drive to the basket, you’re thrilled with it. Walker is better about hammering his way to the rim, but see if you can force Battey into an ill-advised short jumper in the post. He’s done it several times this season instead of using his frame to get to the free throw line.

This isn’t an easy task; playing on the road against a major-conference opponent rarely is. But Tennessee is better than their opponent, and if they play the mismatches correctly, they should be able to escape this weekend at 1-0.

Expected starters

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How often does Tennessee play Chandler/Vescovi/Powell together? Interestingly, in a small sample size, they’ve proved to be much better on the defensive side than the average Tennessee lineup.
  • Can Tennessee get one of Battey/Walker into foul trouble? Battey averages 4.4 fouls per 40 and is at 4.7 per 40 for his career; Walker is lower at 3.3 per 40 but in their home loss to Southern Illinois, he only got 26 minutes of action due to foul trouble. The less those two are on the court, the better; Colorado is an astounding 15 points better per 100 possessions when both are in.
  • How frequently does Tennessee get to the rim? About 36% of opponent shots against Colorado are at the rim, but Stanford and UCLA – the only two Top 100 teams CU has faced – got 45% of their shot attempts within four feet of the rim, per Synergy. Ideally, Tennessee achieves around an 81.8% rim-and-threes percentage like Stanford and UCLA combined for.

Key matchups

Olivier Nkamhoua vs. Evan Battey. Battey has been Colorado’s best player by a hair thus far; it will be on he and Walker to find an upset somewhere in this matchup. Nkamhoua, body-wise, is the best candidate to hold his own versus a bowling ball of a human. Nkamhoua, on the other end, can use his driving skills to force Battey to defend to 22-23 feet and perhaps pick up some fouls. Battey isn’t a great defender, so I’d hope Nkamhoua gets on the board early.

John Fulkerson vs. Jabari Walker. Scary matchup in theory! Yet: Fulkerson is a better defender than most give him credit for, and I’ve gone into detail about how you can force these Colorado players into less-than-optimal shots.

Kennedy Chandler vs. Keeshawn Barthelemy. Also, myself versus the temptation to write “Bartholomew” every time I see this name. Chandler is a better overall player and a much better defender, but Barthelemy is tough to guard and I could see Chandler having issues staying with him in spot-up situations.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the eFG% and TO% battles;
  2. Colorado gets a few favorable foul calls that keep this game close and make Twitter go berserk;
  3. Tennessee 72, Colorado 67.

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