Here's how far apart they are in the standings now: two games. And a Utah loss tonight could make it one.
These two teams have gone in opposite directions the last eight games, and Thursday night will be a gut check for Utah after its worst loss of the year at Oregon State. Can they turn it around? Is there still a season left to save? Or will they struggle through their fifth straight road loss and get knocked down yet another peg?
For those who feel the season has hit a low point, remember: It can get worse.
Time, Place and [radio waves in] Space • This 9 p.m. tip at Coors Events Center is being broadcast on ESPNU. You can catch it on the radio at ESPN 700 AM with THE Bill Riley and THE Jimmy Soto.
The Line • As of Thursday morning, Colorado is favored by 2.5 points according to Vegas Insider. Utah is 12-11-1 against the spread this season and after failing to *ahem* cover against Oregon State, it has only covered in two of its last eight.
Pregame Quotable • Larry Krystkowiak on his team's woes lately: "We've got to figure out a way. To me, if we don't start bringing our brain to the gameplan, I don't know we have a chance."
Last time out • How long ago does Jan. 1 seem? Utah started off Pac-12 play with a bang, using a burst out of halftime to cruise against Colorado, 76-60. Kyle Kuzma and David Collette showed few ill effects from injuries, combining for 28 points and 15 rebounds. Lorenzo Bonam led all scorers with 15 points.
Telling Stat • Speaking of Bonam, it's been a tough stretch for him as Utah has gone 3-5 in the last eight: While the senior is one of Utah's top shooters on the season at 56.6 percent from the field, he's only met or exceeded his season shooting average once (at Cal) in the last eight games.
Colorado Roster Overview • The player that makes this team go and who has led the 6-2 resurgence in Pac-12 play is Derrick White, the point guard transfer who is Colorado's leading scorer (16.8 ppg), assist man (4.1 apg) and turnover creator (1.3 spg) as well as a shot-blocker (1.4 bpg). He dropped 35 on Arizona State this year, so he's capable of big nights both driving in and shooting from deep. The X-factor is arguably Xavier Johnson, the forward who is moving up Colorado's all-time scoring list but is streaky (he had 7 points against Utah, but had 26 against Arizona two games later). George King is another threat to go off on any given night, and while he's still trailing his production from last year when he was the Pac-12's most improved player, he also has picked up his scoring since the Buffs last played the Utes. Wesley Gordon gives the team veteran presence in the paint as a bouncy rebounder and shot-blocker (1.5 bpg). Dominique Collier and Josh Fortune are veteran backcourt players. Colorado has turned its close losses into close wins recently, most notably upsetting Oregon at home. They're 19-3 in their last 22 games at Coors Events Center although Utah has enjoyed a bit of immunity to that lately, winning their last three visits to Boulder.
Behind Enemy Lines • The Buffs are gunning to end their losing streak to Utah that has stretched out to six games. The Boulder Daily Camera goes into more detail on that.
Something's Gotta Give • The score is the only statistic more important than rebounding when these two teams meet. If Utah wins the game but loses the rebounding margin, you can count on it being a postgame gripe. Utah and Colorado see themselves as two of the more blue-collar programs in the Pac-12, and they measure it on the boards: The Utes are KenPom's No. 8 defensive rebounding team (allowing only 23.8 percent offensive rebounding percentage) while the Buffs are the No. 56 team in offensive rebounding (33.6 percent). Where do those two averages meet? Colorado is an average shooting team, so second chances will factor in big on Thursday night.
Colorado's Edge • During their run of success in the second half of Pac-12 play, the Buffaloes have flipped a minus-4.0 turnover margin in the first seven games (all losses) into a plus-3.8 turnover margin in the last eight games. That is astounding. They've done it by reducing their turnovers by an average of two per game while doubling their steals to 7.5 per game in the last eight. If you haven't noticed, turnovers are not Utah's strength. They're averaging 15 per game in the same span, the last eight games.
Utah's Edge • We'll see how good Utah's defense is this time around, but last time they managed to lock up the Buffs with a zone. The Utes don't have shot-blockers but have had some success in building walls against certain teams (not Oregon) and making 2-point defense the strength of the unit (47.2 percent, No. 88 on KenPom). Colorado is a team of slashers and putback guys the 3-point shooting (34.9 percent, No. 187) is inconsistent. Utah would rather force CU's offense to the fringes than give them looks close to the bucket.
Injury Watch • Kyle Kuzma started the last game and led the team in scoring and rebounding with a sprained ankle. He said he's receiving "around the clock" treatment and his ankle probably won't be fully healed for the rest of the season, but there's no reason as of now to think he'll miss Thursday's game. Colorado had suspended Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon for two games, but they've played in the last few.
Watch Out For • What are they playing for? Utah's stakes have dropped considerably since losing at Oregon State, with a 4-seed looking like a tough clinch with Cal still a game ahead. Does that drop spirits, add negativity and keep Utah from rediscovering its January peak? Or is there something that can be stirred inside them, a goal that they yet can achieve? It's hard to say, particularly after the frustration Krystkowiak showed on Tuesday. Can the coaching staff still get through and get Utah to get its game back on point? Or was the flash of brilliance just a flash?