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The Colorado Buffaloes enter Pac-12 play as the only undefeated team in the conference. But how good are they? Is this all just an illusion?
Colorado Buffaloes (11-0)
It's probably fair to say that most people were surprised when Colorado beat the Louisville Cardinals at home.
Well, for those of you that were surprised about that, this might be more surprising: Omni Rankings doesn't even list that game in its top 50 upsets. In other words - and this is why I like that site - there was something in the numbers that suggests Colorado could've been reasonably expected to win that game, even beyond home court advantage.
Regardless of whether you take that site as gospel, it does frame some big questions about Colorado. What exactly is happening in Colorado this season? Are they really as good as the undefeated record suggests?
Four Factors statistics for Colorado during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for Colorado during non-conference play.
Narrative description: Colorado is a well-rounded team that shares the ball extremely well and forces the opponent to share the ball with them quite a bit too in the form of turnovers. Although they are led by senior Chucky Jeffery, they have gotten contributions from multiple players on the roster which helps them win the games their statistical profile suggests they "should" win.
SOS: 48.63 (204th nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: N/A
MVP: Chucky Jeffery, G (5'10", Sr., 13.54 MVP)
After Colorado beat Louisville, M Robinson actually gave me a call and told me that we needed to make sure that Jeffery was on our 2013 WNBA Draft radar. Apparently we've been on the same page: she was already a player whose numbers I'd been watching.
Jeffery is a player who is at the very least athletic and has the size to develop into a solid defender at the next level. But the major question mark about her junior year statistics have become a major improvement in her senior year: Jeffery is a much more efficient ball handler now, which - statistically, at least - puts her in the range of a solid prospect compared to recent draft history.
The most impressive difference between this year and last is actually not that she's committing turnovers less often - her usage rate has gone down which means she is just expected to do less - but that she's actually nearly doubled her assist ratio to 23%, which puts her in the range of some of the top distributors to enter the WNBA in recent years.
How high she is drafted and whether this continues against competition stronger than the 204th-ranked schedule offers remains to be seen. But she has to be in that draft prospect discussion for now based on her performance thus far.
- Colorado has strengths across the board, but it's hard not to start with those defensive numbers: they didn't really allow their opponents to do anything well, and that's impressive regardless of whatever skepticism their strength of schedule might create.
- While their own shooting efficiency does jump out, Colorado's impressive rebounding differential might be the easiest thing to maintain through Pac-12 play: they're getting rebounding from all over the roster, including Jeffery who leads the team in defensive rebounding. While Jeffery leads the team in defensive rebounding and Jamee Swan and Meagan Malcolm-Peck have come off the bench to rebound well, leading scorer Arielle Roberson is also pulling her weight on the boards. In other words, it's unlikely anybody is going to just stop Colorado from rebounding - they're going to get their share of boards.
- They move the ball very well, as suggested by their adjusted synergy rating. A large part of that really is Jeffery giving them a reliable (i.e. efficient) ball handler that they just didn't have last season.
- While Jeffery carried about 30% of their statistical load last season, that's down to just 19% this season; their increased balance is as much a part of their success as anything else and could also help explain why Jeffery has been so much more efficient this season.
- To add to the strength of schedule critique, they only played three road games on their non-conference schedule: UM - Kansas City, Illinois, and Denver. And they won those by a combined 50 points. In short, they haven't had much challenge on the road.
- So that SOS really does undermine a lot of the complimentary things we can say about them statistically: when they have to go on the road against tougher opponents, how might they perform then?
X-Factor: Arielle Roberson, F (6'1", Fr, 12.17)
The X-Factor tag doesn't get applied to Roberson because she hasn't contributed but because she has: she's the team's leading scorer (15.7 ppg) and is ranked 7th in the conference. The question is how well she'll play through the scout when coaches with growing familiarity with the program start keying in on her and trying to force her into freshman mistakes. The flip-side of that for any freshman, of course, is whether they'll get better over the course of the season. Either way, she's definitely a player to watch and, as their most efficient scorer, could be the difference between maintaining that outstanding scoring efficiency and letting it slip away.
Key question: How much of this non-conference production is sustainable?
I don't think there's any question that Colorado will be able to rebound and will force opponents into turnovers in the Pac-12. The question really does come down to whether, or - better stated - how much, of that shooting efficiency differential they can maintain.
But what bodes well for them is that it's not the Chuck Jeffery show this year and that should certainly help them out as they aim to make the NCAA tournament.
For more on Colorado women's basketball, definitely check out the women's basketball section at SB Nation's Colorado site Ralphie Report.