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February 23, 2009 1:22 PM

Been there, seen that (twice)

If there's a silver lining in CU's loss Saturday against Missouri, maybe it's this: The Buffs' opponent Wednesday night (8:30 p.m., Coors Events Center) plays pressure defense and tries to run the court like the Tigers.

So, maybe having played Mizzou twice (both Buffs losses) acclimates CU on what to expect from Oklahoma State and first-year coach Travis Ford.

CU coach Jeff Bzdelik said the Tigers and Cowboys ``are very similar in the way they play,'' adding that might simplify preparations as his team looks for a way to snap a seven-game losing streak -- CU's longest since losing eight straight during the 1995-96 season.

The Cowboys, noted Bzdelik, ``shoot a lot of threes, spread and penetrate, drive and kick and attack the rim well -- especially (Byron) Eaton.''

Bzdelik, whose patience apparently came close to wearing through at halftime Saturday,
reiterated during Monday's Big 12 coaches teleconference that his second CU team is neither tough enough nor strong enough.

``A lot of that has to do with being young . . . we've just got to keep pushing through it,'' he said.

Bzdelik conceded losing ``can beat you up,'' but said he still believes his team is ``young and resilient enough'' to show improvement in the season's final four regular-season games and the conference tournament.

February 20, 2009 5:13 PM

On J.T. (Just Turnovers) Tiller . . .

It only seems as if Missouri guard J.T. Tiller has eight arms and as many hands.

He plays several notches above frenetic, and yes, the Tigers' opponents have noticed.

``He brings a lot of energy and gets his hands on a lot of balls,'' CU guard Cory Higgins said. ``He brings a lot to that press; he's basically all over the court.''

Teammate Nate Tomlinson took Tiller and his style a step higher: ``He's crazy. I don't know if he's that good a defender or he just gets you playing so fast you don't know what to do. That's one guy; we have to worry about the other four as well.''

Tiller could be a strong nominee for defensive player of the year, according to ESPN's Pat Forde. The junior guard from Marietta, Ga., is tied for second in steals (2.09 a game) in Big 12 games, ironically, trailing Higgins (2.27).

Tiller is the heart of the Tigers' pressure defense, but depth also plays a role. Mizzou coach Mike Anderson usually uses 10 players, while CU coach Jeff Bzdelik plays seven or eight.

Said Tomlinson: ``We just have to look after the ball and play at our pace. They play up tempo.''

February 20, 2009 4:45 PM

On presses and paybacks . . .

For CU, the lowlights of a lopsided loss last month at Missouri were legion.

The Buffs yielded a season-high 107 points, lost by their largest margest of the season (45), committed a season-worst 26 turnovers and generally were left dazed and confused by the Tigers' mostly full-court pressure defense.

But as CU began preparations for Saturday's rematch in Boulder (11:30 a.m., Big 12 Network), point guard Nate Tomlinson claimed Mizzou would find a ``whole different team -- confidence-wise and the way we're playing together.''

Plus, said Tomlinson, who missed the second half of the rout with a sprained foot, coach Jeff Bzdelik has added a variety of ``press breakers'' that should enable the Buffs to successfully deal with the Tigers' pressure.

``We haven't really struggled with turning the ball over in the last couple of games,'' Tomlinson said.

At 22-4, Missouri has climbed to No. 11 (AP) nationally since blistering CU. Tomlinson acknowledged the Tigers were worthy, but was intrigued by the opportunity to catch them in the Coors Events Center.

``They're a really confident team on their home court,'' he said. ``They beat Kansas there, they've beaten pretty much everyone there. They're a good squad, but if we play them here and take care of the ball, I think we'll be all right.''

Since the blowout at Missouri, said CU guard Cory Higgins, ``We've made teams beat us instead of beating ourselves . . . I'd say we've come a long way in that way.''

And there's something else, added Higgins: ``They ran up the score on us, so yeah, we'll come out with fire in our eyes.''

February 19, 2009 9:55 AM

Denver comes to Colorado

Got to like a guy with this outlook: ``I'm 50, but I feel 25 most of the time.''

That's Denver Johnson, CU's new offensive line coach, and it's very doubtful the Buffs' returning O-linemen will have any trouble relating to his 25-year-old side.

Johnson never has lived or worked in Colorado, but he's truly back in his element -- coaching the O-line -- and he's ecstatic about the opportunity.

``I've always been an offensive line coach by trade,'' he said. ``I really never thought about being a head coach.''

He first became one at Murray State in Kentucky through necessity -- a saga recounted elsewhere on this web site and in the Rocky's print edition.

After apparently hitting it off immediately with coach Dan Hawkins, Johnson told his wife (Danita) he was ``hopeful this (job) would be the one. I had other opportunities. I had looked in the SEC and the Big 12.

``But I really wanted to get back in the Big 12 (he's been an assistant at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), and I always thought Colorado would be a good place to be.''

Johnson replaces Jeff Grimes, who held a couple of titles (assistant head coach, running game coordinator) before being plucked from Hawkins' staff by Auburn and immediately getting more security (financially and contractually) than CU could offer.

Johnson, though, comes in with one title -- offensive line coach -- and says he needs nothing else: ``I'm not hung up on titles. I'll help with the run game and the pass game and make contributions in any way I can.

``I'm sure (coordinating the running game) will fall under coach Helfrich's umbrella.''

Mark Helfrich is the offensive coordinator, with receivers coach Eric Kiesau still holding the title of passing game coordinator.

When he interviewed at CU, Johnson said he picked up on an overall esprit d'corps among players and coaches: ``It was outstanding. It's a positive and healthy situation.''

He'll settle into the Boulder area temporarily, plannning a move in early summer when his youngest daughter (Kelsey) graduates from high school and his wife finishes work as a guidance counselor in Normal, Ill., where he was Illinois State's head coach for the past nine seasons.

February 17, 2009 11:06 AM

Higgins All-Big 12?

Players and coaches in the Big 12 Conference are well aware of CU sophomore Cory Higgins, and now he's getting a measure of richly deserved national recognition.

After Higgins scored a career-best 34 points in CU's overtime loss against Texas last weekend, ESPN gushed that he was the Big 12's most improved player -- which is nowhere close to an overstatement if you scan the league's statistics.

In conference games, Higgins has top seven totals in five categories: He's No. 1 in steals (2.50 a game), No. 2 in free throw percentage (.877) and minutes played (38), No. 4 in scoring (17.9) and No. 7 in field goal percentage (.463).

What kind of argument do those numbers make for Higgins being first-team all-conference?

Pretty strong for CU coach Jeff Bzdelik, who after the loss to Texas called Higgins ``an all-Big 12 player. His leadership is awesome. Losing can beat you up, yet his competitive spirit is there.

``He can score in a variety of ways. He knocks down threes, he can drive the ball and he also gets to the free throw line. He does a lot of great things for this basketball team.''

But as admirable as his stats are, Higgins' attitude is even more so. There's no look-at-me showmanship in his game. He's all-business, no whine. He's as good an overall player as CU has had in a long time.

Will he be a first-team all-Big 12 selection? If his numbers stay up through the end of the regular season, his chances are good.

Of course, it would help, too, if the Buffs win some of those close games they've been losing.

February 16, 2009 2:55 PM

Wanted: rebound hounds

Watch enough CU men's hoops and this observation is very easy to make: The Buffs sorely need a big-time board man.

On Monday's Big 12 Conference teleconference call, CU associate head coach Steve McClain noted this huge factor in Saturday's overtime loss to Texas: ``If there's one thing (that's common in half a dozen close conference losses) it's rebounding. There were one or two big (rebounds) at the end of the game or in overtime, and we struggled to get them.

``The key is . . . we don't have somebody with a nose for the ball, a guy who goes and gets it.''

McClain also pointed to CU's overall youth and current lack of physical strength as factors that usually keep the Buffs behind in the board battle.

CU (9-15, 1-9) plays at Nebraska (15-8, 5-5) Wednesday night. The Cornhuskers edged the Buffs 55-53 last month in Boulder.

Of close losses such as that one and the one Saturday against Texas, McClain said, ``We're a young team; we've got to keep them believing there's hope at the end of this. If we had an older team, that might be impossible. But a young team continues to see the hard work, the investment, pay off. It's easier to keep them focused.''

February 13, 2009 4:45 PM

O-line search still on

Coach Dan Hawkins says he's ``close'' to identifying Jeff Grimes' replacement as offensive line coach.

But, really, what's the hurry?

Spring practice doesn't begin until March 31, and between now and then, the coaches' quality time with players is limited. Plus, former Buffs guard Brad Bedell, who served as Grimes' offensive technical intern, remains in that role and is a capable on-site guy.

So, Hawkins apparently is sticking by last week's assessment of not being in a great rush to have his new hire on campus before the middle of the month. Make no mistake, it's a critical hire, and finding the right fit makes lots of sense.

Hawkins said last week he wanted the NFL's hiring process to ``shake itself out'' before he made a final decision, adding he knew ``a couple of really good ones'' who presumably were involved in the remaining NFL fallout.

The only two names that have surfaced publicly as possible candidates are former Illinois State head coach Denver Johnson and former Syracuse O-line coach Chris Wiesehan.

But at least another couple of candidates are believed to be on Hawkins' list.

He's also putting together a list of replacements for Mark Nolan, CU's assistant director of football operations/on-campus recruiting who is following his longtime desire to be a head coach (Regis High School).

Nolan, 36, played in the secondary for Hawkins at Williamette (Ore.) University..

February 12, 2009 3:04 PM

Been there, felt that

Unfortuately for CU freshman Austin Dufault, the Buffs' 37-9 halftime deficit wasn't the first time one of his teams has been buried by intermission.

``In my senior year in high school, we got behind 45 to eight or nine at the half to the team that won the state championship,'' said Dufault, who came to CU from Killdeer (N.D.) High School. ``It's definitely not any fun, but we have to learn from it.''

The Buffs, who eventually lost Wednesday night's game at Iowa State 70-42, say they're determined to bounce back Saturday at home against Texas.

``I'm pretty confident we'll bounce back,'' Dufault said. ``We've got to come in ready to play . . . you could tell from our body language (Wednesday night) before the game we weren't ready.''

The Longhorns, who dropped out of the top 25 (they were No. 16) after last week's 58-55 loss at Nebraska, pretty much have owned the Buffs during Rick Barnes' tenure in Austin.

Texas holds a 10-3 edge over CU during that 11 season span, including 3-2 in Boulder.

``We need to find a way to beat Texas,'' CU associate head coach Steve McClain said. ``We feel like we're growing as a team . . . it would really give us something at this time.

``The thing you always worry about is where are their minds, where is their confidence? Even when you're winning you worry about that. We've got to come in with the right frame of mind against Texas - bottom line.''

February 11, 2009 11:18 AM

Polk switches to `D'

For secondary coach Greg Brown, the good news came with an asterisk.

The good news: Redshirt freshman Ray Polk, recruited as a tailback in 2008 but one of that class's most athletic signees, approached coach Dan Hawkins about 10 days ago with the idea of switching to safety. Hawkins said yes, making Polk and Brown happy guys.

The asterisk: Because Polk has had surgery on both shoulders -- the most recent operation was a couple of weeks ago -- Brown won't get a look at Polk in his new position until August camp.

``He'll observe in spring ball and continue to `rehab,''' Brown said Wednesday. ``But I'm tickled pink to get him.''

Polk, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Brophy Prep (Phoenix), and the other roster defensive backs recently ate dinner at Brown's house, and Brown said his newest DB ``fit in very well; he's the kind of guy you love to have.''

And speaking of love, Brown says his players have told him that 2008 grayshirt, Paul Vigo, has ``more than held his own'' in off-season drills against the offense. ``I'm told he can really run,'' Brown added.

The idea of Polk playing defense privately was floated among coaches shortly after they saw him for the first time in pads last August, and the fact that Hawkins and the offensive coaches didn't try to dissuade his move speaks volumes about the stable of RBs position coach Darian Hagan believes he will be working with.

Hawkins already has said Brian Lockridge, who redshirted last season, is bigger, faster and should be a factor, and that Rodney ``Speedy'' Stewart's rehabilitation (broken leg) has been successful. And coaches are hoping Darrell Scott, the headliner of the 2008 class, is primed for his sophomore season.

February 9, 2009 2:32 PM

Closing the gap?

CU men's basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik repeatedly has said he's not into moral victories, so the moral of this story is: Believe him.

Nonetheless, as his Buffs continue to come close in Big 12 Conference play, other league coaches are aware of a possible awakening in Boulder.

Either that, or they're paying homage within the tightly knit hoops fraternity and following mom's advice of, ``If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything.''

On Monday's Big 12 teleconference, Bzdelik's peers were saying nice things about the Buffs, whose 1-7 conference record (9-13 overall) belies the improvement CU has made over the past half a dozen games.

The Buffs' four most recent losses were by a combined total of 14 points, including a 77-72 loss Saturday at No. 2 Oklahoma.

Nebraska coach Doc Sadler slipped out Boulder last week with a 55-53 win that CU players were sick about letting slip away. Sadler claimed, ``No one at this point wants to play those guys. Over the last five or six games, they may be playing as good as anybody in the league.''

Iowa State coach Greg McDermmott, whose team is CU's lone conference victim, said the Buffs ``impose their will on you with what they do offensively . . . you have to figure out a way to stop it."

Bzdelik probably appreciates his peers making nice, but what he'd appreciate even more is a string of W's to match the string of L's he's absorbed thus far.

``Close doesn't mean anything; we need to continue to improve," Bzdelik said, noting his team's glaring needs are more overall strength, better rebounding and better ball protection to ``turn some of these close situations into a couple of wins.''

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