Fast Break: Colorado on the rise in Pac-12

Admit it. You sort of forgot about Colorado, didn’t you?
Until the Buffaloes beat ranked Baylor on Friday in the Charleston (SC) Classic, you had forgotten this was a program that seemed to be headed upward even while it was still in the Big 12. Remember that CU was in the NCAA Tournament last year?

It’s OK. Unless you live on the West Coast, Pac-12 teams have a way of disappearing on you. Maybe it’s something about the late start times.
In any event, let Friday’s win be your reminder. The Buffaloes (4-0), now in their third season under coach Tad Boyle, appeared good enough Friday to compete for the Pac-12 championship — whatever that’s worth.
The conference has three teams in the AP Top 25: No. 10 Arizona, No. 11 UCLA — and now Colorado at No. 23. That doesn’t exactly make for a gantlet. The league is stronger now than it was two years ago, but there is no team on the schedule Colorado will feel like it can’t beat. The Buffaloes won’t face anybody with more talent than Baylor the rest of the year.
Boyle’s teams don’t beat you with their talent, although this one has a guard, senior Sabatino Chen, who has to be one of the fastest players in the country, and another guard, sophomore Askia Booker, who looks like he can score from anywhere. He had 19 of Colorado’s 60 against Baylor, which knocked the Buffaloes out in the NCAA second round last season. Booker finished with 58 points in three games and was named MVP as the Buffaloes won the Classic.
The Buffaloes run patient offense and play sound defense. With a little bit of talent — which they have — that should be enough to be in the hunt for a Pac-12 title this year.
Let’s slow down on Shabazz
Josh Smith’s airballed layup notwithstanding — you saw that, right? — the 11th-ranked Bruins finally got their whole team together when the NCAA reinstated freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad on Friday, just in time for UCLA’s game Monday against Georgetown.
The case was a reminder of what Kansas went through with Josh Selby two years ago. Like Muhammad, Selby was considered a certain one-and-done player and missed the start of the season because of an NCAA suspension.
That turned out to be a pretty big deal.
Although Selby had some moments (and did end up in the NBA after one year), he spent most of the season on the bench while less talented, more reliable upperclassmen handled the ball for the Jayhawks.
This is not to say a similar fate awaits Muhammad. It is just to say that it’s difficult enough being a freshman — learning to cope with the demands of a coach who isn’t going to kiss your butt anymore, learning to play defense, learning to score against defenses designed to take you out — without missing the first couple weeks of the season.
For all I know, Muhammad is going to be the best player in the Pac-12. By all accounts, he has that much talent. But let’s pump the brakes on the expectations a little bit.
It isn’t that easy.
Youth got served, so now what?
Kansas and Kentucky got taken out by more mature teams last week in Michigan State and Duke, respectively.
So what of these teams that played each other for the national title back in April?
Kentucky, it appears, will be fine. The Wildcats do not have a force of nature quite like last year’s player of the year Anthony Davis on the roster, but if there is one defining characteristic of John Calipari’s teams, it is confidence. Or swag, if you prefer. And this group has plenty of it.
The Wildcats’ bugaboo looks like it’s going to be turnovers from their guards, especially freshman Archie Goodwin.
Kansas might have a little bit of a point guard issue, too. It’s still unclear whether senior Elijah Johnson is comfortable in his new on-the-ball role, freshman guard Anrio Adams doesn’t appear to be quite ready for all this yet and sophomore Naadir Tharpe can appear a little physically overwhelmed at times.
That wasn’t what cost the Jayhawks against Michigan State — it was a series of failed defensive rotations on high pick-and-rolls — but it is the one spot on the roster where KU doesn’t have clear answers.
Telling stats
11: 3-point shots without a make by South Carolina, which overcame a 17-point deficit to beat UW-Milwaukee despite not making a 3-pointer.
They said it
“Hey, let’s just call it like it is — we don’t look athletic to me at all. We look athletic in one spot: (Ben) McLemore. The other guys are just average athletes, as far as being able to run.” — Kansas coach Bill Self
“At the age of 19, I was working at a bank. That was so boring to me because it was the same thing everyday, the same people, the same thing, the same problem. Recruiting is a beautiful animal. It keeps you in suspense.” — South Carolina coach Frank Martin
Player of the year watch

1.    Cody Zeller, Indiana

Zeller’s numbers — 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game — aren’t overwhelming, but he’s only averaging 25 minutes at this point. That number will go up, and so will the rest.

2.    Trey Burke, Michigan
He’s averaging 18.3 points and eight assists per game and shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from the 3-point line. If those numbers hold up, and Michigan is a top-10 team, Burke will win this award going away.

3.    Mason Plumlee, Duke
It suddenly looks like Plumlee might be a major scorer for the Blue Devils. Any time Duke has a forward who scores a lot, that guy is a player of the year candidate.
Ups and downs

Down: Washington
Lost to Albany. Enough said.

Up: Michigan State
Rebounded from the week before to beat Kansas with a late rally. Of particular significance was the coaching strategy. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo successfully negated Kansas center Jeff Withey’s defensive impact by running high ball screens, knowing the Jayhawks’ big men, including Withey, would hedge every time. The Spartans scored several buckets this way, particularly late in the game. Score one for Izzo.
Down: NC State
Shot 35.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free-throw line in a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State. That’ll happen when Scott Wood and C.J. Leslie go a combined 2-for-16 from the field.

Up: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys barely beat Akron to start last week, then clipped off blowout wins over  Tennessee and then-No. 6 NC State. Suddenly, Oklahoma State looks like the kind of team that could contend for a Big 12 title, and Le’Bryan Nash, averaging 19 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, looks like a Big 12 player of the year candidate.
Conference power ranking

1. Big Ten
2. Big 12
3. SEC
4. ACC
5. Big East
6. Pac-12
Crystal ball
No. 1 Indiana crushes Georgetown this week, then gets taken into the final two minutes by Ball State.

A young, talented Houston team makes the NIT semifinals this year, setting up an NCAA tournament run in 2013-14.

Pitt clobbers Michigan on the glass Wednesday, but the Wolverines make 12 3-pointers and win comfortably.