Head men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle told his team this past week that home games against Stanford and California were a chance for the Buffaloes to separate themselves from a crowded, muddy cluster of teams in the Pac-12 standings.
By beating the Cardinal 91-75 on Wednesday night, their sixth straight win over Johnny Dawkins’ program, Colorado has put themselves in a chance to do just that. Thanks to surprise road wins by Washington and Oregon, both of whom sit atop the conference standings one game ahead of the pack, a win over the Golden Bears on Sunday would put CU in a position to finish among the league top four teams for the first time in the Boyle era.
That’s what makes Sunday afternoon the most important game for Boyle and his program...ever.
Colorado was a program trending upwards just two years ago, with national writers picking the Buffs and Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Spencer Dinwiddie as one of the nation’s sleeper teams, one that could make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Since then, no one would argue that things have consistently gone the Buffs’ way. Injuries, recruiting battles lost, lopsided defeats in huge games. Much of the national momentum that this program had built, thanks to a Pac-12 Tournament title and three straight well-ranked recruiting classes, had evaporated.
Now, with the Pac-12 looking as balanced but as up-for-grabs as ever, the Buffs have been presented with an opportunity to reverse the trend--to regain their momentum and remind the country why so many viewed this program as one to be reckoned with moving forward.
If we look at Colorado’s schedule, we see road games remaining against Oregon, Oregon State, USC, UCLA, and Utah. Utah has been a house of horrors for the Buffs even since Dinwiddie’s sophomore year when a mishandled dribble in the closing seconds went a long way in giving the Utes a win that signaled Larry Krystkowiak had finally turned a corner in Salt Lake City. Boyle has yet to beat UCLA in Westwood though his teams have yet to lose to USC in conference play. As for the Oregons, CU has found a bit of success along I-5, but with the Ducks playing the best basketball of their season thus far and Corvallis slaying just about everyone to stroll in for a casual date with the hardwood, it’s more than reasonable to expect those two to be as challenging as any game the Buffs have played this season. Basically, the kind of road wins that we’ve long since established to be more elusive in college basketball than any other major sport will be hard to come by.
Take a reasoned approach and figure that, in an optimistic world, the Buffs can steal two or three of those. Add in a home loss in the season’s final stretch--Washington and Arizona look like the two most likely candidates outside of, you know, California--and Colorado would be finishing with a Pac-12 record of 11-7 or 12-6. As I’ve said all year, 12-6 has a chance to win the conference, while 11-7 should all but promise you a bye in the first round once Las Vegas rolls around. Drop the game against California, though, and the likes of 10-8, 9-9, or even 8-10 start to look like real possibilities.
Getting beat by Utah significantly reduced the margin of error that Colorado has, moving forward. Getting beat by California would signal that the magical days of Boyle being beyond reproach aren’t just dust in the wind, but the belief that Colorado has another step forward to take as a program will take a serious hit.
No rational thinking human being would argue that Colorado is on the same level, as a basketball program, as the likes of Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, California, or Washington. All of these programs--if we’re being honest, we can probably throw in Stanford and USC as well, but let’s just keep some optimism around here--have historical and/or recent histories that far surpass what the Buffaloes have accomplished. More years than not, these are the programs that will be competing for the league crown, for one reason or another, and challenging the NCAA Tournament field to make a run into late March.
Some years, though, like this one, there are opportunities to steal some caché--to steal a title, even. These are the years where a program that can’t rely on one-and-done type of talents has an opportunity to make their move thanks to a well-rounded but slowly built roster. Programs that rely on seniors like Josh Scott can, and should, remain competitive throughout their careers, but the chances they have to see their team on top of the league standings will likely only come around every few years. This is one of those years for the Buffs, but they’ve got to prove they’re capable of capitalizing on such a chance.
That’s why beating California on Sunday is so vital, such a key measuring point for a program that needs a heavy dose of optimism. A win keeps them squarely in the title race and eases the pressure they face by finishing the conference slate with five of seven games being played on the road.
A win puts this team in a position to remind the conference that Colorado is still a major player on the scene. A loss brings about more regional and national storylines surrounding Cal’s resurgence under Cuonzo Martin after losing Tyrone Wallace--more talk about everyone but Colorado.
At the very least, the Buffs must own the news cycle.