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By: Joel Broida
CU senior Nate Tomlinson says these Buffs are in a rare (and pleasant) spot.
Brooks: Buffs In A Championship Race? Who Knew?
Release: February 21, 2012
By: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor

BOULDER - All those who believed the third week in February would find the Colorado Buffaloes in second place in their new conference and contending for a championship, please form a single file line to the right.

All others form up in any sort of order (or disorder) to the left - and yes, we're seeing a large unruly mob taking shape over there.

If you say you saw any of this coming in what amounts to a rebuilding season, I'm calling you out: The Buffs at 10-4 in the Pac-12, a game behind co-leaders California and Washington in the loss column with four to play? The Buffs (18-8) needing two wins for a second consecutive 20-win season? The Buffs winning three conference road games and not losing a league game at home (7-0) with a couple of LARGE ones looming?

OK, in the interest of providing balance (we here at always try to be Fox-worthy - fair and balanced) this basketball season doesn't find the Pac-12 snuggling in the paint with the Big East or Big Ten. No Pac-12 team is ranked (and hasn't been in 12 weeks), the league's RPI is No. 10 (the Missouri Valley, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 are ranked higher) and most bracketologists foresee no more than three Pac-12 members slipping on their dancing shoes next month.

Yes, the Buffs debuted in their new conference at a most opportune time, but also remember this: No matter your surroundings, you still must separate yourself. Rise above. And CU is doing it despite having lost 76 percent of last season's offensive punch and being projected to finish lolling among the bottom three in the Pac-12.

Let's get this out of the way now: This isn't a dominant CU team - not on the offensive end and certainly not as point proficient as last season's bunch. But coach Tad Boyle, who is within two 'W's of becoming the first CU coach to put together back-to-back 20 win seasons, has said his second Buffs bunch is a much better defensive team. Granted, it might have had a more difficult time holding Big 12 opponents to 39.6 percent field goal shooting, but that figure is working just fine in the Pac-12, thank you.

And after the Buffs won Ugly (the uppercase U is justified) last weekend at Utah, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak called Boyle's team the conference's best on the defensive end. That could be verified or dispelled in upcoming games against Stanford (Thursday night) and California (Sunday afternoon) at the Coors Events Center.

Neither the Buffs nor their coach have illusions about where their strength lies - and it's not in their scoring 68.8 points a game. Two days after the 55-48 win at Utah, I asked senior guard Nate Tomlinson what he and his teammates took away from that game.

He paused, laughed and said, "A 'W' . . . just that. It's not snowboarding or skateboarding; there are no style points. It was a game we needed to win, a must-win for us. We played ugly, really ugly. But sometimes when you're playing like that, it's the defense that has to do it. And I think that shows a maturity from us as a group to come out with the win."

After practice on Monday, Boyle took the maturity theme a step further, appealing to his team to take a "no regrets" approach to the season's final four regular-season games. With his players huddled around him, Boyle told them that at the conclusion of the conference tournament (March 7-10), he wanted each of them to be able to look him in the eye and tell him they had no regrets about their effort or about leaving anything on the court.

"We talked about the pain of regret and the pain of discipline," he told me later. "The pain of discipline is pretty short-lived. The pain of regret is with you forever. We don't want to have that pain. If it's a tough practice here, a tough game, we're fighting through fatigue, whatever the case may be we have to sharp mentally coming down the stretch.

"Our guys know what's at stake. They know what we want to accomplish. Like I told them after practice, we've worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we want to make sure we continue to work hard so that we leave it all on the floor."

This is a rare and potentially rewarding time for CU hoops. The visits by Stanford and Cal represent opportunities not often seen in Boulder. The school's last conference title in men's basketball was won in 1968-69, and only twice since the 1972-73 season have the Buffs found themselves within one or two games of the conference lead this late in the season.

How big is this week in CU hoops?

"It's definitely up there," senior Austin Dufault said. "Anytime you're in the top three in the conference and have a chance to win a championship - that doesn't happen too often. It's a different experience. I can feel from the team and the coaches more of a sense of urgency. The practices are a little more intense; we know what's at stake. Nobody wants to let this opportunity slip away without us giving it the best we have."

I asked Dufault and Tomlinson about Boyle's "no regrets" approach during this final three-week push and if that message is resonating with the Buffs. Dufault said most certainly, adding: "You have to ratchet it up for these next three weeks and try to cut out all the distractions and focus on the team . . . and you do whatever you have to do to make this thing happen."

Added Tomlinson: "Absolutely . . . especially for the older guys. We've been here a long time and never been in this position since I've been here. We don't want to have any regrets at the end of the day; we just want to when it's all said and done and all the games have been played we don't want any regrets. That's all you can do as players, then you hope for the best."

The Buffs have two immediate requirements - the first to be taken care of Thursday, the second on Sunday. Then comes next week's final regular-season road trip to Oregon and Thursday/Saturday games at Oregon and Oregon State, respectively. Then it's on to L.A. for the conference tournament, maybe among the top four seeds.

If things go right a couple more times in the increasingly formidable Foam Dome, Boyle and the Buffs could be heading northwest with 20 wins. Nice number, but there still can be more to this season than that.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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