BOULDER - Now comes the hard part. The Colorado Buffaloes capped an eight-game home stand on Saturday with a 71-60 win against Washington State that kept them unbeaten in the Pac-12 Conference and atop their new league with a 3-0 record.
But the road awaits . . .
The Buffs, the Pac-12's easternmost member, head west this week for games at California (Thursday) and Stanford (Saturday). But by all accounts - including theirs - they are more well-equipped to hit the trail than they were a month ago.
"I'm proud of our guys for coming together, believing and improving," CU coach Tad Boyle said, noting that his team being picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 was and will be motivation for the Buffs as they head into the teeth of their conference schedule.
Saturday's victory was CU's sixth straight and seventh in the eight-game stand at the Coors Events Center, pushing the Buffs to 11-4 overall. Boyle said his team's 3-0 conference start was what he and his players expected, given the league schedule's friendly front end.
"The schedule has favored us, but we've done what we need to do," he said. "The difference in being good and great is winning on the road (and) we start out with what is arguably our toughest trip."
But it's not as daunting as it might have been had the Buffs' pieces not begun coming together after their 65-54 home loss to Wyoming and their survival of a second-half sleepwalk against Texas Southern (a 56-51 win after leading by 16 at the half).
A month ago, had CU faced a zone defense at the outset of a game as it did Saturday against WSU, Boyle's team might have gone into shake, rattle and get-rolled mode. But the Buffs handled it Saturday like they should have, working patiently inside to Austin Dufault (17 points, 12 in the first half) and getting a blistering perimeter performance from Carlon Brown (season-best 28 points).
It's reasonable to call him "Downtown Brown;" he hit six of his 12 three-point attempts Saturday, including four-of-four in the second half to help yank the Cougars out of their 2-3 zone.
"Brown lit us up," said WSU coach Ken Bone. "He's a good player, playing with a lot of confidence, and he's a tough matchup. But they do a great job of spacing, knowing where he's at and getting him the ball."
Dufault and Brown, both seniors, got an assist (three on the scoresheet) from CU's third senior starter - Nate Tomlinson, who finished with 11 points. "Our seniors were terrific," Boyle said. "We had called them out in Puerto Rico (tournament) . . . Our young guys had stepped up, but there weren't as good (Saturday) as they usually are."
He was referring primarily to freshmen Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker and sophomore Andre Roberson, who finished with five points each (Roberson had eight rebounds). For Dinwiddie, it was his first game in the last 10 that he hasn't been in double figures.
No matter . . . the old guys were there with solid contributions to what Boyle conceded turned into an unsightly 'W': "It was one of those games you look at and say you'd rather win ugly . . . than lose pretty."
He left with that opinion because the Buffs let a 22-point second-half lead dwindle to eight in the final 2 minutes. But they got three free throws in the final 49.8 seconds to keep the Cougars (9-7, 1-3) at bay.
"There's so many things we can get better at," said Boyle, for starters honing in on late-game execution in the motion offense and cutting down on turnovers (17 on Thursday night against Washington, 14 on Saturday against WSU). He's said all along he believes he has a "good zone offense team," with good passers and shooters. "That's why you recruit them."
Take Brown, who is reinforcing his image as the offensive threat - really the all-around player - CU believed he could be when he transferred two years ago from Utah. "I'm just playing the game . . . taking what the defense gives me," Brown said. "It's a simple game, but if you think too much it becomes hard."
It's not; Brown has been in double figures in 13 of his 15 games for CU and has averaged 18.2 over the last four. He was instrumental in shooting the Cougars, who were attempting to bounce back from a surprising 62-60 overtime loss at Utah on Thursday night, out of their zone midway through the second half.
"I felt all my shots were there in the second half," Brown said. "Guys just found me . . . the only way to get them out of a zone is to hit (outside) shots."
But Dufault was just as effective on the inside, hitting 7-of-9 from the field and three of his five free throw attempts. Dufault said WSU opening in a zone and staying with it so long was mildly surprising, but added, "You have to be prepared for anything . . . we thought they'd play more man to start, but (the zone) is nothing new to us. I knew the inside of the zone had a lot of holes and gaps I could sneak into . . . and our guards did a great job of getting me the ball.
"I thought we handled it well; we moved the ball inside. We're getting more and more confident against it."
In addition to handling the Cougars zone, the Buffs also handled 6-10 WSU junior Brock Motum - the Pac-12's No. 4 scorer (15.7 average). Motum finished with nine points, only two in the second half, and hit just two of his 10 field goal attempts.
Said Dufault: "Motum is one of the better big men we'll face . . . that was huge (holding him to nine points) . . . we made a conscious effort (in) guarding him."
In addition to opening in their zone, the Cougars also applied three-quarter court pressure after nearly all of their first-half baskets. But the Buffs adjusted to that, too. They took the lead just under 2 minutes in and never relinquished it. They went ahead by as many as six points before the Cougars put together a 7-0 run and pulled to within 12-11 at 11:01 before the break.
CU and Dufault answered with an 11-0 surge that gave the home team its biggest advantage of the half - 23-11 at the 6:52 mark - on the way to a 32-24 lead at intermission. Dufault contributed eight of CU's points during that 11-0 run and finished the half with 12.
WSU managed to keep CU's lead in single figures at the break by hitting four of its eight three-point attempts. Maybe that was a cue for CU. With Brown hitting a trio of treys in the second half's first 3:40, the Buffs opened with a 13-3 run and took a 45-27 lead.
Bone huddled his team at a timeout, but he didn't have enough answers. He did pull his team out of its zone and picked up the game's pace, but CU's 18-point lead made anything Bone proposed difficult.
And the Buffs weren't satisfied with that margin.
After consecutive WSU baskets, CU responded with a 10-2 run and shot ahead by 22 points (55-33) with 11:21 to play. The Cougars cut the deficit to 65-57 in the final 2 minutes on a jumper by Faisal Aden, then to 68-60 on a three-pointer by Dexter Kernich-Drew with 54 seconds left. But that was as close as they got.
Now comes the road west and the road test. The Buffs' 3-0 Pac-12 start, said Boyle, "is going to last four five days; we'll either be 4-0 or 3-1 . . . you don't get caught up in the standings. But we remind our guys they picked us 11th . . . I don't think we're going to finish 11th."