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BOULDER - If embarking on a Pac-12 Conference road trip last week was a brand new experience for Tad Boyle and his Colorado men's basketball team, something else was new for the Buffaloes as well.

CU left Boulder last Wednesday as the league's only unbeaten (3-0) team and the early leader in the Pac-12 standings. The Buffs occupying that spot, even so early in conference play, has been rare. As a result, last week's two opponents had CU squarely in their sights - in the crosshairs, if you will.

The basketball Buffs exiting Colorado with bulls eyes on their backs? Hasn't happened in a long, long while.

"We talked about that with our team," Boyle reflected before Monday's practice. "The one thing that had maybe changed a little for this road trip was that people weren't overlooking Colorado. With that, you've got to be able to handle that target on your back and understand that they're coming at you."

And that's what occurred last Thursday night at California and again Saturday afternoon at Stanford. CU lost its first two Pac-12 road games, by 7 at Cal, by 20 at Stanford. Even in defeat, Boyle could live with the Buffs' effort in Berkeley, but at Stanford down the stretch there was slippage that had a lot to do with the Cardinal.

While the Bears were putting away the Buffs in the final minute on Thursday night, the Cardinal was in a surprising struggle with CU's road partner, Utah, a team the Buffs had KO'd by 40 in their Pac-12 debut. Was Stanford gazing past Utah? Who knows? But the Cardinal was a different team on Saturday, particularly in the final 10 minutes.

Said Boyle: "Stanford was awfully good on Saturday. I think (coach) Johnny Dawkins said that was the best game they've played all year. They were good on both sides, their starters played well, their bench played well . . . there weren't a lot of holes in their game that night."

Not so for the Buffs, who prior to the road trip were allowing 54 points a game in league play. The Cardinal punched up 84, and CU senior Carlon Brown said he and his teammates "just let Stanford and the crowd and the refs get the best of us - and that's something we can't do if we want to be successful and win on the road.

"We were missing easy shots around the basket, not finishing and obviously not defending . . . they hit some big threes and got some momentum and the crowd really got into it. They extended their lead, made all the stops, all the plays necessary to win."

Nevertheless, Boyle liked how his team approached its first league road trip, how the Buffs "went out expecting to win two games. Internally our players and coaches expected it. It didn't happen, but the first step is that you go expecting - not hoping or wishing or praying. I like that about our team; they expect a lot from themselves.

"We lost to two good basketball teams; it's not like we went out and gave one away to a team that was not very good. They're both at the top of the league standings, and they were there before conference play started in terms of their non-conference schedule. They're quality programs."

Last week's experience was the Buffs' first away from home with the Pac-12's Thursday/Saturday format. Senior Austin Dufault noticed a difference from the Big 12 travel schedule that usually brought road teams back to their campuses for a day or two before going back out.

Asked if the Thursday/Saturday format had an adverse effect, Dufault said, "Maybe, but we can't blame that . . . that's just the way it's going to be from here on out. It's something we have to adjust to. I think everybody felt OK Saturday. We just didn't do the things we needed to do; there were a lot of mental mistakes. It wasn't being tired or anything like that."

What Boyle noticed, though, about the quick turnaround was more mental than physical. The Pac-12 scheduling, said Boyle, "really puts a lot of importance on getting your team emotionally, mentally prepared for that Saturday game. It's really a hard game for the road team. We didn't have quite the same 'eye of the tiger,' that consistent intensity, that we did on Thursday. Part of that, too, is just the overall toughness you have to have going on the road. To win on the road you have to be mentally tough."

Winning the board battle usually falls into that category, and the Buffs didn't win it at Stanford. The Cardinal outrebounded them, 35-27, which Dufault attributed to Stanford claiming its advantage with "want to."

Said Dufault: "They wanted it more than we did. They sent five guys to the boards every time. For the most part we box out as a team, but if you had one or two guys who weren't boxing out then their guys were coming in and getting rebounds. We have to realize they're sending five guys. We have to match that. It's going to be physical in this league playing the upper echelon teams like Stanford . . . it's just the way it's going to be."

Before the road trip, the Buffs' 3-0 league record raised more than a few eyebrows, with doubters noting they would wait until CU had played away from the Coors Events Center before penciling in the Buffs among the contenders. Returning from the road with a 3-2 record didn't exactly silence the critics.

"I don't really care; it's not my job to be concerned about what other people think," Brown said. "We're just going to keep playing basketball . . . the rest of the road games will take care of themselves, depending on how we play."

Dufault was of the same mind: "It doesn't really matter to me what people on the outside say. It's about these 15 guys and our coaching staff. That's the only thing we'll concern ourselves about. We'll practice to get better and control what we can control."

The pair of initial Pac-12 road games, he added, offered "a big opportunity for us to go out there and get a couple of wins - but we let it slide away. Now we've got to come back home and try and play well . . . if we take care of business at home we're right back in it before we have to go back on the road again.

"I think we learned we can definitely play on the road; it's nothing we should be worried too much about . . . we were right there in the Cal game, but we didn't execute down the stretch. We change a couple of little things, we can compete with anybody in our league on any night - it doesn't matter what gym we're in."

The Buffs are in their own gym next; the Arizona schools visit the Events Center this week - Arizona State on Thursday (6:30 p.m.), Arizona on Saturday (4 p.m.). The run-up to both of those games, said Boyle, will find the Buffs "right back at square one. We'll emphasize execution. This is the time of year where we're not putting in a lot of new thoughts, ideas. We tweak things from game to game, depending on who we're playing. Arizona State throws something at us we haven't seen - a matchup zone. We have to spend time on that.

"Arizona has a rock solid program. They're a team like us in that it's kind of a transitional year for them. They're going through a lot of the same things we're going through this season. They're two very different opponents but we have to get better ourselves and then put the game plan in for them."

At 6-11, ASU is one of three Pac-12 schools with an overall losing record. Utah (4-13) and Southern California (5-13) are the other two. The Sun Devils are 2-3 in conference play. Arizona, which won the Pac-10 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight, is 12-6 and is tied for fifth place (3-2) in the league with CU and UCLA.

The Buffs have 13 regular-season games remaining, including seven on the road. That's more than enough time to show weekly improvement, prove that they can win on the road and achieve their seasonal goals.

Said Brown: "We've got room to catch up or room to fall off. We'll see what happens."

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU