Tad Boyle's first trek through the Pac-12 Conference needs a swing next week through Oregon to be complete. It might be premature for a comprehensive reflection on Pac-12 road trips, but it's not too early for Boyle to do a slow reflective burn over two previous stops.
One was at Stanford on Jan. 14, the other at UCLA two weeks later. Both resulted in bad losses for his Colorado Buffaloes, with the 20-point defeat by the Cardinal (84-64) the worst among the Buffs' four in conference play.
Recalled Boyle: "They really outplayed us at their place. That game and the UCLA game are the two that stick in my mind as us really getting outplayed, especially in the second half. We've got an opportunity to make up for that."
Circle Thursday at the Coors Events Center as "Big Opp Night" in a big, big week for Buffs basketball. Following the Cardinal's late visit (8:30 p.m., FSN/ROOT Sports), conference co-leader California makes a Sunday matinee stop (3:30 p.m., FSN) at the Events Center. Sunday's game is sold out, and as of mid-afternoon Wednesday fewer than 300 tickets remained for Thursday night's game.
Stanford's convincing win last month against Boyle's team marked a high-point for the Cardinal. Coach Johnny Dawkins called it Stanford's most complete game/effort to date, and a glance at that box score and what his team has done since underscores his reasoning.
The Cardinal hit 10-of-23 from beyond the arc, shot 52.9 percent from the field overall (59.1 in the second half) and outrebounded the Buffs 35-27. The Buffs finished at 42.1 percent from the field, and a six-point halftime deficit slowly deteriorated into the final 20-point margin.
"I hope that was their best game," CU senior point guard Nate Tomlinson said. "They beat us and they were pretty awesome that day, I'll give them credit for that. But we didn't play our best game. I don't think they saw the best Colorado team, I don't think they saw the team that's going to be out there on Thursday night. We'll be better."
"That's a team that really got after us and kinda kicked our butts a little bit," added senior forward Austin Dufault. "We're preparing to play that type of team because we know what type of team they can be. They've got great players and can be one off the better teams in the conference."
No doubt the Cardinal was on that day, but since then . . . not so much. After slapping around the Buffs in the second half, Stanford lost its next three and is 3-6 overall in the nine games since. Five of those losses were by 10 or more points, with a 68-64 defeat by Oregon last Sunday the exception. In that game, Stanford (18-9, 8-7) was competitive but went 11-of-22 from the free throw line.
Dufault said a tape review of CU's second half at Palo Alto revealed the Buffs "just didn't play hard enough . . . we didn't play with a sense of urgency or have an edge about us. I don't know if it was because it was our first road trip or whatever, but it was a reminder about how hard we have to play. They really turned it up a notch at their place and kind of took it to us. Hopefully we can change that this time around."
Added Boyle: "We've got to be the aggressor, have an in-your-face attitude for 40 minutes."
Boyle views the Cardinal as possibly the Pac-12's deepest team - "A quality eight or nine" - but says Dawkins recently has "shortened his bench," which might have benefitted the offensive flow. Boyle also says the Buffs must be aware of Stanford's inside/outside presence. Senior forward Josh Owens (12.6) and freshman guard Chasson Randle (12.5) are the top scorers, with sophomore guard Aaron Bright (11.3) also averaging in double figures.
Stanford's loss of momentum since handling CU has cost the Cardinal one prize the Buffs still are chasing. At 10-4 in the league, CU trails only Cal and Washington (each at 12-3) in the Pac-12 standings. Contending for a regular-season championship in their first year in the Pac-12 is a major incentive, and Boyle wants to make certain his players are tuned in.
Most coaches - including Boyle - are "one game at a time" types, but he's also a big-picture guy who this year posted a Pac-12 standings/statistics board in the locker room. It's a kind of "reality check" that lets the Buffs view where they are and what they need to accomplish to be among the league's best.
Boyle also did that during his Northern Colorado coaching tenure but said he hasn't worked for many coaches who followed that practice: "I just believe in it. It's different than a coach talking about it. It doesn't matter where your team is - bottom end, middle of the pack or top end - you want them to look at it every day and remind them. It's a reality check. Sometimes players don't always live in reality. That's our job as coaches, to make sure they understand this is what we've done to put ourselves in this position . . . or look at those teams above us - look what they're doing that we're not."
For the Buffs, being in the thick of a conference race as the end of February approaches amounts to uncharted territory. The end-of-season intensity rises several degrees, but Tomlinson believes he and his teammates can keep pace. This, he said, has been a competitive collection since preseason pickup games and the CU staff "has done a good job in practice of making the competition mean something. We're going to have a competitive nature just because of the guys we have. That's what we are, and that's why the four years I've been here the win total has gone up every year."
Although it didn't involve a chase for a regular-season title, Dufault said a similar pressure-filled situation existed last season when CU was battling for an NCAA Tournament berth that looked promising but evaporated on Selection Sunday. That, noted Dufault, "was definitely a learning experience, being in the thick of things and handling that pressure where the outcome was not only looked at by our fans but people around the nation. Everything's magnified now, but I think that helped out a lot . . . at the end of the day it's similar; it's about going to the tournament."
But for Boyle, beginning Thursday night, the emphasis remains on closing out the regular season with game-to-game improvement that will send CU to the Pac-12 Tournament (March 7-10) on a roll - and hopefully with a top four seed. From there, who knows?
Regardless, said Boyle, execution and reducing turnovers become paramount: "This is the time of year that it gets tougher to score. Teams have you well-scouted; there are very few secrets this time of the year. What you do you have to do well; you have to execute. We want to make sure we get a great shot every time down. That means we can't turn it over, we have to execute whatever it is we're running offensively to make sure we get that shot."
Boyle claimed none of his players - even his freshmen who now have played their way out of that classification - are close to running on empty. The stakes are too high to allow it. "That has a lot to do with it," he said. "The fact that we have something to play for and our guys are excited to come to practice every day, not every program is going through that right now."
And not many CU teams in recent memory have experienced it, which isn't lost on Tomlinson. "To win a Pac-12 championship would be unbelievable for us, especially for the young guys we have," he said. "The best thing about it is that we control our own destiny. If we finish it out right, we'll be right up there."