BOULDER - If it's March - and the calendar says it is - let the madness begin. For the Colorado men's basketball team, let the anger kick in.
In a season where expectations were mostly exceeded, the final week and a half of regular-season play saw the Buffaloes slide in the other direction. A home loss to Stanford was CU's first in Pac-12 Conference play at the Coors Events Center. Then, a pair of lopsided road losses at Oregon and Oregon State dashed the Buffs' dreams of a first-round bye in this week's league tournament, dropping them from a possible No. 4 seed to the No. 6 seed.
In reality, Tad Boyle's team suffered only minor lacerations in the tournament seeding process. An opening day off with a fourth seed would have been nice, but playing down to the sixth seed still offers what many of the Buffs had wanted when they left Eugene, Ore., late last Thursday night, trampled by webbed feet.
Oregon's Ducks walked over them 90-81, and certainly no solace was found a day and a half later in an unsightly 83-69 loss just up the road at Oregon State. If the Buffs accomplished anything on their trek to the Pacific Northwest, it was confirming the national perception that they're not quite road ready as Boyle's second season comes to a close.
As much as the losses themselves, it was how they were delivered that sent Boyle into a slow simmer. His mantra is "defense and rebounding," but his team lost the board duel at both Oregon stops and allowed a combined 173 points - their highest two-game yield all season. The 86.1 average CU allowed its final two road games was almost 20 points higher than what was permitted in the previous 28 games (67.3).
On Monday, a day before the Buffs left for Los Angeles and their late date in Los Angeles with No. 11 seed Utah (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., MST), Boyle termed CU's defense on the Oregon trip "God-awful, against Oregon State especially." He said the Buffs lacked "effort, focus, toughness - you name it . . . Oregon made some tough shots. Devoe Joseph (24 points on 11-of-16 shooting) made some big-time shots. You have to tip your cap to him. But you don't give up 61 percent (shooting from the field) in the second half to Oregon and 69 in the second half to Oregon State . . . we were not doing what has allowed us to have success up to this point."
That would be - all together now - "Defend and rebound."
I asked Boyle if the Buffs losing sight of those two fundamentals 28 games deep into the season surprised him. His answer: "Yeah . . . I would consider us a smart team. I think our basketball IQ is good and we understand our roles. I'd like to think at this point of the season our guys understand what's gotten us to this point. But for one reason or another - and I don't have the answer - we didn't exhibit that in the second half of either one of those games. And we played well enough at Oregon; you score 81 points, shoot 54 percent from the field, go 13-of-15 from the free throw line in the second half - that's good enough to win on the road, if you do what you defensively and rebound. But we didn't."
In the dismal aftermath, Boyle didn't waste a lot of time selling his team on the "new season" approach for the conference tournament. As Boyle said, "We're all zero-zero at this point." Then again, he was determined to reinforce recent history to his players in hopes it wouldn't be repeated.
Freshman guard Askia Booker, one of a handful of CU players with L.A.-area roots, said the Oregon losses wouldn't be easily dismissed: "We're not forgetting about those losses. That's going to be there in our hearts and somewhere in the back of our minds. We're not going to forget about that. We'll take that pain of losing those two games into this tournament and play as hard as we can."
The Buffs (19-11) defeated the Utes (6-24) twice this season, the first time by a ghastly 40 points. Boyle believes those two wins offer Utah an emotional edge, but he also wants to believe that the embarrassment of his team tanking the last road trip and losing three of its last four provides some kind of emotional counterbalance.
"You're darn right it should," he said. "But the thing about this game, we're all zero-zero. We're all in a new season, a fresh start, clean slate - all those things. That's what we have to use to our advantage and motivate our guys. What we talked about is we're at the time of season where there are no tomorrows. You lose, you go home. It's like playing in the park, the last game of the day."
Added Booker, an L.A. Price High School alum who expects about 30 friends, former teammates and family members to be at the Staples Center: "I think for sure (the Oregon losses) give us an edge because we came back not too high on ourselves. I'm not saying it would have happened, but if we would have won two games we might have been high on ourselves and might not have been as humble. That was a perfect learning experience and that's how we're going to look at it . . . I think we're going to come out humble and prepared for whatever we face."
Booker, fellow freshman Spencer Dinwiddie (Woodland Hills), sophomore Shannon Sharpe (Corona) and senior Carlon Brown (Riverside) all have Southern California roots. Each expects a personal contingent to attend, and those numbers could be bolstered by CU's large SoCal alumni base. Also, 50 members of CU's "C-Unit" - can we call them the Fab 50? - earned a trip to L.A. and should quickly make themselves seen/heard.
Booker obviously takes returning to his hometown personally. "I'm a Californian and when I'm there I feel kind of like I have the city on my back," he said. "It's like I can't let my people down. But then again, I'm not going to play out of the norm of my team; I'm going to play within my team. But I'm going to show up; I'm not going to let my city or my team down."
CU won't make the NCAA Tournament unless it wins the Pac-12 tourney and earns the automatic berth. Another NIT appearance is more likely if the Buffs don't launch a four-day roll in Hollywood. But the NIT could be overloaded with Pac-12 teams that lack NCAA cred, so it's highly advisable that CU dive as deep into its league tourney as possible.
"There are a couple of other teams that might be guaranteed something in the postseason, but not for us," senior guard Nate Tomlinson said. "It's do or die for us. It's one game at a time, one day at a time. Hopefully there are four of them, but we'll see what happens."
If the Buffs dispatch the Utes for a third time this season (CU did it last season against Kansas State), the third-seeded Ducks await on Thursday night (9:30 p.m., MST). CU's last-second one-point win against Oregon in Boulder puts the teams at 1-1 if a second-round meeting comes to pass.
Said Booker: "We'd like to settle that little tie. But it doesn't matter when we go to L.A., it doesn't matter who we run into."
"I don't want to overlook Utah, but it would be special (to get a third game against Oregon) because they're playing pretty good at the moment," Tomlinson added. "We kind of feel like we lost the one at Oregon after being up at halftime; I'd definitely like to see them again if the opportunity comes up."
If the Buffs recapture their focus and defensive intensity (and I'd be surprised if that doesn't happen), they'll also need a rejuvenated Brown to make a credible four-day stay. At least the Oregon trip featured Brown regaining an offensive pulse; he shook himself out of his mini-slump with 20 points at Oregon and 14 at Oregon State. They were his first back-to-back games in double figures in the last six.
"It makes me feel very confident in myself once again," said Brown, who had anguished long and hard about his touch going cold. "I looked at some of the old tapes against Washington, Washington State and Arizona - games I really, in some instances, took over. I'll look at the Oregon games and build upon that. But I understand this is a whole new season; anything's possible. Who knows? Anybody on our team can get hot."
But can everybody on the team ramp up their defense? That's the bigger question for a very displeased Boyle. By the time the ball goes up late Wednesday night in L.A., that bitter taste he brought back from Oregon will have lingered about four days too long.