Once Pac-12 Conference play begins, Tad Boyle's Colorado Buffaloes likely will play more meaningful games on grander stages than Wednesday night's encounter with unbeaten Colorado State. But for now, given the once-beaten Buffs' recent past and what they see for themselves in the near future, CSU looms pretty large. Plenty large. OK, huge.
Here are five reasons why:
- The Buffs don't believe a meek second half on Saturday at Wyoming told their real inside story. Post Leonard Washington "beasted" the Buffs - a favorite Boyle term - in the Cowboys' 76-69 win. Translation: Washington singlehandedly wore out CU inside with 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals. "His warrior mentality - that's what we were lacking," Boyle said. And don't even suggest that his young post players were too green to combat the muscular 6-7 senior. "Youth is not an excuse," Boyle said. "Our youth has to grow up and it better be quickly - especially our interior youth."
- After watching the CU-Wyoming tape and Washington's work, CSU's inside players - particularly 6-10 Colton Iverson and 6-5 Pierce Hornung - already might be on a bus to the Coors Events Center. Hornung is averaging 12.0 rebounds a game, Iverson 11.2. As a team, the Rams lead the NCAA in rebound margin per game (plus 17.3). In that department, they are what Boyle wants from the Buffs. "We thought Wyoming's post guys were good, these cats are that good and then some," Boyle said.
- For the past two games (a double OT home win against Texas Southern preceded the Wyoming trip), CU hasn't shared the ball to Boyle's liking. Actually, it goes further back than the past two. The Buffs have totaled 11 assists for the past three games and are averaging 11.7. CU averaged that last season, so Boyle probably can live with the string of 11's as long as the turnover total stays below that. It hasn't - and that eats at the head coach. The Buffs are averaging 13 turnovers. "We're pretty good when we play together and share the ball," Boyle said. "Our assist-to-turnover ratio has got to be better."
- Sophomore guard Askia Booker opened like a dynamo. After opening with 13 points against Wofford, he averaged 19.1 as CU won the Charleston Classic and embarked on a two-week stay in the Top 25 (No. 23, No. 19). The Buffs and Booker dropped back into anonymity this week. He scored a season-low six points at Wyoming, but Boyle isn't concerned so much about Booker's scoring as he is shot selection and every other phase of Booker's game. Said Boyle: "All I worry about is that he takes good shots, he defends and rebounds. And if he's not defending and rebounding and not taking good shots, then we've got problems."
- The Rams defeated the Buffs by one (65-64) last season in Fort Collins, and it still burns at Boyle. He's 3-3 overall vs. CSU, 1-1 as CU's head coach. CSU has changed coaches - Larry Eustachy replaced Tim Miles - but Boyle doesn't see much of a philosophical change. The Rams play with an edge, rebound and play defense like demons and usually don't beat themselves. They are allowing 60.7 points a game (No. 76 nationally). "This is going to be a knock-down, drag-out," Boyle said. "I've got a lot of respect for Colorado State, Larry Eustachy and the way they play."
In their past two games, the Buffs have lacked some of the intensity that pushed them through three tough opponents in Charleston - Dayton, Baylor, Murray State - and past Air Force in their first game back. Boyle can't offer a definitive reason, but here's his best guess: "The fact is, we did start 6-0 and cracked the Top 25. That maybe changed our mentality, I don't know. There's no question it changed our opponents' mentality and we didn't handle it very well in either game (Texas Southern, Wyoming). That's on us; we have to adjust our way of thinking. It has to be a paradigm shift for us just like it is our opponents."
On Sunday night, when he showed his players the tape of the loss in Laramie, he called the session "embarrassing," mainly because the Buffs didn't respond in the second half (they led 28-26 at intermission) and Washington had his way with them, literally outmanned them.
"We can't beat people with our coolness," Boyle said. "We have to beat people with our grit and determination, our toughness and our rebounding, our defense. If that's not our identity, then we're in for some rude awakenings."
Senior Sabatino Chen agreed with Boyle's critique of the Wyoming tape: "Yeah, it was (embarrassing) for us, our fans, anyone who watched us. Our aggression on 'D' was off . . . I don't know exactly why. Maybe it was the first road game and once we got a couple of fouls, maybe guys got a little hesitant and it went from there. We couldn't pick ourselves up like we should have done, but we'd never been in that situation all year. We didn't react well to it."
On Monday, Boyle put the Buffs through one of their more physical practices, with plenty of work taking charges, going to the floor for loose balls, and going against dummy-wielding managers in the lane.
After Saturday night, Chen said he expected that kind of work, but added, "I don't think we've been soft all year. I just think last game we were soft. It's about coming back to what we do. In Charleston we were a physical team; we boxed out against Baylor and played physical in those games."
Booker said his coach "hit it dead on the spot" in calling the Wyoming tape an embarrassment: "It was embarrassing just to see ourselves and the mistakes we made. It was pretty silly. There's stuff we go over every day on the defensive end. We're not too much worried about the offensive end; it was people out-working us, playing harder on the defensive end. They wanted it more and it showed."
As for the recent hitch in his offensive game, Booker believes Charleston unveiled him. He's no longer a secret. "I'm going to get everybody's best shot now, everybody's best defender," he said, adding he's been "a little too lackadaisical" in his tape work and preparation.
He's also aware Boyle wants him to create more for his teammates and not let a string of missed shots sabotage his entire game. "Sometimes I get frustrated when the offensive end isn't flowing and I take that out in other aspects," Booker said. "I have to learn not to do that and stay focused on the defensive end and rebound."
Like Chen, Booker said if the Buffs "went soft" in the second half in Laramie, it didn't offer an accurate read of who they are. He said he and his teammates are capable of playing/winning a grind-it-out game: "Can we do it? Yes. For us to do it is a different question. We have to come together when it comes down to that time. (Saturday) we didn't come together; we separated a little bit. They were just as physical as any team we've played (and) that night we didn't want to be physical. We didn't grind it out. Can we do it? Yes, and I think from here on out we will."
Come Wednesday night, their home court will be their proving ground.