BOULDER - Winning road games has been a long-standing challenge in Colorado men's basketball - and the challenge still stands. It's what this CU team finds confronting it as the 2012 non-conference schedule trickles toward a close.
The Buffaloes need, really need, a true road win. They are 0-2 after losses at Wyoming and Kansas, with chance No. 3 - the last chance before Pac-12 Conference play begins next month - presenting itself Wednesday night at Fresno State (8 p.m. MST, AM 760).
The Buffs are young, but coach Tad Boyle has repeated nearly on a weekly basis since mid-October that youth won't be an excuse for whatever befalls his third CU team. His young players apparently are picking up on that.
"Last year we weren't a great road team either and we had a lot of veterans," said sophomore guard Askia Booker. "I think it's just a mental thing; we have to believe in each other and take initiative and responsibility on the road. Yeah, that's easy at home, but once we're on the road and everybody turns against you, we kind of fall apart.
"This Fresno State trip is very important to us. If we can't win at Fresno it's going to be a bumpy road when we get to the Pac-12. We just have to take accountability, get better and get ready. We have to win our first road game. We can win at home against anyone, but this road game is very important. It's a must win."
Wednesday night's game comes on the heels of the worst loss in CU's Boyle era. On Saturday, the Buffs were overwhelmed at No. 9 Kansas, losing by 36 points (90-54). If Boyle wished to play the youth card, he could have and no questions would have been asked. CU's true freshmen and sophomores went numb in the frenetic Allen Fieldhouse environment against a KU lineup stocked with seniors. The Jayhawks' experience and the Buffs' lack thereof in that setting were apparent from the opening tip. Things turned ugly early and stayed that way.
"We got overwhelmed, we had the deer-in-the-headlights look," Boyle said. "Once it starts going downhill in that building, it's hard to stop."
After that kind of blowout, some coaches prefer to move forward quickly and opt not to revisit the game via tape. Not Boyle. "It's a big mistake not to watch that kind of defeat," he said. "We talked about it, but that thing has got to hurt. Our team has to understand there's a reason why that happened. And it's our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what those reasons are . . . we still have a young team and by turning the page and moving on, it's saying that's OK. We'll treat that loss like any loss."
Junior forward Andre Roberson said casually dismissing the KU debacle was "not going to be easy," but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. "What was it, 40 points?" he asked. "I think that was the worst I've ever lost by in anything. Everybody else on the team feels the same way. We're holding that in the back of our minds; we need to remember that every time we go on the road - that feeling and never have it again."
The tale of the KU tape revealed poor shot selection, missed opportunities to take charges, unforced turnovers (18 total) and a lack of effort in boxing out. Said Boyle: "We want to control the things we can control. We can't always control the ball going in the basket, so we'd better control what we can. Pressure breaks pipes and they busted ours to pieces."
After scoring only six points in each of the two games preceding the KU trip, Booker shook loose for 15 against the Jayhawks. But he hit only five of his 15 field goal attempts and went one of six from three-point range. He wasn't satisfied with his shot selection, and neither was Boyle.
He called the next two games "beyond important for me. I haven't been shooting the ball the way I want to shoot. I've been taking a lot of contested shots and I haven't been getting to the free throw line. These are things over these next two games that you're going to see me work on - shot selection, getting to the free throw line more and getting my teammates shots. Coach talked about selfishness (Sunday) during the film; we're almost dead last in the country in assists. We have to get better at that." (At 9.7 assists per game, the Buffs are tied for 317th among 345 NCAA teams.)
Fresno State (5-4) is coming off a weekend loss at Washington State (59-50). The Bulldogs are 2-1 at home, having lost to Long Beach State (69-61) in late November. Junior guard Allen Huddleston is the only Bulldogs player scoring in double figures (12.1 points a game).
Fresno State signed one of California's top players - 7-foot center Robert Upshaw - in its last recruiting class. He's averaging 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds coming off the bench. The Bulldogs' leading board man is 6-8 junior Kevin Foster, whose points and rebounds averages are identical (7.2).
Booker said the Buffs' road success hinges on them developing a more rugged mindset: "We're not as tough as we think we are. Just coming together as a team is important for us; we don't come together quite yet on the road."
Boyle echoes that: "Right now we're good at home or a neutral court. On the road when things go south and the crowd starts going against us, we don't have the gumption to bow our backs and not let it happen."
That's why Wednesday night looms large. "It's a big test for us," Roberson said. "We're still looking for our first road win and I feel like we've got a good shot at getting it at Fresno, then getting right back on the track we were on last year (in the Pac-12).
"We have to come out hard and aggressive and play together. That's all we have to do. This team is still searching. We look good at home, but we're still searching for the chemistry on the road. It's not all there yet; we're still working on it."