BOULDER - Flash back with me to the opening of the 2011-12 Pac-12 Conference basketball season and Tad Boyle's debut in Colorado's new league. For some reason, maybe wanting to make a nice first impression on the Buffs, the P12 powers-that-be (the schedule makers, in this case) served up a favorable first three games to one of its two new members.
CU was offered - thank you very much - Utah, Washington and Washington State in the Coors Events Center. Boyle's team promptly made a strong opening statement, going 3-0 with the closest of the three games a 71-60 run past Wazzu. (The Buffs drubbed the Utes by 40 and the Huskies by 18.)
That was a mostly veteran CU team, but it still prospered from the advantage of three consecutive home games to open conference play. Reality returned quickly with consecutive losses in its first two P12 road trips to the L.A. schools.
Still, the Buffs continued to hold serve at home, won a couple of road games (USC, Arizona State) before closing out the regular season with a pair of road losses (Oregon, Oregon State), then peaked at the precise time in the conference tournament. Which brings us to the start of P12 play, circa 2012-13 . . .
This time, the schedule-makers shipped CU out of the CEC for its ill-fated opening trips to Arizona and Arizona State. Boyle's third Buffs team, featuring one senior, could have used the front end of last season's conference schedule this time around. Just sayin' . . .
Boyle won't say that and shouldn't. Coaches play the conference schedules dealt them, and at the moment Boyle and his staff are prepping the Buffs for two crucial home games - Thursday night vs. USC, Saturday afternoon vs. UCLA - that could get them back to .500 with a trek to the Pacific Northwest looming next week.
At 10-4, the Buffs could match last season's 11-4 start with a win against the Trojans. USC is 6-9 overall, 1-1 in the league, but has been steeled by a non-conference schedule that Boyle recently called "crazy hard."
Here's why: Non-conference losses were to Illinois and Marquette in Maui, San Diego State, at Nebraska, at New Mexico, Minnesota and at Georgia. OK, USC also lost at home to UC Irvine, but all in all, it was the kind of non-conference schedule that could make a coach believe he's being set up by his athletic director.
But Boyle isn't taking pity on fourth-year USC coach Kevin O'Neill - just as no other P12 coach is waving the crying towel for the Buffs after Sabatino Chen's late-make-turned-miss last week at No. 3 Arizona. League coaches might get around to that in the off-season over a cold beverage, but it's not going to happen in early January.
Among Boyle's concern now is his team's mental toughness, its penchant for starting strong but failing to sustain. The Buffs had first-half leads of 17 and 13 points at their two Arizona stops and lost both games. Boyle's on-going sermon centers on mental toughness in general, but specifically improved field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin.
He wants the Buffs among the top three in the league in both categories, but after their 0-2 start they are No. 7 in the field goal percentage 'D' (42.9 percent) and tied with UCLA at No. 10 in rebounding margin (minus-5.0).
For all 14 games, the Buffs rank higher in each category, but Boyle is concerned only with the rankings in their conference season. That's because comparisons are more accurate. "When you get into league play, everyone is playing the same caliber teams," he said. "Now, it's apples to apples."
In addition to the inability to maintain defensive intensity for 40 minutes, Boyle is seeing too much whining over uncalled contact, perceived missed calls - really, court life in general when it doesn't go the Buffs' way. A couple of days ago, I asked him how to break a team of the whining habit.
His answer: "You don't let them get away with it in practice. You call 'em out on it. When I say we've got to get more mentally tough, that's part of mental toughness. Instead of looking at the referee - 'Oh, I got hit' - play on. Play to and through the whistle. Don't let those things bother you and don't make excuses. If you got fouled and they didn't call it, go ahead put the ball in the basket."
He has communicated, rather forcefully, this to his players, and most seem to be getting the message. Sophomore point guard Spencer Dinwiddie said letting the practice of letting the nickel-and-dime stuff roll off the Buffs' backs is "something that starts with the leaders on this team. Me, 'Sab' (Chen) 'Ski' (Askia Booker) and 'Dre' (Andre Roberson) are very vocal in terms of when we dislike a call. You can generally see it.
"I think other guys buy into that because it's something they see their leaders do. It's not so much that we can't react, it's more about having the mental toughness to stay the course, keep going and proceed with the plan regardless of how disgusted we might be."
Dinwiddie believes the Buffs are "doing a better job" of maintaining their composure, but lacking on the consistency front: "The biggest concern on our team is inconsistency. There's no reason why we can hold a team to like four points in six minutes, then not be able to stop them in the second half . . . especially when they show they weren't that potent of an offense."
From Boyle's perspective, there's also a battle being waged against what he terms "entitlement." Drop by any construction site along the Front Range and you're not likely to find any guy wearing a tool belt that's as blue-collar as Boyle. He's swept the gym floor and emptied the trash at Jacksonville (Ala.) State and worked his way through the ranks to his current spot. If you want to compile a list of entitled coaches, don't bother with Boyle's name.
If he senses losses aren't as painful to his players as they should be, count on them hearing about it. And right now, at 0-2, Boyle has a few questions about the angst some of the Buffs are feeling.
"If they're not hurting, if it doesn't sting and we're not a little ticked to be 0-2, something's wrong," he told me. "We've got to change that right away. The thing that makes me sick to my stomach about anybody - young people, middle aged people, old people - is a sense of entitlement.
"We are not going to have a sense of entitlement in this program. Sometimes in college athletics, especially big-time college athletics, these guys get charter flights, stay in nice hotels, get nice meals (and) on game day it's four meals a day. They're fat and happy. If you act like you're fat and happy, guess what? You're going to have a coach who's going to be calling you out on it. That's not what we're about. Our players need to understand that."
On that subject, freshman forward Xavier Johnson offered, ah, an interesting take: "I feel like right now we're a young team and we don't really know about losing . . . we feel bad, we're upset, but what you see in coach (Boyle) - it's a completely different thing. That comes with experience. At the college level it's all about playing hard and winning and losing. And we're 0-2 right now. I don't think anybody's as hurt as they should be."
So with their first two home Pac-12 games at hand and a chance to get even, that's the state of these young Buffs. Mad, but mad enough? Hungry, but hungry enough?
Home has been good to Boyle (38-4 in 21/2 seasons) but only because he's identified the huge advantage that the CEC should be, then created it, and then made sure his teams protected it.
"We have a saying around the team that we don't lose at the crib," Dinwiddie said. "Getting back here in front of our fans and the C-Unit . . . yeah, we're really looking forward to it. Every game in the Pac-12 is critical. Our goal is still to be the regular-season champs. We still feel like we can play with any team in the league and beat any team in the league. Our goal is to go 16-0 in these next 16 games."
Boyle wants to see Step One taken Thursday night, accomplished with 40 minutes of intense defense and more consistent rebounding. And no whining, please.