The Colorado men's basketball team is on a mini-run (a three-game winning streak) and the Pac-12 Conference race appears to be morphing into exactly that. This is what is known as good timing, or it could be.
CU coach Tad Boyle is happy, proud and grateful - and also eager to see if the Buffs' late-January success seeps into February. You don't see content among those adjectives trailing Boyle's name because he isn't.
Not even sniffing content, in fact. At the moment, he's as cautious as an ice fisherman in mid-April.
While Boyle certainly would rather be counting three consecutive 'W's than 'L's, he's also reminding his players how quickly things can sour if they forget what extracted them from that 1-4 pit in Pac-12 play. After Wednesday's practice - the week's first after two days of rest - he said he senses the hard lessons learned en route to four early losses just might be sinking in.
When I asked him about the modest three-game streak composed of wins against Washington State, Stanford and Cal and how much momentum had been created, he answered, "We've got a little bit, but again, that can all go away in a heartbeat. I think we understand why we've been successful. Now it's committing to making sure we do those things.
"They're little things, it's not like we just want to start winning. It's what do we have to do to do that? Play together offensively, share the ball, not care who's taking shots, making sure we're getting the best shot for the team every time down. And then defensively, all the things we talk about."
Do his players realize how quickly success, short and long term, can be sabotaged by an unsightly loss - say, against a Utah team that's won once in eight league games?
"Absolutely," Boyle answered. "We're young and we have to continue to improve. We lost some games, we watched film and we understand why we lost and what we have to do better. We understand why we went on a three-game win streak . . . why we're having success and what we're doing better. We talk about all those things."
All the talk had best be digested. If the Buffs aren't sharing a like mindset with their coach, Saturday's trip over the Rockies to Salt Lake City could have all the trappings of a classic trap game.
No doubt, the Utes are in their second season of severe struggle under coach Larry Krystkowiak. After losing by 21 in Boulder last Thursday, Stanford visited SLC on Sunday and won by 31, dealing Utah its eighth loss in nine games.
The blowout matched the Utes' worst home loss ever, and Krystkowiak was more than a bit bothered. He told the Salt Lake City papers, "This is rock-bottom for me. This is the lowest I've felt since I took over. We just got beat up out there . . . I can tell you this much: We will play hard for the rest of the year. That won't be a problem again. There just wasn't a bright spot in this ballgame for us."
As for getting "beat up" by the Cardinal, this was his prescription for getting more physical: "If you want to come watch football practice, it takes place on Tuesday afternoon. We are going to have some games that we play really well. But we can't lay an egg like that. I'm not going to tolerate a lack of effort."
Don't think Boyle doesn't monitor these things. "No question they're going to be angry," he said. "I'm sure (Krystkowiak) is going to get after them this week in practice and they're going to come out with a whole new resolve and a whole new level of intensity than they showed against Stanford. And we've got to be ready for that . . . they've proven when they play well they can beat anybody."
Case in point: Washington, which remained unbeaten two weeks ago by stiffing Arctic-cold CU, 64-54. A couple of days after the Buffs tripped to Seattle, Utah strolled into Alaska Airlines Arena and dealt the Huskies their first league loss, 74-65. If eyes rolled in the Pacific Northwest, they opened elsewhere in the Pac-12.
"Anytime a road team wins, to some degree, especially a road team that had lost five games going in there . . . I think it opened a lot of people's eyes," Boyle said. "I watched their game live against Boise State early in the year, and I tell you what, they shot the ball well and looked like a whole different team that night. When they shoot the ball well, they can pose a lot of problems."
Utah's win at UW got - and continues to hold - the attention of CU sophomore guard Askia Booker. "Utah is not going to be an easy game, not at all," he said. "They beat Washington, a team we couldn't beat, and they did it in their (UW's) house. We're not overlooking them, looking at Oregon or Oregon State (next week). We want to be prepared for the next game, that's all. And that's what we're doing in practice, that's where it starts."
The Buffs' problem in Seattle was frigid shooting (36.2 percent), which the Utes know something about. They're eighth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (42.2) and last in scoring (59.4 points). They also are No. 12 in turnover margin (-2.50).
In the Stanford game's aftermath, Krystkowiak announced that 7-foot sophomore center Dallin Bachynski will take a break from competition. In truth, the break might have started a game ago; the younger brother of Arizona State's 7-2 Jordan Bachynski (the Buffs have vivid memories) played only three minutes. He had started nine previous games.
Boyle insists Krystkowiak isn't dealing from a depleted roster, only a much different roster from last season. Boyle and his staff recruited 6-6 freshman forward Jordan Loveridge, and Boyle recalls redshirt junior guard Glen Dean, an Eastern Washington transfer who played against Boyle's Northern Colorado team. Loveridge is Utah's leading scorer in all games (12.1 ppg) but trails 6-10 senior Jason Washburn (10.8 to 13.5 ppg) in conference. Washburn also is the team's leading rebounder (8.9 rpg).
By Saturday's tip time (12:30 p.m., FSN) at the Huntsman Center, the Buffs will be playing their first game in six days. Booker, CU's No. 2 scorer by a fraction (14.4 ppg to Spencer Dinwiddie's 14.5), said the break was welcome, but added the Utes also should be well-rested - provided that was anywhere on Krystkowiak's agenda after the Cardinal debacle.
"They have a week to prepare, just like us," Booker said. "That's a long time to get in the gym, get your head right, get mentally focused for the next game. That's why I say it's not going to be easy. If it was overnight after they lost to Stanford, they might not be ready to play us. But they have a week, just like us. They're going to be ready; they're going to try and make a statement just like we're going to try and make one."
Added Andre Roberson, who collected three double-doubles last season against the Utes in three games (two regular-season, one conference tournament): "There are no unimportant games. We dug ourselves a hole and we have to continue to dig ourselves out. We're 4-4, barely breaking .500. We have to get ourselves in position to be one of the top four teams (in the Pac-12). We can't lose this game.
"I wouldn't say they're a good team; they're considered a bottom feeder. But they definitely can beat us if we don't play well. They're desperate for a win, especially after Stanford. We have to come out ready to play."
If the Buffs don't, their three-game win streak becomes a distant memory. So might some of their future plans. If the arrow for February is indeed pointed up for them, playing down to the conference's last-place team would be a dreadful way to open the month.