CORVALLIS, Ore. -
At the conclusion of Thursday night's short bus ride from Oregon's Matt Knight Arena to the Colorado Buffaloes' hotel, coach Tad Boyle made his usual trip to the back of the vehicle to brief his players.
Less than an hour before, the Buffs finally had overtaken the No. 19 Ducks, not getting their first lead of the night (48-47) until Andre Roberson's put-back of his own miss in the last 29.5 seconds. Offensively, the game was more paint-by-numbers than Picasso, but CU followed Boyle's blueprint - defense and rebounding - and won anyway.
Of course, Boyle was proud of his players, and he told them so on the bus. As a reward, he also extended their curfew for half an hour, which elicited a mild, lighthearted protest from some of his guys.
"'Dre' wants midnight," offered someone other than Roberson.
Boyle grinned, but didn't blink. Midnight it became and under the circumstances how could he refuse? On a night that needed warriors, Roberson stepped up. "We're a competitive team, we keep fighting," he said. "That's one thing this team has - heart."
Roberson submitted his typical double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) and was beastly down the stretch. Boyle said Roberson had "a look in his eye, an energy that I hadn't seen before." And the Buffs tapped into it and managed to off-set a hideous three-point loss to Utah on their previous road trip.
If ever there was a serious need for a bounce-back game, Thursday night qualified. And after his team's gut-it-out, grind-it-out win, Boyle recognized the magnitude: "We really, really needed this one."
What the Buffs really, really need now is to quickly move on and rediscover their offense. In shifting from Eugene to Corvallis for Sunday night's game against Oregon State (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) they go from competing against a team that was tied for first in the Pac-12 Conference to competing against one tied for last.
But it's a top-to-bottom scenario that the Buffs had best not be viewing in those terms. Forget that the Beavers (2-8) share a room in the Pac-12's low rent district with the Utes and Washington State, remember what happened in Salt Lake City. With a loss in Corvallis, Thursday night's general giddiness and extended curfew in Eugene will be all but blotted out.
Boyle is hoping the mood swings following the past two games left an imprint on his players. Even in the residue of the Utah loss, which saw the Buffs come from 22 points down in the final 8 minutes, sophomore guard Spencer Dinwiddie said a statement was made: "It said we're never going to give up. I think you saw that in the Utah game, as bad as that turned out. You see kind of the toughness and heart this team has and the resiliency, I think, is the proper word. We're a very resilient group."
CU needs to hang onto and nurture that characteristic through the remainder of February and into March. Boyle doesn't want the Buffs looking that far into the future, but this month is critical to their NCAA Tournament aspirations. They've negated the Utah debacle with a quality road win in Eugene; three RPI rankings (RealTime, TeamRankings, ESPN/Joe Lundardi) as of Saturday morning had the Buffs at Nos. 12, 20 and 19, respectively.
Thursday night's win, said CU guard Askia Booker, "builds a lot of confidence. But, honestly, if we don't beat Oregon State it doesn't mean anything. At the end of the day, we have another road game . . . if we don't win, that (Thursday night) doesn't mean a whole lot."
The Buffs have reason to be wary of the Beavers. Last season's visit to Corvallis produced a beat-down (83-69) that still stings. Despite its unimpressive records (12-11, 2-8) and mediocre home mark (9-5), Oregon State has Boyle's attention and he hopes that of his players.
OSU junior guard Roberto Nelson is tied with Arizona State's Jahi Carson for the Pac-12 scoring lead (18.4 ppg), and Boyle calls 6-7 senior Joe Burton "probably the best passer in our league." Burton has averaged 4.3 assists in 10 conference games. The Beavers' top rebounder is 6-10 sophomore Eric Moreland (9.7 rpg in league). In all games, he averages 10.7, ranking him tenth nationally. He's also used atop a 1-3-1 zone that OSU occasionally employs.
Then there's Ahmad Starks, a 5-9 junior guard the Buffs should remember from last season's blowout in Gill Coliseum. Starks and Nelson combined for 34 points, with Starks scoring 16 of his 18 during a 33-8 second-half run that buried the Buffs in their final regular-season game.
As a team, the Beavers are first in the Pac-12 in three-point shooting (36.7 percent), second in assists (15.6 per game) and third in scoring (74.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (45.7). "They've got a lot of guys who are dangerous," Boyle said.
On the flip side, Boyle is hoping the Buffs shake themselves out of the offensive slump that has plagued them for the past two games. They shot 40 percent from the field at Utah and 36.5 percent at Oregon, but their defense in Eugene was good enough for 40 minutes to prevent the Ducks from mounting a huge lead. That wasn't the case in Salt Lake City, where the Buffs could feel good about rallying but not about losing by three points.
In home wins against Stanford and California, CU had at least four players in double figures in each game (five vs. Stanford). At Utah and Oregon, those numbers dropped to two and one, respectively. The misfiring has been especially obvious for Booker; he's 6-for-27, making three field goals in each game.
For two weeks he's been battling a cough and fever that he said has "been wearing on my body . . . I'm trying to get back in shape; my legs are not the same." Merely wanting a change, he's also sporting a new, closer-cropped hair style. "Nothing to do with basketball," he said.
If there's an silver lining to the Buffs' shoddy shooting, Booker said it's that they are "not letting it affect our defense. If we can continue to play defense, our offense will come eventually. We'll start knocking down shots."
Boyle agreed: "Offense comes and goes," he said. "When you're not shooting well, you have to rely on something else to win games. 'Ski,' Spencer and Josh (Scott) are good players; they're getting good looks. It's just not going in right now. I just want to make sure we're taking care of the basketball and not turning it over, which we didn't late (against Oregon). When we take care of the ball and we get good shots, as a coach that's all I can ask for."
That's not entirely true. He's also asking his guys for the same degree of focus on Sunday night that they displayed three nights earlier at Oregon. Have they matured enough to rekindle it?
"We'll find out," Boyle said. "I think, again, they saw that we got on a little three-game run there - Washington State, Stanford and Cal - and we stubbed our toe against Utah. Hopefully everything we go through is a learning opportunity; hopefully you learn from the Utah opportunity that (a bad loss) can negate a lot of things."