BOULDER - For Colorado basketball fans, the countdown began shortly after Sabatino Chen's apparent buzzer-beater on Jan. 3 in Tucson was waived off, forcing an overtime that the Buffs, their followers and much of the college hoops world believed was unnecessary.
A 41-day wait is done. The countdown is at 0, and zero hour is 8 p.m. Thursday at the Coors Events Center. Colorado vs. No. 9 Arizona. Call it a very significant Pac-12 Conference game, the Buffs' rematch for redemption, or merely the next one on the schedule - but you're safe to assume it's gone a bit beyond that.
Has it been difficult for the Buffs not to anticipate Arizona's Valentine's visit?
"Without a doubt," sophomore guard Askia Booker said. His personal countdown began "right when that call was made at the end of regulation. It kind of got to us . . . I think it's probably one of the reasons we lost in overtime. Just knowing how we took that loss in Arizona, we were thinking we can't wait to meet up with them again. Now we know it's right around the corner. We'll be prepared."
In fact, CU coach Tad Boyle says the Buffs will be better prepared than they were on Jan. 3. That might be hard to believe given his team's first 16 or so minutes against the then-No. 3 Wildcats. With 4:30 left in the first half, the Buffs led 30-13. But finishing out the first half was a problem for CU and finishing out the game was an ever bigger one.
In the 10 games since that 92-83 overtime loss, Boyle believes his team's maturity level has climbed a couple of notches. A rare road sweep through Oregon last week left the Buffs above .500 (6-5) for the first time in Pac-12 play this season. CU picked up very few style points in the pair of wins - 48-47 over No. 19 Oregon, 72-68 over Oregon State.
But, hey, it's mid-February and style points aren't as critical as 'W's. The Buffs apparently have come to this realization. They've won five of their last six and have bought in to Boyle's "get-a-stop, get-a-win" theory.
It paid off nicely in Oregon, said sophomore guard Spencer Dinwiddie, and has been the Buffs' biggest area of improvement since opening conference play in Arizona.
"I've seen a lot of growth, especially in our commitment to defense," said Dinwiddie, whose 24 points at Oregon State came on a night of perfect shooting (six-of-six from the field, including four-of-four threes, and eight-of-eight free throws). "Now we understand how much stops matter . . . that's the biggest improvement and the most important improvement. If we can stop you, we can win. That showed at Oregon, beating a team and only scoring 48 points."
The new-found commitment to 'D' and getting critical stops has put CU into the Pac-12 lead in scoring defense (64.2 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (40.6). Showing well in both categories on Thursday night would benefit the Buffs.
Arizona leads the conference in scoring (76.2 ppg) and features two of the top nine scorers (Mark Lyons is fourth at 17.5 ppg, Solomon Hill is ninth at No. 9 at 15.4). Plus, Solomon Hill is second in three-pointers made per game (2.2) and third in three-point percentage (44.4).
The Wildcats also are No. 3 in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin (+3.06) despite not having a rebounder ranked in the league's top 25. The Buffs' Andre Roberson is the conference leader (11.1 rpg), but the team is No. 6 (+0.1).
The Buffs were out-rebounded 44-33 in the loss in Tucson and allowed the Wildcats to shoot 43.1 percent from the field. CU finished at 47.5, with one-for-nine marksmanship in the OT dragging that figure down. But the Buffs' biggest shortcoming on Jan. 3 was losing their big lead due to late turnovers and no late stops.
Said Boyle: "I think we got soft defensively and they started driving the ball. They scored and got fouled in one possession and made a free throw in four seconds, they scored on another possession in like five seconds late in the game . . . their crowd got into it and then everybody got into it. And the officials got into it, too."
If the Buffs have learned to play the defense that Boyle demands, their next rediscovery needs to come on offense. CU is averaging 65.7 points a game, ninth in the league. In wins against Stanford and California in the last home stand, five and four CU players, respectively, were in double figures. That hasn't happened since, with no more two Buffs reaching double figures in each of the next three games.
Nonetheless, CU won two of the three, and Booker reflected, "Before, we didn't know how to play to win if we weren't shooting the ball well. Lately, personally, I haven't been shooting the ball well (8-of-41 in the past three games). But I've tried to figure out other things to do, such as rebounding or getting Spencer or Andre certain shots that they're going to knock down. Or Josh (Scott), or 'Sab' (Chen) or 'XJ' (Xavier Johnson), whoever it may be.
"But we're just doing whatever it takes to finish out the game and come out on top, whether it's one point over Oregon or three or four against whoever it is. If we can figure out a way to win games . . . that's what we're starting to do. At the end of the day, whatever (the score) is, we came out on top. We did what we needed to do. At the end of the day, it's about defense and rebounding."
Boyle acknowledged Booker's offensive struggles, but noted Booker "shoots better at home" and said he expects the struggles to end. Boyle also referenced Carlon Brown's mid-season shooting slump last season and the credited the senior's perseverance in pulling out of it. Booker, said Boyle, has the same work ethic.
If the Buffs won't lack for motivation Thursday night, neither should the Wildcats. Arizona suffered a surprising 77-69 home loss on Sunday to Cal, dropping the Wildcats into a three-way tie for first with UCLA and Oregon (all are 8-3). CU has climbed into a four-way tie for third with USC, Stanford and Cal (all are 6-5 and the Buffs have beaten the other three).
A sellout crowd (11,064) is expected Thursday, giving the Buffs 14 (12-2 record) thus far in Boyle's three seasons. Booker, Dinwiddie and their coach admitted that being overhyped early was a consideration but not a concern.
Said Booker, who scored 18 points in the OT loss to the Wildcats: "In the first meeting at Arizona we were very hyped. And I think that's exactly why we came out and shot the ball the way we did. We were all prepared and ready, mentally and physically. If we can come in, especially at home, with that same intensity and contain it, then finish out the game with defense and rebounding, we should be just fine."
Being overhyped, added Dinwiddie, "actually might be a challenge we face. Everybody knows what happened in Tucson. Our crowd is going to be into it. Our crowd is already into it; the game's been sold out for a very long and it's supposed to be rocking. I understand being overhyped, but in some cases it's better to have that type of intensity and drive and focus to win a game as opposed to not taking it serious."
Staying in control but playing with intensity, said Boyle, "will be a good maturity check for our guys . . . (revenge) is on our fans' minds, there's no question, and I'm sure it's on our players' minds. But it's a big game because it's the next game. I've got a lot of respect for Arizona, their staff, their players and their program. It was a disappointing loss for us and we certainly would like to get it back. The only way to get it back is to try and win on Thursday."
Buffs the planet over have been counting the days - and it's been a long, excruciating wait.