BOULDER – In Tad Boyle’s tenure at Colorado, the Coors Events Center has morphed from a cozy place to visit and take home a ‘W’ to a nightmarish stop that nearly guarantees leaving with a loss.
CU’s home record under Boyle is a glitzy 53-7, with the last of those seven losses coming in the last regular-season game of the 2012-13 season. The unlikely Senior Night spoiler: Oregon State, which claimed only its fourth Pac-12 win (64-58) of the season on CU’s home court.
However small, Boyle is hoping that loss is at least a reminder for the Buffaloes that there are no givens – not even at home – as they open Pac-12 play on Thursday (8 p.m.) against the Beavers. In its third season as a Pac-12 member, CU is aiming high: The No. 20 Buffs (11-2) believe they’re among the conference’s top-tier teams and can win the regular-season title.
“Yeah . . . an obvious yes. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got everything we need. It’s just up to us. It’s what we want to do with what we’ve got,” said sophomore post Josh Scott. “I think we’ve got a really good shot, as long as we defend and rebound and keep our field goal percentage defense pretty low. We have athleticism just like everyone else and we match up well against a lot of Pac-12 teams. We’ve got a really good shot.”
As Boyle has reminded his team, reaching the top is an arduous 18-game journey. But he, too, likes the Buffs’ makeup and their chances. “What I like about this team is the competitiveness, their will to win . . . all the intangibles – the unselfishness, the togetherness, the chemistry,” he said. “There are a lot of good things. I like this team; the upside is huge. But we have to have our identity and get our priorities right.”
CU didn’t have a lengthy wait last March to avenge its loss to OSU; the teams were matched five days later in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. A 74-68 Buffs win ended the Beavers’ season at 14-18 (4-12 Pac-12) while CU proceeded to the NCAA Tournament.
Last February, the Buffs defeated the Beavs 72-68 in Corvallis, and in their three meetings last season CU had to contend with Oregon State’s 6-10 Eric Moreland, whose formidable wingspan posed problems as the “on top” defender in a 1-3-1 zone. Moreland contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds in the Beavers’ win in Boulder and got another double-double (14/13) in the first-round Pac-12 game. Oddly, he was subpar in the loss to CU in Corvallis, scoring one point and collecting seven rebounds.
He won’t be a factor on Thursday night; he’s serving the next-to-last game of a 14-game suspension for a summer violation of team rules. Still, Moreland’s absence isn’t giving Boyle any peace of mind about the Beavers and their offensive capabilities. OSU features a pair of the Pac-12’s top 10 scorers in guard Roberto Nelson (No. 1 at 21.4 ppg) and forward Devon Collier (No. 8 at 18.0 ppg). Plus, if the Beavs won’t have Moreland, they will have 6-10 center Angus Brandt, who played in only four games last season before suffering a torn ACL and missing the rest of the year. He’s averaging 12.9 points and just under five rebounds now.
Boyle said Brandt presents “a great challenge” for his post players. “He’s a very skilled post, different from Moreland – not as long and athletic, but more skilled. The challenges are different.”
Oregon State finished the non-conference an up-and-down 8-4, losing its opener to Coppin State (78-73), then two games later winning at Maryland (90-83) behind Nelson’s 31 points. Defending him will be a challenge first undertaken by Spencer Dinwiddie, with freshman Jaron Hopkins also likely taking a turn.
The athletic Hopkins says his defense is night-and-day better than when he arrived on campus this summer. “In high school in Arizona I really didn’t have to play too much defense, especially on ball and definitely not off the ball,” he said. “(Now) I’ve got to stay in passing lanes and deny and things like that. Getting here has made me a better defensive player and overall player as well.
“I’ve grown a lot defensively. I’m getting better at adjusting to the physicality of the game. I’m able to get in front of guys and defend guys and contest shots – that the biggest thing for me. Rebounding as well . . . (Boyle) says five guys have to rebound on the defensive end. It’s something he praises each and every day and I just want to keep getting better.”
Boyle is expecting that from everyone on his roster. The Buffs are fifth in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 66.7 points a game – exactly 10 more than top-ranked Arizona. CU is ninth in field goal percentage defense (42.5) and tenth offensively in field goal percentage (45.5).
The Buffs are third in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin (plus-10.5), but Boyle offers a caveat: “Non-conference numbers don’t necessarily mean everything because everybody’s schedule is different . . . not everybody’s numbers are comparable.”
Still, his goal is residing among the top three in the league in that category, as well as in defensive field goal percentage. “There’s a lot of improvement to be made there,” he said. “Really, there’s a lot of improvement to be made everywhere. We’re not good enough defensively.”
The 6-10 Scott said the Buffs are “a little ways out” in reaching Boyle’s defensive goals. “We’re not bad and it’s not like tough adjustments. It’s more of a mindset (but) I think we have to get that figured out and if we don’t it’s going to be a rude awakening. I’m sure coach will help us figure it out.”
Scott averaged 13.1 points and 9.2 rebounds through non-conference play and is being touted among the Pac-12’s top big men. He’s gained about 20 pounds (up to 245) and says he’s “more comfortable” this season than last. “I was playing really consistently up until Pac-12 play (began) and maybe five games in before a little freshman slump kicked in,” he said. “One of my personal goals is to play a whole season of Pac-12 play really well. I’m looking forward to it. I’m more comfortable and I’m stronger. And I’ve added a little something to my game. I’m ready.”
The Buffs opened conference play on the road last season and returned from Arizona/Arizona State 0-2. Scott doesn’t want to repeat that kind of start. “You always want to play at home – it’s home for a reason,” he said. “It’s what you’re familiar with, you get a lot of support. It’s a bonus. We opened on the road last year and started 0-2. I know I want to win both of these games; I don’t want to go 0-2 to start the league out. I want to start it out right.”
Boyle, of course, sees the advantage of opening league play at the CEC, but he is philosophical about it. “You’d rather do that than on the road, but I don’t get caught up in scheduling because you play nine road games and nine at home,” he said. “It all evens out. If you’re opening at home, you’re finishing on the road, usually. I don’t get too tied up in that. That’s why we’ve got to look at this as a marathon, not a sprint. With that being said, in any league you’ve got to establish your home court advantage.”
Under Boyle, the Buffs have done that. But a quick glance back at Oregon State’s last visit reminds them that no advantage is infallible.