LAS VEGAS – If you’re thinking the Colorado Buffaloes are stuck on 59, you might be onto something. But here in Sin City, where gambling is the big engine that could, that’s a long way from crapping out.
It’s a magnificent number, a winning number, for Tad Boyle and his revitalized crew.
The Buffs’ last three wins – against Stanford in the next-to-last regular-season game, against USC in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, against California in the quarterfinals – have been by the same score: 59-56.
The Buffs’ two wins here have ended in identical, nail-biting, fist-gnawing fashion: CU is up by three in the closing seconds and survives a 3-pointer to tie at the buzzer.
In racehorse college basketball, 59 points are not a lot. Boyle’s guys love to run and score, but that’s not how this team – this season – has evolved after Spencer Dinwiddie’s knee injury in mid-January. In their last seven games, the Buffs haven’t hit 70 points, with 65 in a one-point overtime loss at Cal the high mark.
That’s the longest low-scoring stretch in Boyle’s about-to-be-completed four seasons in Boulder. But here’s the more telling bottom line number: Boyle’s fourth CU team has won 23 games (10 losses), making this season the second-most productive in terms of wins in school history. (His first two Buffs teams finished with 24 wins.)
And turning to something more topical since it’s the month of madness, those 23 wins should remove any mystery – if there was any – that might have shrouded CU’s inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field. Selection Sunday looms for the official word, but the word will be good. Book it.
But Friday finds the Buffs with things other than the NCAA Tournament on their minds. They have a semifinal date at 7:06 p.m. MDT with top-seeded and fourth-ranked Arizona in the MGM Garden Arena. Upsetting the Wildcats, then winning the Pac-12 championship on Saturday would remove all Selection Sunday mystery about the Buffs’ NCAA future; the tournament champ is in automatically.
Accomplishing that begins with beating powerful Arizona, whose players defend like they were guarding loved ones from a home invasion.
“They took a lot of pride in guarding us . . . we got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team and we saw Arizona, I think, at their finest,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said Thursday after Arizona had clamped down on his team in a 71-39 quarterfinal win. The halftime score: 34-13. Utah’s Big Three – Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Delon Wright – were a combined 1-of-16 from the field.
The Buffs know something about the Wildcats’ defense from their regular-season meetings. Arizona won 69-57 in Tucson, 88-61 in Boulder. The Wildcats give up points as willingly as the IRS gives away cash; they lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 58.7 points a game.
That’s very close to CU’s magic number of late – 59 . . . Hmmmmm.
“They’re the best defensive team in our league,” Boyle said. “It’s not even close. They’re the best rebounding team in our league. It is close there.”
That’s because CU is at 37.9 boards a game, while Arizona is at 38.9.
In their two wins over the Buffs this season, the Wildcats leaped to large early leads – as they did against the Utes Thursday. CU fell behind 18-4 in Tucson and 22-5 in Boulder in what would end in the Buffs’ worst home loss of the Boyle era.
Whether it makes a difference or not Friday, this is a different CU team, a more focused team. Eli Stalzer, who stepped to the foul line Thursday in the final 6 six seconds and hit one of two critical free throws, said the Buffs have learned something about themselves and the high energy Boyle wants from them since a March 1 loss (75-64) at Utah.
“Now it seems like guys don’t think they can take plays off; every possession is important,” Stalzer said. “We’re all working hard to do our best.”
That’s partially attributable to the transformation of junior guard Askia Booker, who has averaged 16.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s shooting 46.7 percent from the field (21-of-45). In the two Pac-12 Tournament games, he has averaged 19 points a game, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He’s hit 50 percent from the field (16-of-32).
Maybe more important than the numbers, Booker’s composure has stood out. He’s become CU’s glue, if you will, which at one point in his career might have seemed improbable if not impossible.
Boyle said, as a coach, “you hope” a player develops like Booker has: “He’s had an interesting career; he’s grown up exponentially – especially since Spencer went down. He was thrown in the fire of a leadership role . . . he’s done a great job. And that’s what’s so gratifying about doing this job. You see young men come in, where they are as freshman not just physically and skill-wise but emotionally, spiritually and maturity-wise. He’s come a long way.”
So have the Buffs. Boyle’s second CU team (2011-12) won the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles with a four-day, four-game run as a No. 6 seed. His fourth team, as a No. 5 seed, is within two wins of a repeat. Boyle doesn’t have near the veteran leadership on this team that was apparent in L.A., but he’s seen a similar trait develop over the last several weeks: ownership.
“You look at that team with Nate (Tomlinson), Carlon (Brown) and Austin (Dufault) – they took ownership down the stretch and made it happen,” he said. “Now, we had to win some close games there . . . but now we have to play one of the best teams in the country in the semis and we didn’t have to do that two years ago.”
I asked Boyle if his players would have any difficulty in blotting out those two regular-season losses to the Wildcats, particularly the one in Boulder that concluded ESPN’s College GameDay visit.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Boyle answered. “That’s a distant memory. It’s a new day, a new opportunity. The way our guys are playing right now and feeling about themselves, they want that opportunity, they relish it. We’re not going to play with a lack of confidence (Friday).”