Tad Boyle believes he has assembled a hardnosed basketball team, but just how well it fits that description has a litmus test looming in the 2011-12 season's final month.
If they finish strong - and that's their challenge with five of their final seven on the road - Boyle's Colorado Buffs believe they can win the Pac-12 Conference in their debut season.
Their coach agrees, but right now he's not concerned so much with five road games as he is the first one. CU plays at Arizona on Thursday night. ESPN will be in the McHale Center, along with, oh, about 14,538 spectators - the bulk of them wanting to see the Wildcats do something unmentionable to the Buffs.
It's a big game on a big stage, a prime-time opportunity for Boyle's team to show a national TV audience and the college hoops world that it belongs.
"It's great," Boyle said of the environment he expects. "It's a testament to what ESPN feels about Arizona and about Colorado - both of us. I don't think it's an either/or thing. They saw what kind of game was played here (a 64-63 CU win) . . . and I'm sure they're expecting the same kind of battle.
"Of all the things, we have to control the tempo because Arizona is not an easy place to play. It's a good opportunity. You couldn't ask for anything more - a quality opponent, a place with storied tradition on national TV."
And that's where the Buffs being hardnosed, focused to the max, comes into play. Senior forward Austin Dufault has been on four CU teams, and he says this one is No. 1 "as far as being in the tough moments, focusing and doing our jobs. I think that's one of the things that's made us successful this year in close games. Down the stretch we're focusing on playing together as a team."
Dufault thinks that can be a CU trademark, but he realizes for that to happen it can't be a home-only thing. The Buffs are 7-0 in Pac-12 play at the Coors Events Center, 1-3 elsewhere. Boyle and Dufault know that can't continue.
"One of the most important things for us will be to stay focused on the road, try and do the same things we do at home but just transfer it to the road," Dufault said. "Whenever we've gone through some adversity on the road this year, we've kind of had trouble bouncing back from it during the course of the game. So hopefully we can change that."
Boyle says his second CU team "absolutely has a sense of toughness about it," but he's quick to add, "When we don't have it, it's pretty glaring. I think the UCLA and Stanford games (both on the road) are two pretty good examples. But again, I think those teams played extremely well against us. So part of that credit goes to them, but the other part is I just didn't think we matched their intensity and toughness. But when we've got it, we're pretty good. I think it starts a lot with Nate (Tomlinson), to be honest with you, and I think Austin is playing a lot tougher this year."
Taking that edge on the road is "all mental," Boyle said. "It's not a physical thing. We talked after the Oregon game (won 72-71 on Tomlinson's free throw in the final second) about having to believe in ourselves. We have to believe, number one, that we're a good enough team. It's the same at home or on the road. The emotions might be different, the energy in terms of what the fans give you . . . and it's not like we haven't done it. I thought we gutted it up at Air Force (winning 76-73 in overtime) and our effort at Cal (a 57-50 loss) was good enough to win. We just didn't play well enough down the stretch. We didn't make enough shots. So, we've got it in us. We have to be more consistent with it on the road."
In their one-point win against the Wildcats last month, the Buffs didn't get a point from Andre Roberson - the only Pac-12 player averaging a double-double (11.1 points, 11.2 rebounds). He was 0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-2 from the free throw line. Boyle termed that zip ride "just one of those nights . . . he got good shots. But to me, it all starts with Andre on the defensive end. That's not to say he can't score or we don't want him to score, but he does so many other things for us."
That obviously starts with rebounding, but he's also put shooters on notice with his shot-blocking ability. The 6-7 sophomore swatted away seven in the win against Oregon, answering what he termed a challenge from Boyle to be better with help-side defense.
"One of the main things coach wanted me to do was get better on help-side," Roberson said. "I kind of took ownership in it in that game, and I'm going to try and carry it over for the rest of the season. I feel like it was just a good game for me and I was in the right position at the right time to help out my teammates. So it worked out well."
Boyle also thinks it did, but he's not backing away from an applicable adage that he's hauled from coaching stop to coaching stop: "I said this when I got here: 'I want to be last in the league in blocked shots. I want to be first in the league in charges taken.' Now, I'm not going to get mad at a guy for blocking a shot . . . Andre's got a knack for doing that and I'm not going to discourage that.
"But I just want to make sure he's in great position, and playing help-side defense means good position. You add that to his athleticism, his timing and his anticipation and you get blocked shots. The next challenge I gave him is to keep some of those in-bounds, like Bill Russell did."
Neither Boyle nor Roberson is expecting zero points from Roberson on Thursday night. The good news coming from that first Arizona game was, even with Roberson going scoreless, the Buffs toughed out a win. It was a similar scenario but with a different player - senior Carlon Brown - last Saturday night against Oregon.
Boyle termed Brown, whose shooting cooled over the last two games (5-of-15 vs. Oregon State, 4-of-14 vs. Oregon), "kind of that X factor for us; when he plays well we're pretty darn good. One of the positives we take out of the Oregon game is that he didn't play as well as he's capable of and we still win that game - just like Arizona with Andre . . .
"That's another growth aspect of this team; we're able to win some games against some pretty good teams when some of our better players aren't having their best nights. That's good, but to beat a team like Arizona at Arizona we can't have too many subpar performances."
Boyle also said the Buffs must be "rock solid defensively and limit (the Wildcats') runs." At Cal last week, the Wildcats never trailed after a 36-12 run that gave them a 45-34 halftime lead. They won 78-74. Two days later, trailing 37-35 with 9 minutes to play at Stanford, the Wildcats closed out their 56-43 win with a 21-6 run.
Said Boyle: "We're going to have to make plays; they're a good defensive team . . . they're right there with us in defensive field goal percentage (CU and Arizona lead the Pac-12 at 39.8 percent). We can't rely on them breaking down. We have to execute and make plays."
And that brings the Buffs back to the true grit factor that looms so large on the road. Roberson believes it's waiting to be tapped into: "We compete - and if we don't we're not going to see the floor a lot . . . being tough is our mentality. We come ready to go every day. Everybody has a little 'chippiness' in practice, everybody is competing. It carries over to the game. That's a big part of what we're trying to do here as a program."
The Buffs have validated themselves at home. They know what comes next.
TOO EARLY TO PLANT A SEED: It's been a long time since CU was in this position . . . try the late-90s. The last time a Buffs men's team was contending for a conference championship in early February was the 1996-97 season. Flashback to Chauncey Billups.
While his last CU team didn't win the Big 12, it earned a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament before losing to sixth-seeded Oklahoma. In the 2003-04 Big 12 event, the fourth-seeded Buffs lost to No. 5 Texas Tech and were snubbed for the NCAA Tournament.
Byes go to the Pac-12's top four regular-season finishers, and CU currently is tied for second with California. Both teams are 8-3 and trail Washington (9-2) by a game. Oregon and Arizona (7-4) are tied for third, with Stanford and UCLA tied for fourth (6-5).
So the Buffs' final seven games present a stretch run heavy with not only seeding implications but where/if they keep playing into mid-March. Right now, their only postseason guarantee is a trip to Los Angeles for the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament (March 7-10).
Understandably, Boyle says with seven games left it's way too early to talk seeding: "We have to worry about winning the next game, becoming a good road team. But certainly, as coaches we're aware of that."