Buffs hope to climb out of the ‘muck,’ finish top-four in Pac-12

Junior guard Shane Gatling celebrates their win against the University of Arizona Wildcats. Feb. 17, 2019 (Casey Paul / CU Independent)

The University of Colorado men’s basketball team are no strangers to being in the thick of the Pac-12 conference. And by the thick, I mean smack dab in the middle of all of it.

Since the Colorado Buffaloes joined the Pac-12 conference at the start of the 2011-12 season, CU has gone 64-62 against its conference counterparts entering this season. Now, well into the 2018-19 campaign and Colorado is right on pace with what is historically an average program in the Pac-12. The Buffs boast an 8-8 record as they welcome UCLA and USC to campus this week to finish the conference schedule.

Call it what you will: a team struggling to keep up with a rising Pac-12 conference, or a team that’s caught some bad breaks over the years, or just plain perpetual mediocrity. Whichever way you spin it, this year, the Buffs are once again at .500 against the Pac-12, and with two games remaining have a chance to make or break their season in the final week of the schedule.

CU has never finished in the top-four in the Pac-12. With two games remaining in the season, two wins guarantees at least a No. 5 finish. A little bit of luck, i.e., Oregon State and Utah losing its final two games, and Colorado clinches its best Pac-12 finish since the team joined the conference in 2011.

As head coach Tad Boyle would so eloquently put it, the “muck” – the pool of eight teams all separated by just one win, all vying for a top-four position – is pretty thick right now.

“These next games are really important,” said Boyle after the win over Utah on Saturday. “If you lose (against Utah), you go to 7-9 and drop yourself out of the muck. At least we’re back in the muck now, and the muck is pretty big. The only way to get out of it to continue to win games. That’s easier said than done at this time of the year.”

Indeed it is. Last season, the Buffs dropped 4-of-5 games to finish the year with an 8-10 conference record. The season before that, CU went 3-2 and finished with another mediocre 8-10 mark. In 2015, Colorado went on a 2-3 run to close the campaign with a poor 7-11 Pac-12 record. Yes, winning this time of year is tough.

Why, though? When the season’s on the line, good teams show up when it matters the most—that is, during the last few games of the season. Now that’s not say that the Buffs aren’t good, per se, but generally speaking, the ‘muck’ is much better usually.

For what it’s worth, this season feels a little different. After struggling out of the gate in conference play, losing four out of its first five Pac-12 games, Colorado climbed back into contention by winning six of its next eight contests.

Now, after losing to both Washington schools in the last week of February, the Buffs returned to Boulder on Saturday and beat a very tough Utah team. What’s big about that win is the Utes stand one game ahead of the Buffaloes in the Pac-12. A loss to Utah would’ve made sure that CU—once again—would not have earned that first-round bye in Las Vegas.

But the Buffs did win and their hope still remains very much alive. Next on the agenda are the Los Angeles schools, who come to Boulder looking to spoil CU’s Pac-12 hopes. The more formidable of the two, and a team that Colorado could leapfrog in the standings, are the UCLA Bruins, who come to town on Thursday having won their last three games in a row.

“UCLA has come [to Boulder] and won four or five games,” Boyle said. “They have a really talented team that’s playing well right now. USC is coming in as a very talented team. Our fans are going to be watching some very talented guys next weekend…We have to match that edge that UCLA comes in here with and USC will come in here with. They’ll bring it.”

The Buffs boast some solid performers, too. Guys like sophomore guard Tyler Bey, who has recorded a double-double in his last three straight games and six of his last eight games total; and freshman forward Evan Battey, who has a team-leading 55.3 percent make rate on his field goals against the Pac-12 this season; and of course, the ever-consistent sophomore guard McKinley Wright IV.

Boyle agrees that his players’ talent level can match that of the strength of UCLA’s lineup.

“Now, the good news is that we have talented guys too,” Boyle added. “Our mindset is right and it’s not going to be easy just like [Utah] wasn’t easy. They have an emotional edge.”

Teams that ride their “emotional edge,” as Boyle puts it, tend to fare pretty well. Confidence, after all, is everything in sport, and if a team is riding their hot hands, there’s a potential to beat any team they’ll face.

The Pac-12 is a tough conference and that’s being proven during this final stretch of the schedule, as eight teams with almost identical conference records are separated by just one single win. And just one single win is how Colorado should look at its next two contests. Take it game by game, ignore the other seven teams hoping the Buffs lose and focus on winning one single game at a time.

“This is a competitive league. I know we’re getting no respect here nationally but the only way to change that is to win the next game,” Boyle said. “Our guys have really bought into the ‘get better the next day and win the next game’ and that has allowed us to bounce back.”

The Buffaloes welcome the Bruins to Boulder in a pivotal Pac-12 matchup with some serious seeding implications. Tip-off from CU Events Center is set for 7 p.m. MST on Thursday.

Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Scott MacDonald at scma0899@colorado.edu and follow him on Twitter @ScottTopics.

Scott MacDonald

SCOTT MACDONALD IS THE ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR FOR THE CU INDEPENDENT. ORIGINALLY HAILING FROM MELBOURNE, FLORIDA, AT THE AGE OF FIVE, SCOTT AND HIS FAMILY MOVED TO COLORADO (BEFORE IT WAS COOL). IT WAS HERE IN COLORADO THAT SCOTT GREW INTO HIS OBSESSION FOR SPORTS, AND HE'S NOW EXCITED TO BE ABLE TO SCRIBE THAT PASSION THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF THE CUI. SCOTT IS MAJORING IN COMMUNICATION WITH A MINOR IN BUSINESS. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SCOTTTOPICS.

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