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Brooks: Opportunity Still Rapping For CU Hoopsters

Feb 15, 2010

BOULDER - For the past week, we've been hearing coaches - locally and nationally - proclaim, "There's a lot of basketball left."

OK, it's mid-February and with the madness of March a month away, the coaches are right . . . to a point.

But there's also a point reached when it's like listening to a pilot proclaim, "There's a lot of runway left."

It's there until it isn't - and by then it's too late. For the Colorado men's and women's hoops teams, the end of the runway is fast approaching.

With six regular-season games remaining for each, it's now all about opportunities - we're specifically talking about home court opportunities - and taking full advantage.

Each team, sitting at 2-8 in the Big 12 Conference after weekend road losses to nationally ranked opponents, plays an unranked visitor this week at the Coors Events Center.

There might be a "lot of basketball" remaining in the 2009-10 season, but finishing strong at home also is the only remaining cure for a pair of seasons that appeared much more promising in December than they've become in mid-February.

Of the six games left for each team, half are at home. The men host Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas Tech; the women welcome Kansas, Texas A&M and Kansas State.

If each can hold serve at the Events Center - or at least win two of the three - CU still might have teams playing basketball in mid-March. A look at this week's home games and what should be regarded as a critical stretch run:

CU WOMEN vs. KANSAS: On Tuesday (7 p.m., FSN Rocky Mountain), the CU women get a second shot at KU, which handled the Buffs 75-64 on Jan. 27 in Lawrence. But in the rematch, the Jayhawks will be minus leading scorer, team leader and Big 12 women's preseason player-of-the-year Danielle McCray, out with a season-ending knee injury.

She scored 29 points and collected 16 rebounds in the first game, and since losing her earlier this month, the Jayhawks (14-9, 4-6) have lost two of their past three games.

Does McCray's absence offer the Buffs a lift? It should - but not if they continue to open as lethargically as they've done in the two most recent defeats that dropped them to one game above .500 (12-11) overall.

In a 74-50 home loss to No. 14/19 Texas last week, CU trailed 14-0. In a 65-55 loss at No. 12 Oklahoma, CU trailed 11-0. With very little inside punch, the Buffs don't play well from behind (or at all) if their perimeter game fails them - and of late it has.

Coach Kathy McConnell-Miller is considering juggling her starters to try and get more early energy and points. Asked if she had given thought to returning senior Bianca Smith to the starting lineup, McConnell-Miller said, "I've given thought to starting lot of people, but haven't settled on it yet."

One reason for the uncertainty is the status of sophomore Alyssa Fressle, who was held out of Monday's practice as a precautionary measure after a blow to the head in the last game. McConnell-Miller said Fressle will play Tuesday.

"We're looking for early scoring in the first four minutes . . . we haven't had that (and) have been down too quick," McConnell-Miller said. "I don't think anyone's minutes are going to change; I just don't think we have a good scoring lineup on the floor to start the game."

Maybe the only positive to emerge from the loss at OU was Brittany Spears coming out of an uncharacteristic non-productive stretch. Spears, a junior, has suffered through lean games, but never a three-game stretch as she endured before the trip to Norman.

In those three games, she hit just eight of 30 field goal attempts and managed only 24 points. Against the Sooners, she tied her season-best with 28 points, equaling a career best with 12 field goals (12-of-20).

"It was nice to get out of it (the slump), but it would have been better with a win," Spears said. "I've got more confidence in my shot (now)."

Added McConnell-Miller:  "That was the best thing that came out of that game - Spears fighting through adversity . . . She was down and she responded on the road against a quality team. She made plays and hit shots and fought back."

The Buffs are coming out of a four-game span that saw them lose to four ranked opponents. Entering that murderous run, McConnell-Miller was reluctant to do anything more than talk about the next game and the need for daily improvement.

But Monday, she conceded, "There's no doubt the stretch we came out of was very tough . . . I never really looked at it; I tried to take it one game at a time.

"But that was a tough stretch. Those (four) games at times were devastating. But there were also times when we had some success and did some things we can build on."

Both Spears and McConnell-Miller admit KU is a decidedly different team minus McCray. Still, that doesn't mean the Jayhawks can be written off; the Buffs aren't capable of that.

"They're younger, they move ball little bit more and they're making that extra pass when the shot clock is winding down," McConnell-Miller said.

"But they're still playing hard; they took Texas to double overtime (before losing 85-82)," Spears noted. "They're still a great team and we have to come out hard."

An energized start and a full-40 minute effort Tuesday night would enhance CU's chances of finishing strong and salvaging the season.

 "We have to take advantage of the games we have at home - they're all winnable games," Spears said. "We've just got to fight hard and play tough in every game.

"We can still make a postseason run if we play hard and win these last couple of games on the road and home . . . so we can play in the WNIT or the NCAA if something happens."

CU MEN vs. OKLAHOMA: On Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPNU), Oklahoma faces Jeff Bzdelik's team. And like the opposite gender Jayhawks, the Sooners have experienced recent personnel issues - only worse.

Leading scorer Willie Warren (16.2) is out indefinitely with mononucleosis and starting freshman center Tiny Gallon (10.4 points, 8.0 rebounds) has been suspended indefinitely after allegedly having improper contact with an agent before the season began.

OU coach Jeff Capel said Monday he still was waiting to hear on the status of each player.

Another pair of freshmen - reserves Andrew Fitzgerald and Steven Pledger - was cited for shoplifting on Feb. 8 and suspended. But Fitzgerald and Pledger played in OU's 97-76 loss at archrival Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Capel conceded he had never been part of a season that has unraveled this badly. He invoked former NBA coach Pat Riley: "Adversity introduces a man to himself," so we're guessing that Capel and the remaining Sooners (13-11, 4-6) are very well-acquainted with themselves.

Capel also admitted most of his team's problems have been "self-inflicted . . . some of the things that have gone on were through stupid decisions, others were not. But that's life, and my job is to help (his players) them grow.

"It's a part of life's lessons (and) somewhere down the road it'll make us better."

But maybe not on the road to Boulder, where CU defeated Capel's team 72-58 on the Sooners' most recent trip to the Events Center (2008).

"They kicked our butt two years ago up there and they played us close here last year (a 77-72 OU win)," Capel said. "I've seen them grow as a team . . . (Alec) Burks is as good as any freshman in league, (Cory) Higgins is as good as any guard.

"They play with passion and a sense of purpose, and they're very, very well coached."

All true, but the Buffs nonetheless are stalled in a four-game losing streak, have lost seven of their past eight, and haven't shot well in their two most recent losses.

"Guys have to make shots," Bzdelik said. "Look at our percentages: they were in the 30s (in the two most recent losses) from guys who normally make shots . . . we're leaving some points out there."

Higgins believes CU's shooters need "more concentration . . . when you have an open look, you have to knock it down. You don't know when the open looks are going to come back around."

The Buffs were without Marcus Relphorde on Saturday at Kansas State, but Bzdelik said the junior swingman "should be ready" by Wednesday after a bout with tendinitis in his knee brought on last week when Relphorde and Austin Dufault knocked knees in practice.

After hanging with them for a half, the Buffs lost 68-51 to the No. 9 Wildcats. Bzdelik credited K-State, but added, "We contributed to our own demise."

Specifically, he said, the Wildcats scored 53 of their total from offensive rebounds, turnovers (the Buffs' season-high 22 cost them 26 points), second-chance baskets (10 points) and fast breaks.

"We can't do that, especially from a turnover standpoint," Bzdelik said. "That was disappointing - not being able to take care of the basketball."

If the Buffs can clean up their act and take advantage of playing at home before making a pair of tough trips (Kansas on Saturday, Missouri on Wednesday, Feb. 24), they can successfully open their six-pack of remaining games with a win against the Sooners.

"Everybody's looking at Wednesday as a must-win, and there's no reason we shouldn't win that game," Higgins said. "We have to take care of business.

"We look at the games we have left, and we think we can win the majority of them if we do what we need to do. And that puts us in position for some type of postseason play. So everybody is still upbeat about it.

"Hopefully with all these close games we're still learning something and someday we'll move on and not look back at these close games . . . we're still in good spirits and optimistic."

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU