Brooks: Buffs Still Need To Take A Big Step On Road
BOULDER - Tad Boyle has recited this formula for success before, but with his Colorado Buffaloes poised to make their final regular season trip - and considering what's at stake - the formula is worth a replay.
It involves program building, something Boyle and his staff have done pretty well at CU. The way he and other coaches view it, four steps are needed. They are (1) becoming competitive, (2) establishing a homecourt advantage, (3) winning on the road, (4) beating quality teams on the road.
In almost two full seasons under Boyle, here's the Buffs' progress report in those four areas: (1) Check, (2) Check, (3) Check, (4) Still Waiting.
Let's review, by the numbers: (1) At 19-9 overall and 11-5 in the Pac-12 Conference, where a 10th or 11th place finish was forecast in their debut season, the Buffs are unquestionably a cut above competitive. (2) At the Coors Events Center, CU is 32-4 under Boyle, with only one very recent clunker. No question: Advantage, Buffs. (3) Road wins against average (or below) opposition are coming, even if at a trickle. CU went 3-9 overall in road games last season, 2-6 in the Big 12 Conference. This season, the Buffs are 4-5 overall away from the Events Center, 3-4 in conference away games. (4) Last season's signature road win was at Kansas State; this season's is at . . . Air Force, Southern California, Arizona State, Utah. You pick one.
National observers aren't too enthralled with any of those choices, and although Boyle won't give any of those 'W's back, he's mindful of the next step to be taken by the Buffs. Complete those four steps and, he says, "Then you're at the top of your league. It's just an on-going process."
The process moves to Eugene, Ore., on Thursday night, when CU meets Oregon in a "play-in" game - the winner likely will have played its way into a top four seed for next week's Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles. The Buffs and Ducks currently are tied for fourth with 11-5 records.
Boyle has coached a team through the final step - the "big road win" scenario - before. When he was at Northern Colorado, the step finally was taken against Montana, an opponent Boyle termed "kind of the gold standard in the Big Sky."
Part of taking that next step, he said, "is psychological, but it just takes experience, a certain amount of mental toughness. It's not easy to do that. We can't be satisfied with just doing it once. We have to do it consistently. I look at where our program is right now; we're a top 100 program in the country. For us to get into that top 50 or top 40, that's the next step we have to make. You beat the teams you're supposed to beat (on the road), but you also steal a couple . . .
"I don't think it's necessarily a psychological barrier, just once you do it it becomes easier to do it . . . our guys have competed well, we just haven't gotten over that hump."
I asked Boyle if players would tire of hearing about winning meaningful road games or if they would continue to hear about it until it happens. "Our guys are going to hear it until it happens," he promised. "It's just a fact. It's not like we're trying to create something for them that's not there. It's pretty self-evident in my mind . . . I don't care where you are. It was no different at Northern Colorado; we faced the same challenges."
Truth is, the Buffs know the question will be asked until they erase the need. Said freshman guard Askia Booker: "We've beat the teams we're supposed to beat. That's where it starts. But to be a great team you have to beat the teams that are up there - like the Arizonas, the Oregons that we're going to play. Those are among the top guys in our league."
Several things about the Ducks impressed Boyle in the Buffs' 72-71 home win earlier this month, but nothing was higher on his list than Oregon's grit. "They're very tough-minded . . . I'd say the most mentally tough team in our league," he said. "I think that comes through with their road record (6-3 in conference). They're the best road team in our league; I think they've proven that."
Oregon, coached by former long-time Creighton coach Dana Altman, is 5-2 at home in league play. Altman's teams, said Boyle, prosper with pressing defense, which forced CU into 15 turnovers in the game in Boulder. "We didn't handle their press well; in their building we'll have to handle ball a lot better," Boyle said, noting that in the Buffs' two most recent games they committed a total of 11 turnovers (six in the 24-point loss to Stanford, five in the 13-point win over Cal). "If we can keep taking care of the ball like that, it bodes well for us in Eugene. But both them and Oregon State (CU's opponent Saturday in Corvallis) try and turn you over."
Not winning Thursday night in Eugene by no means introduces a doomsday scenario for CU relative to next week's Pac-12 tournament, although Booker says having the first day (Wednesday) off would allow the Buffs to "watch our competition a little bit more, get to rest a little more and get to practice that much more and have our game plan set for who we'd play in the second round."
The Buffs didn't earn a first-day bye in their final Big 12 tournament last March, opening play on Day 1 as the fifth seed. "In fact," Boyle said, "you can probably argue that (playing on opening day) is an advantage in that second game - all the jitters are out, you're used to the facility and the flow."
After dispatching Iowa State in the opening round, the Buffs went on to defeat K-State (for the third time) and moved into the Big 12 semifinals against Kansas. "You're still playing with the emotion" in the semifinals, Boyle said, "but where the fatigue probably becomes a factor is if you get that fourth game (finals)."
Right now, the final game in what could be a captivating four days in L.A. is too far away to fathom. The Buffs have intermediate stops in the Pacific Northwest before the West Coast makes their itinerary, but the fact that this trip will impact the next one can't be disguised.
"It's going to be a testament to how we're going to do, how it's going to play out in the conference tournament," sophomore forward Andre Roberson said. "We'll try and get two road wins, see how it goes from there . . . it would definitely boost our confidence, give us that mojo that we could play with anybody."
It wouldn't be the definitive step in Boyle's formula for long-term success, but it most certainly would be a step in that direction.