Brooks: Buffs' First Road Stop A Very Unfriendly One
BOULDER - Home has been good, very good, to Tad Boyle and his Colorado men's basketball team. For visitors, the Coors Events Center has become a pit of a place, a layover fraught with gasping from the CEC's 5,430 feet, wheezing from the frantic pace favored by Boyle's Buffs and full-throated sellout crowds.
Outsiders beware: This season Boyle has added a new element to jack up the Foam Dome's hostility. In concert with the altitude, pace, and roaring masses, an uncommon amount of depth (for a Buffs team) puts CU on college basketball's short list of home courts with few viable escape routes. Once inside, it's a picnic with no food; ask Drexel and Auburn, the CEC's two most recent visitors.
But the Buffs do play in other venues, and this season's first venture from home comes Saturday. It's not a long trip - at least not in frequent driver miles. Laramie is less than a 200-mile journey (depending on your route) but is light years away in Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt's hoops philosophy.
Those advantages Boyle holds so dear in the CEC? Forget all but CU's expanded and talented bench, which Boyle hopes will be one of this weekend's hole cards. Laramie's altitude is 7,165 feet; no wheezing from the Cowboys. To boot (pun intended), Shyatt's favored pace is somewhere south of glacial. And as for those Cowpoke fans . . . if you thought they were rowdy at rodeos, visit Wyoming's Arena-Auditorium on a Saturday afternoon/evening.
Especially when the Buffaloes visit . . .
"I've heard they're licking their lips when it comes to us . . . coach described this as one of their big games, a Super Bowl-type game," said CU freshman Tory Miller, who is from Kansas City, Kan., played last season in New Hampshire (New Hampton Prep) and might need a large assist putting a pushpin in Wyoming on a map.
Wyoming, under Shyatt, hasn't been good to Colorado or Boyle. Saturday ends a four-game series between the schools, and Boyle says there are no current plans to re-up. "We'll take a breather," he said. "It's not to say we'll never play them again, we just won't jump right back into it."
Looks like a good call. In the last three meetings, the Cowboys are up 2-1, having won in 2011-12 in Boulder (65-54) and snapping the Buffs' 27-game home non-conference winning streak. The next season, they beat No. 19 CU in Laramie (76-69) before barely losing to the Buffs in Boulder last season (63-58).
Apologies to this noble profession, but playing Wyoming and Shyatt's grind-it-out style, mused Boyle, "is like going to the dentist. It's nothing to look forward to. I've got a lot of respect for not only coach Shyatt and his staff but their players. They play hard - just look at their home record, they're pretty good up there."
AS BOYLE SUGGESTED, LOOK at their home record: Over the past 15 seasons, the Cowboys are 174-64 overall at the Arena-Auditorium, including 107-17 in non-conference games. And in four Novembers in Laramie, Shyatt is 21-0 in those contests.
"Larry's a hell of a coach and they're very sound defensively," Boyle said. "They don't beat themselves, they take good shots, they'll grind you out on offense."
If the Buffs are completing their series with Wyoming, they won't have any difficulty finding competitive Front Range replacements with inhospitable venues. Boyle ticked off Colorado State, Denver University, Air Force and Northern Colorado. Air Force visits Boulder next week, CSU and UNC come calling next month.
CU isn't likely to play DU and Air Force in the same season because both run a Princeton-style offense, with one matchup being enough. "We need to get a different flavor," said Boyle.
Against any Front Range teams, CU's altitude advantage disappears into the thin air. Depth, execution and adapting to the game's pace become critical. "You play against a team that plays at altitude and has the depth and pushes the pace like we do, it's a hell of a game," Boyle said. "We want to play at a fast pace anywhere at any time, with different styles . . . but the style at Wyoming will be a challenge. We'll try to speed it up as best we can."
I asked Boyle if he felt any better about taking his fifth CU team into Laramie than he did his 2011-12 squad. "I do, just because we have more experience," he answered. "Again, we still have only one senior, but a lot of these guys have been there. 'Ski' (senior guard Askia Booker) was a sophomore, Josh (Scott) and 'XJ' (Xavier Johnson) and 'X-Talton' (Xavier Talton) were freshmen when we went up there and got beat a couple of years ago.
"Hopefully they remember that, but again, it's not a revenge thing but that they understand. I think they understand that even playing Wyoming at home is not a walk in the park. They've got to be ready to go."
Shyatt has recruited well in his neighboring state to the south, signing seven Coloradans in the past four years. Starters include guards Riley Grabau (Boulder) and Josh Adams (Parker) with forward Alan Herndon (Colorado Springs) usually the first Coloradan off the bench.
Shyatt, said Boyle, "has gotten guys we were on the cusp of taking (and) he's developed them. He's got a nice team." Boyle called Grabau "a solid, tough guy who makes shots . . . nobody wants to beat CU more than Riley Grabau." Same with Adams, who "has a chip on his shoulder in terms of the Buffs," said Boyle.
BUT THE COWBOYS' HEADLINER is senior Larry Nance, a 6-8 forward whom Boyle calls "as good a player as there is in the country. He didn't get a lot of notoriety playing in Laramie, but he's a terrific player." In Wyoming's 78-70 opening win over UNC, Nance scored 21 points and collected 8 rebounds in his first game back from last season's ACL injury. His first-night performance offered early credence to his selection as the Mountain West's preseason player-of-the-year.
On Tuesday night, the Cowboys disposed of their second Colorado opponent, Western State, with Nance getting 13 points and another 8 rebounds in the 61-46 win. And for the second straight game, Wyoming had 21 assists and shot above 52 percent from the field (61.9 vs. UNC, 52.2 vs. Western State).
In the aftermath of CU's 90-59 late-night/early-morning blowout of Auburn, Boyle wants more consistency from the Buffs' ball pressure defense. "We didn't do any 'dictating,'" he said. "Our defense was solid; you look at the numbers - I'm not going to complain with 29 percent (Auburn's FG percentage). But we didn't create a lot of offense with our defense until we went to our trapping stuff."
He said his players must understand that two games into the season, "We're not playing well-oiled machines . . . people's offenses are not in mid-season forms. They're still a work in progress - especially a team like Auburn with a couple of graduate transfers in, a JUCO guy . . . they're still trying to figure themselves out."
But Wyoming, Boyle added, "is a different animal . . . they've been together. They'll be running their stuff at a little higher execution level than our first two opponents. We need to understand that. We can't think because we've had a couple of good games defensively means we're going to have a third one.
"We've got to go make it happen . . . it's a great challenge and opportunity for our guys."
Miller, the highly touted freshman forward whose next trip to the state of Wyoming will be his first, said the Buffs "have to be ready . . . we have to come out and play our game and get the job done."
If it means spending a couple of hours in the "dentist's chair," so be it. Good teams cope and create their own road advantages - and Boyle believes his fifth CU team can be pretty good.