Boyle's Buffs Set For Matchup At No. 5 UCLA
LOS ANGELES — Before the season ever started, Colorado coach Tad Boyle looked at the schedule and knew this week would be a big one for the Buffaloes.
Three games in seven days, with two Pac-12 contests and two games against top 25 foes in the mix.
Sunday evening, the Buffs took care of the first part of the stretch, holding off Stanford for an 80-76 win at home to improve to 6-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12.
But the task becomes much more difficult beginning Wednesday, when the Buffs travel to Los Angeles for a 7:30 p.m. (MT) meeting with No. 5 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion (Pac-12 Networks). Then comes a noon matchup Saturday at home against No. 13 Tennessee.
"That's why (Sunday's) game was so important," Boyle said. "I know what's on the horizon. All you can ask for in life is an opportunity."
Wednesday's game against the Bruins is no doubt a big opportunity for Boyle's young Buffs. Coming off a season that saw UCLA make a surprising run to the Final Four, Mick Cronin's team was ranked No. 2 in the nation early until absorbing an 83-63 loss to Gonzaga last week. But UCLA also owns a win over Villanova already this season, and with a group that returns nearly every key player from a year ago — as well as some important additions — it's no wonder the Bruins were a near-unanimous pick to win the conference title this season.
"We've got to put our hard hats on," Boyle said. "UCLA, they don't beat themselves. You're going to have to make plays, play with mental toughness. They're not going to give you anything, you have to earn everything."
The Buffs have had decent success against UCLA in recent seasons. Colorado split with the Bruins last year, losing early in the conference season by three points at Pauley Pavilion before collecting a nine-point victory at home late in the year.
The loss to CU was one of four straight for UCLA down the stretch — three to end the regular season and one in the Pac-12 opener.
But the Bruins snuck into the NCAA Tournament with a berth in the first four, then reeled off five straight wins before losing to Gonzaga in the national semifinals.
Now, the players who led that run last season — including Johnny Juzang, Jamie Jaquez, Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell — are all back and are all averaging double-figure scoring.
"They're experienced and they're confident," Boyle said. "You have to make plays and you have to beat UCLA because they're not going to beat themselves."
The Buffs have done a good job thus far of making plays when it counts most — but they have also put themselves in some difficult positions. Six of CU's seven games have come down to the last 90 seconds, with the Buffs having collected wins in five of those six.
Senior big man Evan Battey has been the most consistent Buff so far, averaging a team-best 14.9 points per game along with 4.6 rebounds. Sophomore Jabari Walker has three straight double-doubles and four for the year, averaging 13.9 points and 9.3 rebounds; and sophomore point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy is averaging 14.6 points per game.
Also coming on strong in recent games has been freshman point guard K.J. Simpson, who leads the team with 18 assists, as well as sophomore Nique Clifford, who is averaging 5.6 rebounds, second-best on the team.
But the young Buffs have had their share of difficult moments, including slow starts and an inability to put teams away down the stretch. Those tendencies are something Boyle anticipated with such a young group, and something he is trying to cure in a hurry.
This upcoming stretch, as well as a late-December game at home against No. 8 Kansas, should accelerate the maturing process.
"I told fans, 'Lock down your seats and strap on for the ride,'" Boyle said after the Stanford win. "It's going to be a roller-coaster this year."