Kyle Ringo
Kyle Ringo

Askia Booker hit Nate Tomlinson with a perfect bounce pass that Tomlinson quickly turned into a layup Saturday afternoon and the Colorado Buffaloes were leading Washington State by 17 early in the second half.

A good sized crowd -- considering the students are still on break -- rose to its feet and roared. Washington State coach Ken Bone called timeout and shook his head.

In that moment and others like it in recent games, the thought came to mind: When and how did the Coors Events Center become such a tough place to play? It never used to be like this.

When is easy.

The Buffs are 27-3 at home since coach Tad Boyle was hired in the spring of 2010.

The losses in case you're wondering came in a close, hard-fought game against Kansas, a similar overtime contest against Texas A&M last season and earlier this season in a head-scratcher against a scrappy Wyoming team.

The how is more complicated.

But you can start with Boyle there as well.

Boyle can't be credited for assembling the talent he led to the most wins ever in a single season at CU last year. The team had been almost entirely recruited by former Buff boss Jeff Bzdelik. But Boyle can take credit for wisely playing an up-tempo style of basketball that wreaks havoc on opponents who come here from places with much more oxygen.


Advertisement

Bzdelik preferred a slow, methodical style that he managed from the sideline. Former CU coach Ricardo Patton's teams played up-tempo just like Boyle, but the major difference is that Boyle also has the Buffs playing defense, which happened much too infrequently under Patton.

"I think you've got to give a lot of credit just to our fans," senior Austin Dufault said. "They're coming out and really supporting us. Just having a lot of people in the stands, a loud crowd and a lot of energy, that energizes us on the floor and really gets us excited to play at home.

The CU fans  provide some distractions during the second half of Thursday’s game against Washington.
The CU fans provide some distractions during the second half of Thursday's game against Washington. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

"Then changing to an up-tempo style of play with coach Boyle and running teams up at this altitude really gives us a good advantage as well."

Time after time over the past season-and-a-half we have seen the Buffs playing stronger in the second half while opponents wear down, bend over at timeouts and grab their shorts as if doing so might somehow help them catch their breath. It happened again Saturday, except for a 4-minute span toward the end of the game when Washington State trimmed the Buffs' lead to single digits.

Give the Cougars credit for making that late run, but it wasn't enough to overcome the hole they had dug earlier. Obviously the Buffs had a lot to do with that.

But better coaching and a better style of play can't be the only explanations for why its so hard to knock off the Buffs in Boulder all of a sudden.

Dufault was right to credit the fans.

True story: Before one of the first games he coached in Boulder, Bzdelik walked out of the CU locker room into the arena and saw fewer than 1,000 fans in the building. A four-letter word escaped from his lips.

Players don't want to play in places like that, particularly good players who have plenty of other options and Bzdelik knew it.

Credit should be given to CU for improving the game-day experience and inspiring fans to want to come back. The pregame party for season-ticket holders in the new practice facility continues to grow in popularity. A new playing surface, video boards, ribbon boards and murals in the four corners of the arena have given a dilapidated facility new life. And more should be done.

Boyle's precocious son dancing as he mops the floor during timeouts, the CU student who dresses in a gold getup for every game, the clever signs in the student section, and entertaining halftime acts all help make CU men's basketball games the place to be in Boulder on winter evenings and Saturday afternoons.

"It's an energetic coach, and engaging team that feeds off the environment in the arena," athletic director Mike Bohn said. "I believe our fans recognize that three-legged stool really makes a difference and any time any of those legs are off, we kind of wobble a little bit."

While the Buffs and the atmosphere at Coors have come a long way, it's really only a glimpse of what both can become in time with more of the same hard work and investment.

It's early in CU's first season in the Pac-12 Conference, but it's already clear that the CU-Utah road trip is going to be the least favorite for the other 10 teams in the league in both men's and women's basketball.

Think about those other trips. Teams don't even have to check out of their hotel to play both Cal and Stanford. Same with the trip to USC and UCLA. Visiting the Oregon schools or Arizona schools means just a bus ride between the two towns.

The only trips in the Pac-12 where teams must get on a plane for both legs is the CU-Utah trip and the Washington-Washington State trip. Throw in the altitude factor and CU-Utah becomes the most difficult by far, particularly for the second leg.

Those facts are only going to make what CU is building in Boulder more difficult for Pac-12 opponents to overcome.