The perplexing and dispiriting meltdown was yet to come. But the tone may have been set almost immediately for the Colorado Buffaloes' late breakdown.
On Wednesday night, not long after CU tipped off against USC, sophomore point guard Dominique Collier lost his balance while attempting to drive into the paint and essentially dribbled his way right out of bounds.
An equally elementary turnover moments later gave Collier a pair of giveaways within the first 1 minute, 49 seconds of the game. While the Buffs were able to survive their turnover issues for the first 32 minutes of the game, turnovers pretty much became the sole reason why a 15-point lead evaporated down the stretch in a CU loss as painful as any in recent memory.
At his wit's end to uncover a solution to a turnover issue that has been discussed and worked upon exhaustively, head coach Tad Boyle hinted a change in philosophy for the entire program may loom on the horizon, beginning with a fundamental shift on the recruiting trail.
"I told the players in the locker room that right now I've got to look at recruiting," Boyle said. "Because right now, as I look at it, that's what we have to do a better job of to fix this problem. Unless they fix it themselves. But we can't do that until next year and the year after.
"We're going to continue to work on it in practice. We're going to continue to emphasize it. We're going to continue to work on footwork, continue to work on catching and passing the ball."
CU's run of turnovers has nosedived into historic proportions. The Buffs' 20 turnovers on Wednesday night marked the third time in four games CU has reached the 20-turnover plateau. Before the past four games, the Buffs suffered through just three 20-turnover performances over the previous 105 games.
In Boyle's previous five years at the helm, the Buffs didn't record more than two 20-turnover games in any season. While the issue has been a team-wide plague, Collier's nine turnovers and zero assists in the past two games have been glaring, as is his average of 4.8 turnovers over the past four games. By comparison USC guard Jordan McLaughlin, also a sophomore, scored 25 points to go with five assists and just one turnover while playing almost twice as many minutes as Collier (34 to 18).
As senior leader Josh Scott stated after Wednesday's debacle, the turnover issue is costing CU games. If it doesn't get corrected soon, it may well cost the team an NCAA tournament berth. While CU's glut of turnovers occurred Wednesday predominantly after USC shifted to a 2-3 zone, the Buffs have been generous with giveaways all season regardless of the defenses they have faced.
"That shouldn't affect us at all," senior guard Xavier Talton said. "We have another game coming up so we can't just dwell on it."
Reinforcements are on the way — incoming guards Bryce Peters and Deleon Brown both stand 6-foot-5 and were described by Boyle as potential "multiple-year starters" when they signed in November — yet the gut-wrenching manner of Wednesday's loss obscures the fact the Buffs remain firmly in control of their own postseason destiny.
CU began Thursday at No. 31 in the NCAA's updated RPI rankings, and regardless of Wednesday's letdown, gaining a split on the Los Angeles trip remains a result the Buffs gladly would have taken before heading to California.
With the final homestand looming next week against Arizona and Arizona State, posting a win Saturday at UCLA becomes all the more critical.
"I'm pretty frustrated, and so is the rest of the team," said George King, who was charged with a career-most six turnovers against USC. "So basically we're going to take our frustrations out in our next game. Play as hard as we can but under control as well and try to come out with a win."