It's time to reassess the goals of the Colorado men's basketball team.
While the odds already were stacked against the Buffaloes advancing to their fifth NCAA Tournament in six seasons prior to the weekend, CU's back-to-back overtime losses at Washington and Washington State all but ended the final, fleeting vestiges of that dream.
With a minimum of 12 games remaining in what is turning into an unexpectedly lost season for the Buffs, the issues of inconsistency have perhaps been narrowed into one glaring shortcoming — defense.
CU played well enough offensively to win both games in the state of Washington but the Buffs' lackluster defense, particularly along the perimeter, cost the club two very winnable road games. Washington State, for instance, had not scored more than 54 points in either of their previous three games but tallied 83 in regulation against CU while hitting 13 3-pointers. The Cougars' previous season-high was nine.
So far, the Buffs still have displayed commendable fight, especially in the way they rallied late at WSU to force overtime. Yet that trait could be more difficult to maintain as the losses pile up.
"This group is a bunch of competitors," head coach Tad Boyle said. "I believe in our guys. I like this team. I like our guys. I feel bad for them. They're frustrated. But it's a broken record. It's the old turntable, you get stuck in a groove and you can't get out of it. We need something to jolt that needle to get us to play on and do what we're supposed to do. Right now, it's stuck."
Boyle already has tweaked his rotation, recently benching senior guard Josh Fortune after he had started the first 16 games of the season and also limiting the minutes of junior guard Dom Collier. While Collier has started the past two games, he was on the floor for only five minutes after halftime at Washington State.
Freshman forward Lucas Siewert logged double-digit minutes in seven of the season's first 11 games but has played a total of only 12 minutes in CU's seven league games while continuing to struggle at both ends of the floor. Sophomore guard Thomas Akyazili didn't play while healthy for the first time in his career at Washington.
On the other hand, guard Bryce Peters played 19 minutes at WSU, his second-highest total of the season. It is likely Peters and fellow freshman Deleon Brown will continue to gain increased minutes down the stretch.
Boyle has said in the past he always is willing to compete if a postseason opportunity is available, so if an NIT berth or an invitation to a lesser tournament, such as the College Basketball Invitational the Buffs were relegated to two yeas ago, is on the table, expect CU to accept. Yet even attaining that somewhat discouraging consolation prize will be dependent on the Buffs maintaining their current level of competitiveness despite their mounting losses.
"We're not getting blown out of these games. We're right there," senior forward Wesley Gordon said. "We're just making mistakes that they're capitalizing on. We feel like if we can reduce some of the mistakes we make, we'll be fine. We're going to still keep our competitive spirit."
Clash of 'titans'
Thursday's home date against Oregon State will pair the only winless teams within the Pac-12 Conference. They also are two of only three winless teams in league play across the nation from the top six conferences in college basketball (the traditional Power 5 conferences, plus the Big East). Missouri, at 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference, also sports a winless league mark.
Seven of the final 11 regular season games will be played at the Coors Events Center. Even heading into the Washington trip that felt like an advantage the Buffs could bank on once they finally broke through.
"The schedule favors (us)," Boyle said. "That's why the Washington game, the Washington State game, two winnable games on the road ... I feel like we should be 4-3 right now, with seven of 11 at home. If that was the case we'd feel pretty good about ourselves. That's the fine line between winning and losing in league play.
"This team is capable of getting on a roll. We have to continue to get better in certain areas. Sometimes we're good enough in stretches. We're just not good enough for 40 minutes."