It's difficult to point to Sunday's loss as a season low-point for the Colorado Buffaloes men's basketball team, given the club has squandered last-minute leads in four of its eight Pac-12 Conference losses so far.
Yet with two of the Buffs' senior leaders sitting on the bench in sweats, CU's 77-66 defeat at Cal provided another new and inexplicable hurdle for a squad that is watching its NCAA Tournament goals slowly fade.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, CU returns home saddled with a 13-11 overall mark and a 3-8 record in the Pac-12. Outside a lackluster league-opening loss at Utah, the Buffs generally have fought the good fight despite the myriad issues — sometimes rebounding, sometimes defense, and, now, poor decisions by two fifth-year seniors — that have dogged the team all season.
Even an optimistic view of a 6-1 finish to the regular season probably won't thrust the Buffs on to the tournament bubble, meaning they also would need to either upset No. 5 Oregon on the road or make significant noise in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
CU entered Monday with an RPI ranking of 106, well off the tournament radar. Yet even as the prognosis grows bleaker, head coach Tad Boyle and his players are not concerned the commendable grit they generally have brought to the table will lag.
"Moving forward, we all need everyone to step up like we did (Sunday) and hopefully the outcome is different," junior Tory Miller said. "We could've folded at Arizona Sate when we lost at the last second. We could've folded at Arizona in Tucson when we got it to within six and they ended up beating us. On and on, we could've folded plenty of times.
"I think this team has a never-say-die attitude and I think George (King) used a good a good analogy when he said we bend but we'll never break. They're trying to bend us right now, trying to break us. But I think we're going to stay strong."
The Buffs return home this week to face Washington on Thursday and Washington State Sunday, two of the teams the Buffs wasted last-minute leads against. In the case of those two foes, CU also held leads in the final minute of overtime before suffering a pair gut-wrenching overtime losses on the road three weeks ago.
Five of CU's final seven regular-season games are at home. Four of those seven are against teams currently in the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings. An opportunity remains for the Buffs to make a push but time is running out — especially since Boyle indicated after Sunday's game the status of suspended seniors Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon, who violated team rules, remains up in the air as the week begins.
"We have to figure out how to win the next game," Boyle said. "We won three straight there and we dropped this one (at Cal), but we have to go home and figure out how to beat Washington. It's back to the drawing board and a lot of basketball still to be played. We've got (five) out of seven at home. It's time to see what we can do."