It wasn't quite six weeks ago when the Colorado men's basketball team faced a challenge it had never previously conquered in seeking a road win against UCLA.
The Buffaloes weren't exactly reeling at the time — they had posted back-to-back wins at home against top-25 teams Arizona and Arizona State a week earlier — but CU was coming off a turnover-riddled performance at USC in which the Trojans dominated down the stretch.
The effort the Buffs produced that night at UCLA, essentially leading throughout a 68-59 win that erased an 0-8 all-time road mark against the Bruins, arguably was CU's top all-around performance of the season. Those six weeks suddenly seem like ancient history for a Buffs team that suffered its third consecutive loss on Wednesday night and, more alarmingly, has the look of a squad that is regressing heading at a time when teams are trying to floor the gas pedal.
It is a trend the Buffs will be desperate to reverse going into the regular-season home finale Sunday against UCLA (2 p.m., ESPNU).
If that road win at UCLA, coupled with the previous week's upsets against the Arizona schools, was supposed to be a springboard for the up-and-coming, youthful Buffs, it hasn't happened. The Buffs have gone 4-6 in the 10 games since, culminating with USC ending its Wednesday night win at the Coors Events Center on a 17-6 run — which actually was a 17-4 run until two window-dressing free throws by George King with 8.8 seconds remaining.
"There's no doubt in my mind we can beat UCLA here at home," freshman guard McKinley Wright said. "We're going to come out and play for our seniors. It's going to be an emotional (game) for those guys playing here for the last time ever. Hopefully we can end on a good note for those guys and come out and get a win."
After that UCLA win, and even after a three-game winning streak at home earlier this month, it seemed the Buffs were destined for a ticket to the NIT at the very least. That no longer is the case, with the Buffs (15-13, 7-9 Pac-12) currently on the outside of that NIT projection and looking in. The latest NIT bracketology published by nycbuckets.com had the Buffs as one of the final teams within the 32-team field, yet that projection was posted prior to CU's loss Wednesday night.
Now the Buffs must attempt to gain ground against a UCLA team that, going into its Thursday night battle at Utah, not only is fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, but is trying to land a first-round bye in the league tournament by finishing in the Pac-12's top four. The same can be said for Utah, which hosts the Buffs in the regular-season finale next week.
CU has been at its best this season when it has received multiple contributions across its deep rotation, but key ingredients have been lagging of late. King, a senior and the team's second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, has averaged just 5.7 points during the three-game losing streak while shooting 4-for-20 overall and 1-for-10 on 3-pointers. Third-leading scorer Namon Wright (10.5 points per game) has averaged 7.0 points in four games since returning from a two-game absence due to an illness, shooting just .391 (9-for-23) during that span. And though he has been limited recently by a hand injury, freshman Lazar Nikolic has gone scoreless in five of his past nine games.
In recent weeks, head coach Tad Boyle has juggled the fifth starting spot between Namon Wright, Nikolic, and, more recently, D'Shawn Schwartz. That will continue Sunday, with senior Dom Collier expected to fill that role in his final home game.
"When everything is equal and close, and you've got a junior and a senior and a freshman, I'm going to go with the freshman," Boyle said. "If it's not close, I'm going to go start the junior or senior. That's their job to make that separation occur, whether it's in practice or in games. That separation hasn't occurred."