On Dec. 29 this past winter, the Colorado men's basketball team played exactly like a young team experiencing its first Pac-12 Conference game on the road.
It quickly turned into a forgettable night for the Buffaloes at Oregon State, as CU fell behind by 23 points midway through the second half and finished with 18 turnovers in a 76-57 setback — the program's worst loss ever against the Beavers in terms of scoring margin.
CU stumbled again two nights later at Oregon and began the home portion of its Pac-12 schedule already in an 0-2 hole. The Buffs acquitted themselves well in the ensuing weeks, defeating nationally-ranked Arizona State and Arizona at home before posting the program's first win at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Still, it is fair to wonder what, if anything, might have changed in an 8-10 run through the Pac-12 had the youthful Buffs been able to get their feet wet in conference play at home.
It's a question the Buffs still won't be able to answer next season.
For the fourth consecutive year, CU will open its league schedule on the road. Additionally, the Buffs will play five of their first seven Pac-12 games away from home for the second time in three seasons.
While such circumstances have been rare since the league expanded to 12 teams in 2011-12, neither are they entirely unprecedented. And the Pac-12 deputy commissioner who oversees men's basketball, Jamie Zaninovich, insists the league is aware of situations such as CU's four consecutive league openers on the road. He maintains the cycle eventually will turn.
"It all has to with getting the right games at the right times for the parameters and TV," Zaninovich said. "In terms of starting on the road, I know (four straight) hasn't happened very often. But we get requests from schools to have games away from campus when the students aren't there. And they all have different schedules. So when we're putting together the schedule, we might go, 'Okay, to make the schedule work we need this school to start on the road.'
"I can't speak to every case with Colorado, but there's certainly been a lot of conversations about that. Different campuses weigh that differently."
In eight seasons since CU and Utah joined the former Pac-10 (including the upcoming '18-19 season), CU has opened at home just three times. The Buffs are one of only four teams to have three or fewer home openers during that span. Stanford and Arizona share the league lead with six of eight Pac-12 openers at home. The Buffs also have opened with five of the first seven Pac-12 games at home just once — their inaugural season in the league in 2011-12. In only one other instance has a team started four consecutive league schedules on the road (USC from 2013-14 through 2016-17).
While the Buffs' second run of five road games among the first seven league games in two of three seasons may be somewhat frustrating, it pales when compared to a couple Pac-12 rivals. Two programs — Washington State and Arizona State — have endured more than two five-of-seven road starts in the Pac-12, and the league-high of four compiled by ASU has occurred over seven seasons. The Sun Devils have played five of the first seven Pac-12 games on the road in each of the past two seasons, and Cal also did so in consecutive seasons in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Stanford and Oregon State have never opened Pac-12 play with five-of-seven on the road.
That's not to say starting the Pac-12 schedule with five of seven road games automatically puts a team at a competitive disadvantage, yet no team that has done so has gone on to win the Pac-12 regular season title. Conversely, teams that opened with five of seven at home have won the Pac-12 regular season crown three times in the seven complete seasons since the addition of CU and Utah (Washington in 2012, Arizona in 2014, Oregon in 2017).
Zaninovich noted there are myriad behind-the-scenes factors that drive scheduling decisions beyond the television template. Some schools make specific requests to play on the road while their students are on semester break, and throughout each season there are conflicts with the availability of various arenas that must be navigated.
"We get a lot of input from the schools," Zaninovich said. "We have a mandate to manage equity across the programs, but also do our best to include in the schedule those specific requests that schools have, whether it's facility conflicts or whether it's a gymnastics event, which we have at some schools. Every time you do that at one school, it not only affects them but it affects their travel partner and it could affect another (school)."