Mental toughness is a characteristic hard to define and even more difficult to quantify. Yet for much of the season, Colorado men's basketball coach Tad Boyle has lamented a stark lack of that sort of toughness among his Buffaloes.
That, however, might be changing.
It wasn't just picking up only the second road sweep of the program's Pac-12 history that might give fans hope a still-young CU rotation may be turning a corner. It was the manner in which the Buffs were able to close out those wins by finishing strong in hostile territory.
"There may be some games down the stretch where we play well defensively, we play well rebounding, and we play well on offense and we lose. There may be those games," Boyle said. "But at least you can live with those games. Because now you got beat. Somebody beat you. But when you turn the ball over, or you take bad shots on offense, you don't guard and you don't rebound, now you feel like you're beating yourself. I don't feel we've been beaten this year. We've beaten ourselves nine times. That's how I feel."
There was ample evidence of the Buffs not being strong enough mentally through much of January, and perhaps most prominently with the 1-2 showing CU put together at the Diamond Head Classic in late December as the Buffs went from expecting to compete for a championship to barely salvaging a win in the tournament's last-place game. The Buffs also squandered a 12-point lead late in the first half at Stanford and were outplayed in the second half of a home loss against Oregon State on Jan. 31.
Yet that has changed dramatically during the three-game winning streak the Buffs will take into Wednesday night's home date against Arizona State (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1). CU led by only four points with about five minutes left last week at UCLA but promptly reeled off a 10-0 run to take control, with three different players scoring points during the run.
The Buffs displayed even more fortitude in an emotional showdown at USC that was chippy from the opening tip. Afterward, even Boyle admitted it probably wasn't a game his team would have won a year ago, with the Buffs making the plays down the stretch in a game that featured 19 ties and 13 lead changes.
"We're playing for 40 minutes. We knew how to play for 40 minutes, we just had to do it," CU junior guard Shane Gatling said. "The mental toughness part, that mental toughness is really helping us. We're more confident. We believe in ourselves and we're trusting our teammates. We're just playing how we should be.
"We did it three games in a row. Why can't we do it another three games? Why can't we do it the rest of the season? It's really just about focusing, concentrating, playing hard and playing together."
No doubt, the improved mental toughness could serve the Buffs well down the stretch — particularly considering they get to play five of the final seven regular-season games at home, and with the three-game winning streak keeping the Buffs among a crowd of nine teams within two games of one another that are jockeying for position between second-place and 10th. Yet Boyle credits two of his program's two basic tenets — defense and rebounding — for the recent surge.
While UCLA shot .463 against the Buffs and outrebounded CU by three, the Buffs outrebounded Oregon by 13 and USC by nine while holding both teams below 40 percent from the floor.
"It's just a matter of challenging them to play for 40 minutes, and they've answered the bell since the Oregon State game," Boyle said. "The bottom line is the reason we've won three games in a row is we've guarded, and we've rebounded. Our offense is getting better. It should get better. It's the middle of February. When we defend and we rebound, we give ourselves a chance."