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CU men’s basketball: Buffs hoping third time still a charm against WSU

Colorado's George King drive to the basket against Washington State defenders last month in Boulder during an overtime victory for the Buffs.
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s George King drive to the basket against Washington State defenders last month in Boulder during an overtime victory for the Buffs.

CU men’s basketball preview: Washington State

MATCHUP: No. 12 Washington State Cougars (9-21, 1-17 Pac-12) vs. No. 5 Colorado Buffaloes (21-10, 10-8) in first round of Pac-12 Conference tournament.

GAME TIME: Wednesday, 3:40 p.m. MST, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas.

BROADCAST: Radio — 760 AM; TV — Pac-12 Networks.

COACHES: Washington State — Ernie Kent, second season (22-39, 347-292 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, sixth season (129-78, 185-144 overall).

LEADERS: Washington State — Scoring: F Josh Hawkinson, Jr., 15.6 ppg; Rebounding: Hawkinson, 11.0 rpg; Assists: G Ike Iroegbu, Jr., 3.6 apg. Colorado — Scoring: F/C Josh Scott, Sr., 16.5 ppg; Rebounding: Scott, 8.7 rpg; Assists: G Dom Collier, So., 2.8 apg.

NOTABLE: Since joining the Pac-12, CU has never lost its opening game of the league tournament. … The Buffs are 8-3 all-time in the Pac-12 tourney, with the bulk of that ledger occurring during a 4-0 run to the title in their debut season of 2012. CU is 4-3 since and last reached the semifinals in 2014. … Hawkinson averaged 15 points and 11.5 rebounds in two games against the Buffs this year. … CU’s George King made 6-of-11 3-pointers and 13-of-14 free throws while averaging 21.5 points in the Buffs’ two previous wins against the Cougars. … CU has gone 7-1 against WSU since joining the Pac-12. … The Cougars have not won a postseason game since 2009. … CU junior Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who averages 7.3 points, has scored 25 points over the past two games while going 6-for-7 from 3-point range. Fletcher is 13-for-21 on 3-pointers over his past seven games.

They have squandered several opportunities in heartbreaking fashion while also netting a pair of wins against teams currently ranked in the top 15.

They matched a program record with 21 regular-season wins while still being able to look back and wonder what could have been had they executed just a little better in a few minutes of crunch time.

The 2015-16 season certainly has been a roller-coaster ride for the Colorado Buffaloes, yet neither the highs nor lows matter any longer. The postseason has arrived, with the requisite clean slate for all involved. For CU, the first challenge will be to overcome a 12th-seeded Washington State team in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball tournament that played the Buffs to the wire in two previous CU victories this season.

Fifth-seeded CU and the Cougars tip off at 3:40 p.m. MST on Wednesday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with the winner taking on fourth-seeded Arizona on Thursday afternoon.

“Washington State has good players. They’re a much better team than their record indicates,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “We know that because we played them twice in two close games. We’ve got to be ready to play.

“It’s a new season for everybody. I’m sure they’re looking at it like, ‘Hey, let’s go let it all hang out in Vegas.’ We’ve got to be ready.”

Washington State brings a 16-game losing streak into the tournament opener. Yet that slide features a handful of near-misses, including a pair of narrow losses against the Buffs.

CU needed a late 12-2 run to pull away from the Cougars on the road on Jan. 23. Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Josh Scott at home on Feb. 11, it took a 3-pointer from George King at the regulation buzzer for the Buffs to extend a game they ultimately won in double overtime.

“It’s going to be tough,” said King, who was named the league’s Most Improved Player on Monday. “They’re not a bad basketball team in my opinion. And they’re obviously desperate. They’re trying to play spoiler for everybody and they have nothing to lose, so they can go out and play a hundred miles an hour. It’s going to be a good game. We’ve still got to come out and play the way we are capable of playing. We’re going to have to really key in to make sure we come out on top.”

Now entering their fifth Pac-12 postseason, the Buffs have enjoyed a fair amount of success in the league tournament while never being seeded better than the No. 5 spot they are situated in this year. CU won its first Pac-12 tournament in 2012, winning four games in four days as the No. 6 seed. The Buffs have never lost their opening game, also reaching the semifinals with two victories in 2014.

Under Boyle, the Buffs also won a pair of conference tournament games in 2011 in their final season in the Big 12.

“It’s just about recognizing that they have good players, and respecting that, but also executing your game plan against them,” Scott said. “It’s just about playing our brand of basketball. The record is not indicative of the talent they have on that team.”

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