Rick Scuteri / Associated Press
Rick Scuteri / Associated Press
PHOENIX — A winless start to Pac-12 Conference play isn’t at all what the Colorado men’s basketball team envisioned when it set out on its league-opening three-game road swing.
Yet after a largely lethargic showing in the Pac-12 opener at Utah a week ago, the Buffs and head coach Tad Boyle nonetheless return home on a far more encouraging note.
For a team whose greatest issue during nonconference play was its inconsistent level of focus and energy, the resolve the Buffs displayed in their winless run through the desert in two vastly different situations at Arizona State and No. 17 Arizona gave the club something to build from heading into a formidable Pac-12 home debut Thursday against No. 4 UCLA (9 p.m., FS1).
“After the Utah game, I was really concerned about our team,” Boyle said. “But after Arizona State and after (Arizona) I’m not as worried in terms of their heart and competitiveness and toughness. We’ve just got to show it every time out. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing UCLA, or if we’re playing Washington State.”
At Arizona State, the Buffs lost second-leading scorer Xavier Johnson late in the first half due to an ejection. At that point Johnson was 6-for-7 from the floor, but even with little scoring help around him the rest of the way senior guard Derrick White’s 35-point night nearly carried the Buffs to victory in a seesaw finish where the Sun Devils ultimately prevailed on a pair of free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining.
At Arizona the Buffs didn’t flinch in the face of a raucous, capacity crowd at the McKale Center, jumping to early leads of 10-1 and 18-10. The Wildcats stormed back, building a 20-point lead they retained with as little as 11 and a half minutes remaining. Still the Buffs didn’t wither, steadily chipping away to get the deficit down to five with three minutes remaining before Arizona iced the game with solid free throw shooting down the stretch.
“We’re 0-3, and we can’t change anything about it,” White said. “We can’t let our record affect us. We just have to keep improving. I think we did some good things (against Arizona). We battled on the boards and did some good things.”
As White noted, 0-3 still is 0-3, and it doesn’t get easier for the Buffs with Thursday’s date against UCLA being followed by a visit from No. 25 USC. One encouraging aspect for CU is it gets to play the bulk of their remaining games at the Coors Events Center, with a home date also looming Jan. 28 against No. 15 Oregon. Yet the winless road trip to start league play makes the Buffs’ margin for error precariously thin in their bid for a top-half finish in the Pac-12 and a possible fifth NCAA Tournament berth in six seasons.
“We’ve got to take every game like it’s the Super Bowl. That’s got to be our approach,” Boyle said. “The UCLA game has no more urgency than (Arizona) or Arizona State’s game did or Utah’s game did. We’ve got 15 games left. Nine are at home. Six are on the road. We know that. This is an opportunity for us for ranked opponents in our league.
“I said this two weeks ago before conference play started that we’re not going to hit the panic button. This is not about panicking. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, and we have to come out and battle and fight and scratch.”
With 26 points and six rebounds at Arizona, Johnson moved into 21st-place on CU’s all-time scoring list and 20th on the all-time rebounding list. … Senior forward Wesley Gordon has shot 19-for-26 over the past five games. Gordon became the seventh player in CU history to reach the 800 mark in career rebounds.