Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
LOS ANGELES — Does anybody besides Washington actually want to win the Pac-12 Conference this winter?
In a league mired in mediocrity throughout the 2018-19 season, why not the Colorado Buffaloes?
No doubt it remains a long shot, to say the least, for the Buffs to reach the NCAA Tournament. Even with a strong finish to the regular season, reaching the Big Dance is most likely going to require winning four games in four consecutive days in Las Vegas at the league tournament next month. It is a difficult way to earn an invitation, yet one coach Tad Boyle’s Buffs successfully navigated once before in 2012.
Unlikely? Definitely. Impossible? Not at all.
Washington is going to win the regular season title. The Huskies are perhaps just another weekend or two away from clinching that crown, as they took a whopping four-game lead into Saturday’s action around the league. After that, though, nine teams entered Saturday’s play within two games of each other, with Arizona State, Oregon State, Utah, and USC all sitting at 6-4 behind UW and the Buffs lingering at the rear of that pack at 4-6 going into their Saturday night date at USC.
Regardless of whether the Buffs return home at 5-6 or 4-7, CU still has the look of a team that will be a tough out in Vegas, assuming point guard McKinley Wright and his ailing left shoulder can gut it out through the finish line. CU’s back-to-back wins against Oregon and at UCLA offered a clear reminder that this Buffs team, despite myriad imperfections and a depleted rotation, can play with anyone in the Pac-12 on any given night.
This week also offered a reminder that anything can happen in a league with little separation among the programs jockeying for position in a crowded pack. If lowly Washington State can go to Arizona and sweep ASU and Arizona, a feat the Cougars completed Saturday, no team is immune from possibly having its postseason fate swing from one extreme to another in a matter of a few days.
For the Buffs, the NIT remains a more reasonable and achievable goal. Considering the adversity Boyle and the Buffs have been forced to traverse this season — the preseason torn ACL suffered by 7-footer Dallas Walton, losing lone senior Namon Wright to foot surgery, Deleon Brown’s ineligibility to academic issues, McKinley Wright’s ailing shoulder — an NIT berth would be a commendable achievement for a young core still trying to ascend to its peak potential.
This past week, Boyle said the second half of the Pac-12 slate (which began with Wednesday’s win at UCLA) would offer a solid gauge of just how far his team has developed this season. Boyle has tried not to use the injuries and youth as excuses, especially the latter. But the reality is the Buffs have three prominent contributors competing at the Pac-12 level for the first time (Shane Gatling, Evan Battey, and Daylen Kountz), and that number moves to four if one were to include freshman guard Eli Parquet. Sophomore D’Shawn Schwartz is a full-time starter for the first time, and every game in which McKinley Wright tries to fight through his shoulder pain, the Buffs are one awkward jolt away from losing their floor general.
If the Buffs can finish the season strong, particularly with a run of five home dates over the final seven regular-season games, what at times has been a maddeningly inconsistent season might turn out to be one of the most impressive coaching performances of Boyle’s tenure at CU. Of course, the Buffs also could very well collapse and leave fans wondering just how high the ceiling is for this youthful core that is supposed to eventually lead the program back to the Big Dance.
Either way, the next month should be fun to watch.