High emotions, stakes as CU basketball hosts USC in regular season finale

Colorado head coach Tad Boyle is not worried about past matchups with USC. The Buffs still have sights on a top four seed.
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle is not worried about past matchups with USC. The Buffs still have sights on a top four seed.

CU men’s basketball preview: USC Trojans

TIPOFF: Saturday, 3 p.m., CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network; Radio — 760 AM (Joined in progress on 850 AM after Rockies-Indians spring training game).

RECORDS: USC 15-15, 8-9 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 18-11, 9-8.

COACHES: USC — Andy Enfield, 6th season (108-91; 149-119 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 9th season (184-121; 240-187 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: USC — F Bennie Boatwright, Sr., 18.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg; F Nick Rakocevic, Jr., 14.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg; G Jonah Matthews, Jr., 12.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg. Colorado — F Tyler Bey, So., 13.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg; G McKinley Wright, So., 12.9 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.9 rpg; F Lucas Siewert, Jr., 10.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg.

NOTES: For the first time this season, Bey has supplanted Wright as the Buffs’ leading scorer. Bey has posted four consecutive double-doubles and seven in the past nine games. He has averaged 16.9 points and 11.1 rebounds with a .629 shooting percentage during that nine-game span…With Thursday’s win against UCLA, Boyle tied Ricardo Patton for No. 2 on CU’s all-time wins list with 184…Wright needs six assists to reach 320 in his career and match Cory Higgins for 12th-place among CU’s all-time leaders…Wright led the Buffs with 20 points and eight rebounds in last month’s win at USC…The Trojans have won their past two games in Boulder…In Pac-12 games USC ranks sixth in overall field goal percentage (.462) but third in 3-point percentage (.389). CU took over the lead in defensive 3-point percentage in league games at .325.

It has by no means been a flawless season for the Colorado men’s basketball team.

There were plenty of missed opportunities in December and January the Buffaloes likely still lament. And a 2-6 start in Pac-12 Conference play by a young rotation that suffered its fair share of attrition along the way left a bleak outlook in late January.

Six weeks later, the Buffs are one of the hottest teams in the league, and their fans couldn’t ask for a better setting for Saturday’s regular-season finale at the CU Events Center — a rival which recently has sparked heated emotions coming to town with a possible first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament on the line.

Exactly one month ago, the emphatic fist-pumps from CU head coach Tad Boyle in the moments after his team’s four-point road win at USC apparently rankled the hosts, with Trojans associate head coach Jason Hart confronting Boyle in the handshake line. The pair soon talked it out, yet after two years of on-court vitriol between the squads, combined with a Pac-12 finale with significant league implications, Saturday’s atmosphere should provide an appealing appetizer as March Madness starts to unfold.

Boyle said there has been no further contact between the coaching staffs since those postgame fireworks on Feb. 9 in Los Angeles.

“I don’t want (the players) to think about anything. This is the biggest game of the year because it’s the next game,” Boyle said. “That’s it. USC is USC. UCLA is UCLA. We’ve just got to prepare ourselves to try and figure out how to beat the Trojans. I don’t put anything into that.

“I’m one of those guys, I get something off my chest and it’s done. It’s water under the bridge. I don’t hold anything inside. That’s why I get rid of it, so I don’t take it to bed with me or worry about it the next time we play.”

Boyle’s postgame jubilation last month at the Galen Center was at least partially inspired by USC’s antics a year earlier, when Trojans coach Andy Enfield took a timeout with 21 seconds remaining and called a set play for one of his top players with his club salting away a 12-point win.

As Boyle mentioned, those personal feelings will be secondary for a Buffs team still in contention for a top-four spot thanks to a run that has seen CU go 7-2 after that 2-6 start to league play. A win would assure the Buffs of at least the No. 5 slot next week in Las Vegas and a favorable first-round matchup against 12th-seeded Cal. In that scenario, a win against Cal would set up a quarterfinal-round game against Oregon State.

However, the Buffs could finish in the top four and face one less hurdle in Las Vegas with a little help from one of their Pac-12 rivals Saturday. CU still needs to top USC, but either a Utah loss at home against UCLA (5 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network) or a loss by Oregon State at Washington State (1 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network), would give the Buffs their first top-four finish in eight seasons in the Pac-12.

“We’re not really thinking about the (emotions) or the past we’ve had,” CU guard Shane Gatling said. “It’s senior night for Namon (Wright). We want to send him out the right way. We just want to come out here and get a win. We’re not thinking about anything else but winning this game.”

Pat Rooney: or