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Rooney: Though he’s longshot to win, Tad Boyle deserving of Pac-12 Coach of the Year

Colorado head coach Tad Boyle addresses his team and the fans after the Buffs’ win over USC on Saturday.

I admit it. I committed a journalistic faux pas earlier this season.

The crime in question occurred at the end of a miserable night for the Colorado Buffaloes in Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 5.

Coach Tad Boyle’s Buffs had just been run out of the gym by Arizona State. Less alarming than a bad loss on a random night on the road was the state of affairs surrounding the Buffs. CU’s lone senior, Namon Wright, missed the game due to a foot injury after playing 20 minutes two nights earlier at Arizona. Wright’s senior season included just five more minutes before he underwent season-ending surgery.

Junior guard Deleon Brown missed his fourth straight game due to academic issues that ultimately cost him the remainder of the season. That pine time for Brown began a two weeks earlier at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, where a Buffs team that harbored hopes of reaching the tournament’s title game instead lost its first two games before squeaking out a victory against Charlotte in the last-place game.

The loss that early January night at Arizona State was the Buffs’ fourth in five games and gave them an 0-2 start in Pac-12 play with manpower issues reaching a boiling point. And that’s when I decided to broach the subject with Boyle about the one-year extension written into his contract that automatically is invoked if neither Boyle nor the university give notice of opting out by Dec. 31 of each year.

Boyle confirmed neither side gave notice. I couldn’t help it. I flinched. An eyebrow curled. Subtly, and certainly not obnoxiously. But the veteran coach didn’t miss it.

“What’s the matter Pat?” Boyle asked. “You look surprised.”

I confess. I was.

Not because I thought Boyle was on any imminent hot seat. Yet if ever there was a time for athletic director Rick George — not the man who hired Boyle at CU — to put his foot down and say the program’s current trajectory was unacceptable, this was it. The Buffs were beaten, battered, and trending the wrong way in a season that was supposed to highlight the promise of a talented yet youthful core. Not invoking the extension didn’t necessarily mean Boyle was on his way out. Yet it could have been interpreted as a clear message this ship needed to get back on track as the memory of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons dims a little further into CU lore.

“We’ll be OK,” Boyle said, almost smirking as he retreated to the locker room, looking once again over his shoulder to add, “we’ll be OK.”

Things got worse before they got better. Yet whatever wisdom that inspired that thoughtful smirk from Boyle was on the money. The Buffs indeed have been OK, and Boyle’s guidance has been a big reason why.

There have been better seasons during Boyle’s nine-year tenure, and certainly the potential remains the Buffs will be sitting at home a week from now while the rest of the college basketball world plots the remainder of its March plans. Yet the achievement the Buffs completed with Saturday’s 78-67 win against USC shouldn’t be overlooked. Boyle probably isn’t going to win the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. But it’s easy to make the argument he’s the most deserving.

Just five weeks ago, a two-point loss at home against Oregon State dropped the Buffs to 2-6 in the Pac-12. Boyle made the shrewd and easily-critiqued decision to sit an ineffective Tyler Bey for the bulk of the second half that night against the Beavers. Boyle’s extension and the hefty raise he received seemed even more curious than the raised brow those decisions drew just a few weeks earlier.

Yet Saturday’s win against USC capped what might be Boyle’s best coaching performance in his nine seasons in Boulder, with a run in the Pac-12 tournament still pending. A Buffs team that went 8-2 the rest of the way, with Bey turning his vast potential into performance with double-doubles in eight of those 10 games, will be the hottest team in the field going into Las Vegas. Fittingly, Saturday’s win was No. 185 for Boyle at CU, breaking a tie with Ricardo Patton for the second-most in program history.

Rick George never wavered in his support of Boyle as the face of the program. Boyle in turn proved the extension and raise were worth it. And he has turned a struggling young team into one that is blossoming and maturing right before its fans’ eyes.

Assuming the roster stays intact, the Buffs will be even more formidable next season. For now, though, betting against them in Vegas would be the sort of thing to make a guy raise an eyebrow curiously.

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07