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Mental miscues a growing hurdle for CU Buffs basketball

Buffs will try to get back on track in rivalry battle at CSU

University of Colorado's Maddox Daniels passes the ball under pressure on Tuesday.
Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado’s Maddox Daniels passes the ball under pressure on Tuesday.

To borrow a baseball analogy Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle has been invoking for almost two weeks, in order to get back on track, the Buffaloes need to bunt more.

Keep the game simple.

Tuesday’s 79-76 home loss against Northern Iowa that almost certainly will drop the No. 24-ranked Buffs out of the top 25 next week exposed, in crunch time, the exact concern Boyle has repeated since the beginning of last week.

Too often the Buffs are trying to make the flashy, home run play instead of executing the simple option. And too often, those poor decisions are proving disastrous for CU. The Buffs will have another chance to address those issues when they travel to Fort Collins Friday night for a rivalry battle against Colorado State (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

“Even if we had beaten Northern Iowa and somehow sneaked away with a win, the Colorado State game is just as big as it is now,” Boyle said. “We’re going to be tested. Our toughness and our character, that’s going to be tested. It was tested (Tuesday) night. We failed the test last night. We’ll see if we pass or fail on Friday in Fort Collins.”

The Buffs’ NCAA Tournament goal won’t necessarily be derailed by an early December loss against a Northern Iowa squad that should compete in the Missouri Valley Conference. Yet it will be if the Buffs continue to display an inability to protect the basketball alongside the mental breakdowns that have the thwarted the team for weeks and finally cost them Tuesday night against the Panthers.

In two instances down the stretch against Northern Iowa, the Buffs’ veterans faltered. Point guard McKinley Wright, making his 75th career start, tried to hit D’Shawn Schwartz cutting along the baseline with a bounce pass that originated from beyond the 3-point arc. The turnover led to the last field goal on UNI’s Justin Dahl’s 7-for-7 night and a five-point lead for the Panthers.

Moments later, with the game tied 76-76, an errant Wright pass led to a breakaway layup by Spencer Haldeman that gave the Panthers the lead for good. That’s not to pin the Buffs’ turnover woes, either against UNI or the entire season, on Wright. Clearly turnovers have been a team-wide issue, and the Buffs equally perplexing defensive breakdowns led to 15 3-pointers for Northern Iowa (including when UNI’s Trae Berhow made three free throws after getting fouled by Schwartz on a 3-point attempt) and 15 second-chance points. However, those mistakes exemplify the mental miscues plaguing the Buffs.

It’s not yet time to hit the panic button, but the Buffs’ play of late certainly doesn’t speak of a team that was supposed to grow into a veteran, battle-tested club after last year’s late surge.

“The one thing I’ve really tried to press upon McKinley is limiting his turnovers,” Boyle said. “Because turnovers, look, it’s a problem for our whole team. But for a junior point guard to have five in a game like that is too many. And he knows that. He might be pressing a little bit. The whole thing about our team is we don’t have one guy that can do it by himself. We just don’t have that guy. The whole beauty of this team is we have a lot of different weapons.

“We have a lot of weapons on this team offensively, but we can’t feel like we’ve got to do it by ourselves. Because we can’t. The beauty of the team is the team, and we’ve got to play more together on offense. We’re trying to make home run plays rather than simple plays.”