Ready or not, big-time college basketball is coming to Boulder.
Not that it’s completely foreign to the CU Events Center, particularly during coach Tad Boyle’s 10 seasons at the helm. However, the week ahead offers a huge challenge for a Buffaloes team attempting to make a run at a Pac-12 Conference championship. And Thursday’s date against No. 6 Oregon in the Pac-12 opener will be one of the biggest home games of Boyle’s tenure.
Despite some inconsistent play and far too many turnovers during a nonconference run that features a 10-2 mark going into Sunday’s nonconference finale against Iona, the Buffs rekindled every ounce of their lofty preseason expectations with a stirring overtime win at the buzzer against nationally-ranked Dayton a week ago in Chicago. A conference championship — either in the regular season or at the Pac-12 tournament — remains a prominent goal of the 2019-20 Buffs.
The schedule sets up in the Buffs’ favor. After beginning league play on the road for five of the first seven games in two of the past three seasons, CU gets the advantage of playing five of the first seven Pac-12 games at home for the first time since 2011-12, the Buffs’ first season in the league. Back then, CU took advantage of that scheduling quirk to start 5-2 in league play, winning all five home games. Two months later, the Buffs were cutting down the nets at the end of the Pac-12 tournament and were making travel plans for what became the first of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons.
Taking advantage of the early home-heavy slate in the Pac-12 is an absolute must for the Buffs this season. And it begins Thursday with the showdown against the Ducks.
The balance of a big-time, highly-ranked opponent visiting a Buffs squad harboring legitimate conference and postseason expectations hasn’t occurred in some time. Just two years ago, the Buffs knocked off ranked teams from Arizona State (fourth) and Arizona (14th) at home over the course of three days, yet few expected the freshman-heavy rotation of McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, and D’Shawn Schwartz to make postseason noise that year. CU knocked off a 13th-ranked Xavier team at home early in the 2016-17 season, but the NCAA tourney hopes of that talented but combustible squad vanished during an 0-7 start to league play.
Chances are a slow week in college basketball won’t lead to a return to the AP top 25 on Monday for the Buffs, who unofficially are 27th going into the Iona game as the second squad among others receiving votes. If they are ranked, it will be the first matchup between a ranked CU squad and a ranked visitor to the Events Center since the 21st-ranked Buffs hosted No. 25 UCLA on Jan. 16, 2014. Sixth-ranked Oregon obviously is a much different beast, and that 2013-14 CU team was, at the time, reeling from the loss of guard Spencer Dinwiddie to a season-ending knee injury that occurred days earlier. A home win against No. 9 Arizona late in the 2015-16 season proved critical to the Buffs’ drive to the NCAA Tournament, but at that point CU wasn’t in the mix for the Pac-12 regular season title.
Going into the 10th season in the Pac-12, that matchup between a battered 21st-ranked CU team and a 25th-ranked UCLA team, plus a home date against No. 10 Oregon a week earlier, remain the only Pac-12 games at the Events Center featuring two ranked teams.
If the Dayton win served notice that CU is exactly where it expected to be going into the league schedule, a win against Oregon would mark the Buffs as legitimate Pac-12 contenders. For a program that has gone three full seasons since its most recent NCAA Tournament appearance, the matchup is one of the biggest of Boyle’s tenure.
Certainly a loss against the Ducks won’t end the Buffs’ NCAA Tournament goals. And this column will age quickly if the Buffs revert to some of their pre-Dayton form on Sunday and somehow stumble against Iona. But otherwise, the moment this team has been building toward since an enticing run late last season arrives this week.
Buffs basketball fans should buckle up. This is where the fun begins.
(NOTE: Story edited to correct number of ranked vs. ranked games at CU in Pac-12 era)