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Already must-win territory for CU basketball against Utah

Buffs need to avoid 1-2 start at home in Pac-12 play

Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – Jan. 2, 2020: University of Colorado’s Shane Gatling gets a fast break during a PAC 12 game against the University of Oregon on Thursday at the Coors Event Center on the CU campus in Boulder. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)
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The idea, of course, is to attack each game with the exact same level of intensity and urgency.

Reality often doesn’t work out that way. And the reality for the Colorado men’s basketball team is that the third Pac-12 Conference game of the season on Sunday against Utah already has the feel of a must-win showdown.

Exactly one week after stumbling at home against Oregon State, which itself was just three days after a resounding league-opening win against then-No. 4 Oregon, the Buffs return to the CU Events Center to host the Utes, which also split its first Pac-12 Conference series at home against the Oregon schools.

On CU’s annual basketball alumni weekend featuring throwback jerseys to the 1968-69 team, which was the last Buffs squad to win a regular season conference crown, the quest to end that championship drought would be significantly hampered out of the gate with a second consecutive home loss.

“It’s a must-win. We’ve got to bounce back,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “We’ve got to make a statement. We’ve got to win this one and we’ve got to go steal some on the road.”

As has been the case through the bulk of coach Larry Krtystkowiak’s tenure with Utah, the Utes entered the season with little fanfare and aren’t dominating the Pac-12 in any specific area. Yet Utah nonetheless has impressed with an early resume that includes wins against Minnesota, BYU, and Kentucky.

The Utes entered Saturday’s play across the Pac-12 ranked fifth in the league in overall field goal percentage (.476) and sixth in 3-point percentage (.354). They rank fifth in the Pac-12 in assists per game (14.7) and sixth in turnovers committed per game (13.1). Defensively, Utah ranks eighth in the league in defensive field goal percentage (.413) but ranks third in rebounding margin at plus-5.3 per game. The Buffs are second in rebounding margin at plus-7.3.

Despite those middle-of-the road rankings, the Utes opened Pac-12 play last week by topping the very same Oregon State team that won at the Events Center days later, though Utah was unable to complete the home sweep against nationally-ranked Oregon.

“I think they’ve got good role definition,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “They take good shots. And Utah doesn’t beat themselves. You have to beat Utah. They’re not going to come in here and turn it over 25 times. They’re not going to take a bunch of bad shots. Defensively, I think they’re a work in progress. They change up their defenses to try and keep you off balance. They’re a good team. They’re much, much better than I think anybody thought they would be at this stage of the game.”

With the Buffs embarking on the season’s first Pac-12 road trip after the Utah showdown, the Buffs should be desperate to avoid a 1-2 start in the league at home. While Sunday’s battle is just the third of 18 league games for the Buffs, a team that believes it should compete for CU’s first regular season conference championship in 51 years can ill afford to start that quest by losing two of three at home.

“We should take every game the same way, but this one definitely we have to pick it up even more than we did against Oregon,” CU senior guard Shane Gatling said. “More than we did against Oregon State. We can’t lose two in a row at home. We don’t want to lose at home regardless anymore, so I feel like we’re going to pick it up even more.”

Utah Utes at No. 25 CU Buffs

TIPOFF: Sunday, 4 p.m., CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — ESPNU; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Utah 10-4, 1-1 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 12-3, 1-1.

COACHES: Utah — Larry Krystkowiak, 9th season (165-115; 207-135); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (201-126; 257-192 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Utah — F Timmy Allen, So., 21.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg; G Both Gach, So., 12.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.0 apg; G Rylan Jones, Fr., 10.9 ppg, 5.0 apg, .475 3-point percentage; F Riley Battin, So., 9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Jr., 13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr., 13.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Jr., 11.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .451 3-point percentage; F Evan Battey, R-So., 9.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg.

WHAT TO WATCH: Despite a couple late threes by Oregon State in a loss last week, the Buffs’ 3-point defense has been impressive of late, holding the past three opponents to a .217 mark (13-for-60). That will have to continue against the Utes’ Jones (.475 on 3-pointers) and Battin (.378).

NOTES: CU has posted two straight home wins against Utah following a run in which the Utes won three in a row in Boulder. The Buffs won last year’s home date against Utah 71-63 behind a double-double from Bey (17 points, 10 rebounds) and 16 points from Schwartz…Replica T-shirts of the throwback 1969-era jerseys the Buffs will wear Sunday are available for purchase at the arena, campus shops, and at CUBuffs.com…Utah’s Allen leads the Pac-12 in scoring…Bey has moved into 14th-place on CU’s career blocked shots list with 87. He needs one more to match Chris Copeland at No. 13 and three to tie Shaun Vandiver for 12th…Wright was on the preseason watch list for the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player, but earlier this week he was not included in the award’s midseason top 25 watch list…After going a full week between games, the Buffs will have a relatively short turnaround before hitting the road for their first Pac-12 road series of the season in Arizona. CU visits Arizona State on Thursday (7 p.m. MT, ESPN2) and Arizona on Jan. 18 (12:30 p.m. MT, FOX).