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Critical road show for No. 21 CU Buffs begins at Cal

Buffs trying to focus on Bears, not crowded Pac-12 race

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s D-Shawn Schwartz shoots over Stanford’s Daejon Davis during the Feb. 8, 2020 Pac-12 game in Boulder.

Scoreboard watching hasn’t been necessary for Colorado basketball fans in recent seasons, yet it took center stage last week in the moments after the Buffaloes knocked off USC at the CU Events Center.

As the Buffs retreated to the locker room for their victory party, arena personnel did something contending teams do routinely by putting the end of the Arizona State-Oregon game on the scoreboard above the court.

Within moments, ASU finalized a win that, at least momentarily, but the Buffs in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 Conference. It was a short-lived perch, as CU’s loss on Saturday against UCLA, coupled with another ASU win, gave the Sun Devils control of the conference race.

Yet the sequence illuminated a nuance of the final two weeks of the regular season that will offer a test of the Buffs’ focus. A team that has done a commendable job of taking matters one game at a time all season now officially needs help to achieve its goal of a regular season conference championship. Scoreboard watching will be a natural and understandable distraction, but one the Buffs will try to ignore as they begin a run of three consecutive road games to finish the regular season Thursday night at Cal.

“There’s a lot of things going around, a lot of noise, that we try to block out,” CU junior wing D’Shawn Schwartz said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us to make sure we lock in and make sure we’re not looking ahead.”

To claim the conference title, the Buffs will likely have to do something they have achieved just once since joining the Pac-12 by winning three conference road games in a row. Given the Buffs won their most recent road game at Oregon State, sweeping the Bay Area trip would match the three-game road run CU posted in 2013. The Buffs then end the regular season next week at Utah.

“We obviously want to win the outright first-place conference championship,” point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “We’ve got to win our next three games and we need a couple more teams to make some stuff happen for us. But you can’t look at that. You’ve just got to take it game by game. Cal’s a good team at home, so it ain’t going to be easy.”

The Buffs have won five consecutive games against Cal, including a 71-65 decision in Boulder on Feb. 6. As has been the case often in Pac-12 play, CU shrugged off a shaky first half to shoot a stellar .591 after halftime. Heading into that contest, Cal had compiled a surprisingly solid .500 record in Pac-12 play, but the loss in Boulder sent the Golden Bears into a 1-5 tailspin heading into Thursday’s rematch.

“We’ve got to be as mean as we can be. No team is just going to give us wins,” Wright said. “Everybody has seen that over the course of the season. We’ve just got to be mean. We’ve got to come in with a different attitude and be locked in and win games.

“I’ve got to be better down the stretch. I’ve got to get guys in the right position to score the ball, defend better, rebound the ball. I’ve got to take my game up a little more. If we want to do what we plan to do, fill that wall up there and win the conference championship, advance deep in the NCAA Tournament, then yeah, I’ve got to turn it up.”

No. 21 CU Buffs at Cal Golden Bears

TIPOFF: Thursday, 7 p.m. MT, Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, Calif.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Networks; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Colorado 21-7, 10-5 Pac-12 Conference; Cal 11-16, 5-9.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (210-130, 266-196 overall); Cal — Mark Fox, 1st season (11-16, 297-192 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Jr., 13.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.2 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr, 13.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Jr., 10.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .402 3-point percentage; F Evan Battey, R-So., 9.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg. Cal — G Matt Bradley, So., 17.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg; G Kareem South, Sr., 8.8 ppg; F Grant Anticevich, Jr., 8.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, .415 3-point percentage.

WHAT TO WATCH: In league games, Cal ranks 11th in field goal percentage in the Pac-12 at .395. But the Bears shot .556 in a loss in Boulder on Feb. 6, the best mark against the Buffs by a league foe this season. CU must make things more difficult for Cal this time around.

NOTES: CU enters the weekend leading the Pac-12 (league games) in 3-point percentage (.375) while ranking second in overall field goal percentage (.457)…Buffs guard Shane Gatling had gone 9-for-18 on 3-pointers over the previous four games before going 1-for-7 in Saturday’s loss against UCLA…Wright needs one steal to reach 100 in his career. Bey’s next blocked shot with be his 100th..…Wright also needs just two points to become the 17th CU player to reach the 1,300-point mark. Next up on the scoring list is Jay Humphries with 1,306…The Buffs complete their road trip Saturday at Stanford (4 p.m., ESPNU).