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Math has grown simple for CU Buffs: Beat Utah, get first-round bye at Pac-12 tourney

Buffs eye first top-four finish since joining Pac-12

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.
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Nothing has changed for the Colorado Buffaloes. CU needs a victory Saturday in the regular season finale at Utah for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to regain a measure of momentum before heading to Las Vegas next week for the Pac-12 Conference tournament.

Still, without leaving the comforts of their sofas on Thursday night, the road to a possible Pac-12 tournament championship became much more manageable for the Buffs.

Losses by Stanford and Arizona State on Thursday night simplified the math for CU this weekend. Win at Utah, and not only will the Buffs post a 22nd regular-season win for the first time in program history, but they also will earn a top-four finish in the league and the accompanying first-round by next week in Vegas for the first time in nine seasons in the conference.

“I think the main thing is not looking too far ahead. Just making sure we go win the next game,” CU junior wing D’Shawn Schwartz said. “Because after this next game, it’s single elimination. So we have to make sure we handle business every time we step on the court.”

On paper, the Buffs should be heavy favorites Saturday afternoon, and CU’s 91-52 win against the Utes at home on Jan. 12 was one of the Buffs’ most complete performances of the season. Yet the Buffs also were solid favorites going into last week’s game at Cal, which ended with a 76-62 defeat for CU in which the Buffs led only momentarily midway through the first half.

Utah has lost its past two games and five of the past six, yet while most teams enjoy better fortunes at home than on the road, the Utes’ discrepancy has been particularly glaring. Utah has gone winless in Pac-12 play on the road but has gone 6-2 at home, posting home wins against Stanford, Oregon State, and USC. Moreover, the Buffs are just 1-7 at Utah since both programs joined the Pac-12, winning in the first year in the league in 2012 and losing seven in a row since.

There are scenarios in which a Buffs loss would not prevent a top-four finish. For instance, if CU loses and falls to 10-8 in the league, and Arizona, Arizona State, and USC all finish at 10-8 as well, the Buffs still would sneak into the third seed. However, with an NCAA Tournament bid all but locked up, a victory Saturday would be as much about reversing March momentum after CU’s first three-game losing streak in two years as it would be about matching the best league record since joining the Pac-12.

That other 11-7 mark in Pac-12 play? That was in 2012, the team that went on to win the conference tournament without the aid of a first-round bye.

“The one thing about Utah is they’re tough, and well-coached, and they’re a team you have to beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “They usually have a good game plan. The game here to me really means nothing. It really wasn’t indicative of the Utah team that they are. We played out of our minds both offensively and defensively and rebounded the ball. It was just one of those games. But it’s going to be a different Utah team. A scrappy one, a hungry one.

“I always say the most dangerous animal is the one that’s wounded on the side of the road. And I think you have two of them in this game, Colorado and Utah.”

CU Buffs at Utah Utes

TIPOFF: Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Networks; Radio — 760 AM

RECORDS: Colorado 21-9, 10-7 Pac-12 Conference; Utah 15-14, 6-11.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (210-132, 266-198 overall); Utah — Larry Krystkowiak, 9th season (170-125, 212, 145 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Jr., 14.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.1 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr., 13.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, .520 field goal percentage; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, 10.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-So., 8.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg. Utah — F Timmy Allen, So., 17.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg; G Both Gach, So., 10.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg; G Rylan Jones, Fr., 9.6 ppg, 4.7 apg.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Buffs’ defense has been vulnerable of late, allowing the past four opponents to shoot at least 45 percent overall. In Pac-12 games, Utah ranks eighth in overall field goal percentage (.421) and 11th in 3-point percentage (.311). If CU’s defense can’t get right against the Utes, it will be a bad omen for the postseason.

NOTES: In a 39-point home win against Utah on Jan. 12, CU produced a season-high .594 shooting percentage (38-for-64) as well as a season-high rebounding advantage of plus-18 (42-24)…CU senior Lucas Siewert is expected to play in his 129th game, which will tie former CU guard and current director of player development Nate Tomlinson for the sixth-most appearances in program history…Wright’s 152 assists this season is the ninth-best single-season total in program history, and CU’s point guard now owns three of the top nine single-season assist totals in team history. Wright recorded 175 assists as a freshman (second all-time) and 167 last year (tied for sixth)…While the Buffs are completing the regular season against Utah, USC hosts UCLA (1:15 p.m. MT, CBS) in a game that could decide the Pac-12 title. If UCLA wins and Oregon defeats Stanford at home late Saturday night (9 p.m. MT, FS1), the Bruins and Ducks would be co-champs, with Oregon receiving the top overall seed at next week’s league tournament thanks to their win against UCLA in the teams’ lone regular season matchup.