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Rooney: Late slide ruining what was (and still could be) memorable season for CU Buffs

Tad Boyle challenged to shake club out of slump

Ed Kosmicki/CU athletics
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle reacts to a foul call against Utah on Saturday.

SALT LAKE CITY — This was a team that set out to make Colorado basketball history.

And perhaps, when it’s all said and done, the Buffaloes will do just that. Much crazier things have happened in college basketball than watching a team stumble down the stretch of the regular season, only to light it up in the postseason. There is a reason it’s called March Madness.

Yet as strange as it seems to say about a team that matched the program record for wins in the regular season, and spent more weeks in the AP top 25 than any CU team in history, and that still has a chance to be even better in the 2020-21 season, one gets the sense this is a program at a crossroads. And head coach Tad Boyle needs to find a way to press the right buttons to pull his club out of its late tailspin before all the good vibes generated this winter are completely washed away by an ugly finish.

CU’s 74-72 overtime loss at Utah Saturday afternoon was its fourth in a row to finish the regular season. The Buffs were knocked out of the AP top 25 earlier in the week, and the eighth straight loss at Utah’s Huntsman Center gave the Buffs a four-game losing streak to end the year — the program’s longest since Lucas Siewert, CU’s only four-year senior, was a freshman. It also knocked the Buffs out of the Pac-12 Conference’s top four and left CU without the accompanying first-round bye for the league tournament next week in Las Vegas, another program milestone the Buffs were aiming to achieve this season.

“A really disappointing loss. Because this was an opportunity for us to do something that had never been done in Colorado basketball,” Boyle said. “We had four opportunities to do it, so it wasn’t just tonight. But really disappointing.”

Disappointing is the appropriate adjective for the past three weeks. When the Buffs defeated USC at home on Feb. 20, they improved to 21-6 while taking the command of the Pac-12 race. They led UCLA by nine points with under 13 minutes remaining at the CU Events Center two days later, but fell apart down the stretch.

The Buffs have yet to pick up the pieces.

Certainly hitting a rough patch isn’t out of the norm in college basketball for any team not named Kansas or Gonzaga. Duke recently lost three of four games before knocking off North Carolina State earlier this week. A more appropriate comparison for the Buffs as a power conference team not known as a basketball blueblood that has enjoyed a historic season is Penn State. Yet the Nittany Lions’ loss Saturday against Northwestern on Saturday was their third in a row and fifth in the final six regular season games.

If there is a silver lining to the Buffs’ dropping out of the Pac-12’s top four, it is they perhaps have an opportunity to get right against a club like Washington State or Oregon State (as of this writing, the first-round foe was yet to be determined). CU has never lost an opening game of any conference tournament in nine previous seasons under Boyle, and getting back in the win column might be all this team needs to regain its confidence.

But that will be a difficult challenge for Boyle. Certainly it’s been done before, as his 2012 team that won the Pac-12 tournament entered the fray with losses in three of four games. Yet at this point, turning things around will be as much about managing the Buffs’ wounded psyche as adjusting any Xs and Os.

“New season,” Boyle said. “Our regular season is over with. We’re 21-10. Not where we wanted to be on a four-game slide. But it’s a new season. We’ve got to hit the reset button, the re-start button, and get back to who we know we can be. No more road games. No more home games. Everything is on a neutral floor from here on out. We’ve got to be the tougher team and the better-executing team when we go to Las Vegas.

“But it’s a new season. Reset, re-start, let’s go.”