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Win at UCLA would salvage solid Pac-12 opening week on road for CU Buffs men’s basketball

UCLA swept Buffs las season

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For last year’s Colorado men’s basketball team, it all began to unravel in the second half of what, to that point, had been a jubilant home finale.

Colorado's Evan Battey looks to score ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Evan Battey looks to score on UCLA’s Chris Smith during the Pac-12 game on Feb. 22, 2020.

On Feb. 22, the 18th-ranked Buffs led UCLA by nine points with less than 13 minutes to play. It was senior day at the CU Events Center, and a victory by the Buffs in front of a packed house would have been their sixth win in seven games. It also would have kept CU squarely in the hunt for the Pac-12 Conference regular season crown.

But the Bruins rallied, and as all Buffs fans know, nothing has been the same since.

That setback was the start of a five-game, season-ending losing streak for the Buffs, whose misery was compounded when they were denied a chance at redemption when the NCAA Tournament was canceled during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. The memory of that loss, and a season sweep of CU by the Bruins last season, remains fresh for the Buffs as they visit Pauley Pavilion Saturday night in the finale of a Pac-12-opening three-game road swing.

“They’re a really good offensive team,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “They run their sets to a T. They execute at a high level and they’re a really good defensive team. They’re a team that swept us last year. We still have a bad taste in our mouths. It’s one we believe we can go in and win. We saw Utah play them to two points (Thursday), so we know we’re able to do the same and hopefully come out of there with a win. We’re going to go in and give it our all.”

While the Buffs struggled down the stretch last season, the Bruins’ win at the Events Center was part of a late seven-game winning streak that helped catapult UCLA into NCAA tourney consideration and led to the Bruins receiving the top spot in this year’s Pac-12 preseason media poll.

UCLA hasn’t exactly struggled so far, but the Bruins also have not performed like league favorites. Utah shot 50% from the field while falling just two points short in its upset bid at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night. Despite displaying marked improvement on defense last year in the first season under coach Mick Cronin, the Bruins so far this year have fallen into some old defensive habits. UCLA enters Saturday’s game ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in defensive field goal percentage (.425) and 10th in points allowed (67.8).

UCLA will present a challenge on the glass for CU, which outrebounded USC on Thursday night despite the Trojans’ size advantage in the frontcourt. The Bruins rank third in the league in rebounding margin (plus-7.0) but CU is coming off one of its best all-around performances of the season, defeating USC for the fifth consecutive time in a 72-62 victory.

That win also was CU’s third straight at USC’s Galen Center, and the current core of Buffs also have enjoyed some success at Pauley Pavilion, posting two consecutive wins there before dropping a 72-68 decision at UCLA last year.

“It’s going to be really difficult on Saturday at UCLA,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “They swept us last year just like we swept USC last year. USC was ready for us, we’d better be ready for UCLA.”

CU Buffs men’s basketball at UCLA Bruins

TIPOFF: Saturday, 6 p.m. MT, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles.

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

RECORDS: Colorado 7-2, 1-1 Pac-12 Conference; UCLA 6-2, 2-0.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 11th season (217-136, 273-202 overall); UCLA — Mick Cronin, 2nd season (25-14, 390-185 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G McKinley Wright IV, Sr., 15.9 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.7 rpg; F Jeriah Horne, Sr., 10.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-Jr., 10.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg. UCLA — G/F Jaime Jaquez, So., 13.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg; G Chris Smith, Sr., 12.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg; G Tyger Campbell, R-So., 10.9 ppg, 7.3 apg.

WHAT TO WATCH: The game will feature a battle between two of the top point guards in the Pac-12 in CU’s Wright and the Bruins’ Campbell. Campbell and Wright rank 1-2, respectively, in the Pac-12 in assists per game. Campbell enjoyed a huge game in the Bruins’ win at CU last year, finishing with 15 points and 11 assists.

NOTES: The Buffs’ win at USC on Thursday marked just the second time in 16 years they have posted their first conference victory on the road…With 547 career rebounds, Wright is tied with Cory Higgins for the third-most rebounds by a guard in team history…The Buffs rank second in the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage (.385, just a fraction behind Arizona’s .386)…UCLA is averaging 10.6 turnovers per game and CU is averaging 11.4. Those are the second and third best marks, respectively, in the Pac-12…CU went 14-for-16 at the free throw line Thursday at USC to retain the top spot nationally in free throw percentage (.856)…After returning from Los Angeles the Buffs will be home for four consecutive games, a run that begins Thursday against Oregon (9 p.m., FS1).