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Rooney: Collapse against Utah shows why it’s tough to trust CU Buffs

Coach Tad Boyle laments “worse loss of career” thoughts for second time in two weeks

BOULDER, CO - Jan. 30, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – January 30, 2021: A ball gets away from Colorado’s McKinley Wright and Utah’s Pelle Larsson at the Pac-12 game between Utah and Colorado in Boulder on January 30, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Colorado fans want to jump on board.

Thanks to nearly a full year of staying home and watching games at empty venues on TV, Buffaloes fans are as starved as ever for something to get behind. A men’s basketball team with a program all-time great at point guard and a likeable roster making midseason noise at a Pac-12 Conference title run for the second consecutive year seemingly would be a great place to start.

Yet Saturday’s collapse, epic by any standard, offered a jarring reminder why it’s so difficult to fully embrace this team. They can’t be trusted to avoid laying the occasional egg.

For a program that suffered mind-numbing collapses last year and even in the most recent NCAA Tournament season of 2015-16, Saturday’s 77-74 loss to Utah was perhaps a new low. CU is in the midst of a five-game homestand being looked at as an opportunity to cement the Buffs’ place in the Pac-12 hunt. The Utes never are an easy out, but this veteran bunch of Buffs led by 19 points after pair of McKinley Wright IV free throws with 8 minutes, 46 seconds remaining.

Good teams get the job done from there. The Buffs did not.

Utah outscored the Buffs 31-9 the rest of the way. Dissect the Xs and Os as much as anyone wants, and there were plenty of issues to point at, but the bottom line is good teams don’t lose these games at home, whether it’s in front of a sold-out crowd or before no fans at all. Now the Buffs and head coach Tad Boyle have to head back to the drawing board to try to make sure Saturday’s gut punch doesn’t turn into the sort of prolonged swoon that marred the end of last season.

It was a telling comment Boyle offered when he said it was, “One of the most disappointing losses of my career.” Except that remark wasn’t uttered on Saturday. Boyle shared that assessment last week, not long after the Buffs dropped an 84-80 decision against a Washington team that had yet to win a Pac-12 game.

Moments after his team crumbled against Utah on Saturday, Boyle said, “I’m not sure I’ve ever been more disappointed in a loss in my career.”

Granted, the depth of Boyle’s recent disappointments is in part spurred by the high level of expectations he has for this team. But when your veteran coach offers some form of the “most disappointing loss of my career” assessment twice over the course of four games, generally, that team isn’t going to be in the mix for any sort of championship.

Saturday’s scene offered more fodder for the “Yeah, but…” faction when evaluating Boyle’s CU tenure. Those three consecutive NCAA berths from 2012 through 2014 featured just one first-round win. The 2016 NCAA Tournament team might have been seeded better than eighth if not for a handful of similar second-half collapses, and those Buffs might have evened Boyle’s first-round record if they could’ve finished off a UConn team that trailed CU by nine at halftime. Even last year, faltering late in the season might not have been so problematic if not for wasting late leads at home against Oregon State (CU led by 11 with 8 minutes remaining) and UCLA (CU led by nine with under 13 minutes remaining).

The guess here is the Buffs will find a way to bounce back. With nine games remaining in the regular season, CU is scheduled to play five at home and four on the road. Between the Oregon State loss last year and the UCLA home loss that started CU’s five-game, season-ending losing streak, the Buffs went 9-3. The Buffs could very well rise up and defeat someone they aren’t supposed to along the way, like UCLA at home or at Oregon. But they are equally capable of getting swept by Oregon State.

Every team in the Pac-12 is good for a dud or two throughout the course of the season. But the Buffs quickly are running out of its allotment of mulligans.