BERKELEY, Calif. — Each basketball season operates independently from previous seasons. But fairly or not, the frustrating finish to last season has had Colorado fans bracing for the worst even in the best of times in 2020-21.
Saturday certainly gave Buffs backers reason to fret.
Continuing their two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern in Pac-12 Conference play, CU squandered a welcome opportunity to gain a rare two-game road sweep on Saturday, as Cal, previously just 2-13 in the league, led the Buffs throughout the second half before handing CU a 71-62 defeat.
The loss arrived just 48 hours after one of the Buffs’ more impressive performances of the season, as they won at Stanford on Thursday night. While a Pac-12 regular-season title abruptly became a longshot, an NCAA Tournament berth remains well within reach for the Buffs. The challenge going forward, beginning with a two-game trip in Oregon that starts Thursday night against the Ducks (9 p.m. MT, ESPN2) will be to avoid letting the Cal loss snowball into a similar fade as last season, when CU lost its final five games before the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
“We just have to try to win our next game,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “That’s all we’ve got to worry about. That’s all we’ve got to think about, is getting better. We’ve got a couple guys banged up. We’ve got to get better. We’re facing an Oregon team on Thursday who’s playing better. They’ve got all hands on deck now. They’ve got Will Richardson back. (Chris) Duarte is back. We’ve just got to figure out how to win the next game. We can’t worry about anything other than that, and stay focused on that. Getting better every day, improving, and win the next game.”
Although the result was a disaster in terms of the Pac-12 race, it did only slight damage to the Buffs’ status in the top national analytical rankings. Heading into Sunday’s play, CU remained No. 19 in the NET rankings (down from No. 12) and No. 14 (down from No. 11) at KenPom.com.
Getting the momentum back will not be easy after losing to the league’s last-place team. After the two-game swing through Oregon, the Buffs (16-6, 10-5 Pac-12) still have home dates against Pac-12 frontrunners USC and UCLA. There also remains a makeup home date against Arizona State that has not yet been rescheduled.
With McKinley Wright IV and Evan Battey battling nagging injuries, the Buffs are hoping their health situation improves before flying to Oregon. Whether that means a return by freshman forward Jabari Walker remains to be seen.
Walker missed his fourth consecutive game at Cal due to a left foot injury, but he did join the Buffs on the Bay Area trip. Boyle said on Feb. 6 Walker would be sidelined “probably another couple of weeks,” but he will be reevaluated early this week by CU’s medical staff.
“I don’t know that,” Boyle said about Walker’s status. “We’ll get back to Colorado, have him see our doctors, and have a better feel for that as we roll through next week. So I don’t know the answer to that.”