Perhaps as impressive as the four-game winning streak that has turned this season’s stretch run into the polar opposite of last year has been the manner in which the Buffaloes have put those wins together.
They won on the road at Oregon State. The next three wins at home have followed different scripts. The Buffs hit shots and unleashed an active defense in a solid all-around performance against USC. They survived a slugfest against UCLA and turned up the intensity to dominate down the stretch. And they shook off a horrendous start to eventually run away from Arizona State in the regular season finale on Thursday night.
With their defense clicking and star point guard McKinley Wright IV playing at an elite level, the 24th-ranked Buffs planned to take a couple well-earned days off following Thursday’s 75-61 victory against the Sun Devils. When they reconvene to begin preparing for the Pac-12 Conference tournament, the hope is the mixture of strong defense and the ability to win games in different ways will prove to be a winning combination in March.
“Defense kept us in the game in the first half (against ASU). We were lucky to be (up) one,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “The second half, the game’s pretty simple when you defend, hold them to 30 percent. You rebound, we outrebound them by 15 in the second half. And you take care of the ball. We only had three turnovers in the second half rather than 10. The game kind of takes care of itself when you do those things.”
The victory assured the Buffs of the No. 3 seed next week at the league tournament in Las Vegas, though that is dependent on the USC at UCLA tipping off as planned on Saturday. The Buffs will surpass the loser of that game for the third seed, but will remain fourth if the game ultimately isn’t played due to a coronavirus cancellation.
That sets CU’s potential matchups in Vegas. As the third seed, the Buffs will play the winner between 11th-seeded Cal and sixth-seeded Stanford in the quarterfinals on March 11. If CU (20-7, 14-6 Pac-12) ends up as the fourth seed, they are locked into a four-versus-five matchup in the March 11 quarterfinals against Oregon State.
The victory against ASU moved CU up two spots to No. 14 in Friday’s NET rankings. The challenge now for the Buffs will be to keep the momentum rolling while recharging their batteries.
“We’ve got to stick together, stay in the gym, stay in shape,” CU senior D’Shawn Schwartz said. “It’s not the first time we’ve had a couple days off, so I think we’ll handle it well. We’re all mature guys, a mature team, and I think we’ll be ready to go when our time comes.”
Not lost on the Buffs is that the opportunities at hand — a run at the Pac-12 tournament championship, the NCAA bid denied at the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago — requires the same diligence that has allowed CU to avoid any COVID-19 dilemmas since December. With the finish line in sight, the Buffs understand getting healthy for the postseason stage means more than just licking the wounds from the 27-game regular season.
“Stay safe. Limited time seeing our families wearing our masks. Staying out of the way, just trying to stay safe,” Wright said. “We’ve got the next two days off, so it’s going to be important for us to get in the gym by ourselves or with a teammate, get some shots up, maybe a little conditioning. Cold tub, hot tub, just taking care of our bodies at this time of year.”