Upon Pac-12 tourney return one year later, CU Buffs appreciative of opportunity in COVID season

Buffs lost final completed college hoops game in 2020 before pandemic

BOULDER, CO - Feb. 27, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – February 27, 2021: Colorado’s D’Shawn Schwartz drives on UCLA’s Jules Bernard during the UCLA at Colorado Pac-12 game in Boulder on February 27, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

LAS VEGAS — It is a memory unlikely to make the highlight reel of any of the Colorado men’s basketball players when they someday reminisce about their collegiate playing days. Yet it’s one that will be unforgettable nonetheless.

It was upsetting enough on March 11, 2020 when the Buffs, mired in a late-season slump, trudged off the floor at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with the first opening-round loss in a conference tournament in head coach Tad Boyle’s 10 seasons at CU. As much as they were struggling on the floor, the Buffs perhaps were blissfully ignorant of how the sports world, and society in general, was breaking down in a hurry due to a virus few understood just yet.

As the Buffs suffered that first-round defeat against Washington State at the Pac-12 Conference tournament, league commissioner Larry Scott spent much of the contest shuffling between his courtside seat and the floor-level tunnel, either speaking on his phone or huddling with other officials. It turned out to be the final Division I college basketball game completed in the 2019-20 season, as the following morning the Pac-12, like other leagues across the country, canceled the remainder of the conference tournament.

Later that day on March 12, the unthinkable occurred as the NCAA Tournament was canceled, denying the struggling Buffs a shot at redemption as their bid already was secured. One year later, when the Buffs hit the T-Mobile floor once again late Thursday night for a quarterfinal-round match against Cal, they did so with only a scattered number of friends and family in the stands, facial masks on team and arena personnel, and a much deeper reverence for the opportunity at hand.

“I think I’m more appreciative of the opportunity that I have every day. For sure, without a doubt,” Boyle said. “I’m really appreciative of the fact that our players, especially our seven seniors, had an opportunity to have a senior year. As disappointing as it was to not have fans involved, I’m just thankful and appreciative I get to come to the gym every day and coach a great group of young men. That’s what I’m appreciative for.

“Whereas before, I don’t want to say I took it for granted, but maybe I took it for granted a little bit. Going to Las Vegas last year, we had not an inkling of the NCAA Tournament not happening. It wasn’t even in our thought process. It’s kind of like when you get injured how much you appreciate the opportunity to play every day. We didn’t get injured, but we got something taken away from us. It’s made me more appreciative of the opportunity to do it.”

Like most college basketball teams this season, the Buffs battled through their share of coronavirus issues. Senior D’Shawn Schwartz missed the first two games of the season after a positive test, a setback that might cost him a 1,000-point career if CU’s postseason run proves to be short (Schwartz entered the Pac-12 tourney with 966 points). Backup point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy missed the second game of the season due to contact tracing protocols, and shortly thereafter the Buffs’ program went into a brief pause.

Afterward, with Colorado State unable to play the state rivalry battle due to the Rams’ own coronavirus issues, the Buffs instead made hasty arrangements to play at nationally-ranked Tennessee, where a less-than-up-to-speed Schwartz returned while CU also was missing starting guard Eli Parquet and freshman Tristan da Silva.

Since then the Buffs have largely gone unscathed, though Dallas Walton also endured a virus setback in January while he also was sidelined with a leg injury. CU was one of just four Pac-12 teams to complete a full 27-game regular season schedule and one of seven that played all 20 of its league games. After sacrificing social lives, visits with family, and enduring daily testing for months, the payoff is at hand for a Buffs team in line for its fifth NCAA Tournament bid, in 10 tournament seasons, under Boyle.

“We’ve done a really good job of staying safe. Very few COVID cases throughout the season,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “I’m proud of all of our guys, including our coaching staff and everyone in the building that’s staying safe.”