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Balancing intensity, having fun critical for CU Buffs at NCAA Tournament

Buffs have learned from losses all season

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When they’re at their best, it’s more than just about knocking down 3-pointers and locking down the defense for the Colorado Buffaloes.

D'Shawn Schwartz #5, McKinley Wright IV ...
Photo courtesy Pac-12 Conference
D’Shawn Schwartz #5, McKinley Wright IV #25 and Jabari Walker #12 of the Colorado Buffaloes celebrate their 72-70 victory over the USC Trojans during the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament semifinals at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Led by a tightly knit group of upperclassmen who have fostered a high degree of team chemistry within the program, fans often can tell the Buffs are playing well without even looking at the scoreboard.

On the floor, they’re clapping and encouraging one another on every play. On the bench, they’re celebrating every little effort. And in the empty arenas of the 2020-21 college basketball season, a careful listener might hear music pumping out of the Buffs’ locker room before they hit the floor for pregame warm-ups.

It’s not as if all of that was completely missing on Saturday, when the Buffs lost the Pac-12 Conference championship game against Oregon State. If anything, according to head coach Tad Boyle, CU was almost too intense, wanting that championship prize so desperately the Buffs got away from the loose-but-focused identity that led to six consecutive wins before Saturday’s title-game defeat.

As the Buffs prepare for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, and the first for every player on CU’s roster, Boyle’s club already is looking to strike that difficult yet critical balance. The Buffs want to bring the intensity, of course, but not at the expense of the loose style that has served CU so well.

The fifth-seeded Buffs will face 12th-seeded Georgetown in the opening game of Saturday’s first round play at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse (10:15 a.m. MT, CBS). Though the AP Top 25 is rather inconsequential at this point, on Monday the Buffs moved up one spot to No. 22 in this week’s poll.

“Coach talked to us (Sunday). He wants to deal with us as a team and figure out what kind of jitters there were in the championship game,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “He just wants us to play free and have fun. (Against OSU) I don’t feel like we were having too much fun. We were so uptight and we wanted to win so bad, we were frustrated with every little mistake. We have to understand that mistakes are a part of the game. We have to tighten up our defense the way we’re capable of doing and just be ourselves. When we’re having fun and getting stops and getting on the run, that’s when we’re at our best.”

CU didn’t play entirely poorly against OSU, but the Buffs certainly made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. The Buffs committed five of their 10 turnovers within the game’s first nine minutes. Three of those giveaways occurred on offensive fouls and another on a shot-clock violation.

The Buffs also crashed back to Earth at the free throw line, going 12-for-20 in their worst showing of the season. As Wright alluded to, there is no such thing as a perfect game, and the Buffs are certain to make a few mistakes against the surging Hoyas. The Buffs generally have done well at putting lessons from losses into action, as evidenced by losing back-to-back games only once this season. Taking the ones from the OSU defeat, and letting the inevitable mistakes against Georgetown to slide off their collective backs, could prove to be the key to the Buffs advancing.

“I felt like we were almost too excited, too amped up, and wanted it too much,” Boyle said. “It’s hard to explain in words, I guess. I don’t think it was necessarily tightness in terms of nervousness. We mentally didn’t do some of the things we needed to do in terms of the defensive game plan. And then physically we just got beat to balls on rebounds. The tightness may have come through in the free throw shooting, but we’ve been a great free throw shooting team all year.

“That’s why I’m glad we don’t play until Saturday. It gives me some time to really message this team, that we need to do as a coaching staff, and that is we don’t have to raise our game another level. We just have to play to the level we’re capable of playing.”