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After impressive stretch run, CU Buffs ready for next challenge at Pac-12 Tournament

Buffs secured first winning road record since 1968-69 in Big Eight

SALT LAKE CITY, UT -  MARCH 5:  Evan Battey #21 of the Colorado Buffaloes looks to pass under pressure from Rollie Worster #25 of the Utah Utes during the second half of their game March 5, 2022 at the Jon M Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT – MARCH 5: Evan Battey #21 of the Colorado Buffaloes looks to pass under pressure from Rollie Worster #25 of the Utah Utes during the second half of their game March 5, 2022 at the Jon M Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

They were picked sixth in the Pac-12 Conference preseason media poll.

Two weeks into the season, they struggled to a 2-1 mark at the Paradise Jam, escaping with narrow wins against noted basketball powers Duquesne and Brown.

Fast forward two months and the Colorado Buffaloes returned home from a road trip at the midpoint of the Pac-12 Conference schedule with a pair of ugly losses, a 5-6 league mark, and with two rotation players — 7-foot-1 freshman Lawson Lovering and starting senior guard Elijah Parquet — suddenly sidelined for the remainder of the season due to injuries.

After returning home and committing 20 turnovers in a loss against Oregon, the 2021-22 season seemed destined to be dismissed as a long, painful exercise in growing pains with an eye on next year.

Not so fast.

Saturday’s win at Utah in the regular season finale makes the Buffaloes the sort of team everyone strives to be — one that is playing its best basketball in March. At 6-4 in road games, all in the Pac-12, the Buff secured their first winning record on the road since the 1968-69 Big Eight champions and their first winning record on the road within league play since the 1963-64 team.

Most importantly, even with the fourth seed in the Pac-12 Tournament already secured, Saturday’s victory turned that team that looked lost a little more than a month ago into the sole possessors of fourth-place in the conference.

“The fact of the matter is, we’ve been playing a month now with eight scholarship players,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “And two guys, Luke O’Brien and Julian Hammond, weren’t even in the rotation at times this year. They were nine and 10 guys. Now they’re major parts of the rotation. We’re not going to make excuses for Lawson’s injury. We’re not going to make excuses for Eli’s injury. We’re just going to next man up, let’s hook it up and go. It’s really helped our chemistry. It’s really helped our substitution patterns. I’m really proud of these guys, but I’m not satisfied. I want them to feel the same way.”

CU goes into the Pac-12 Tournament and a quarterfinal-round date against either Oregon or Oregon State on Thursday afternoon with wins in seven of eight games, including an upset victory against No. 2 Arizona. The lone blemish in that run was a home loss against Arizona State, another team taking a run of seven wins in eight games into Las Vegas.

“It’s huge. This is the most important time of the season,” CU sophomore forward Jabari Walker said “It’s better than having it the other way around, where you start off hot and then we’re downwards. That’s not the case with us. This is the best possible case for us right now. I’m excited. It’s a new team, it feels like.”

With the first round bye, CU will enjoy some extra rest ahead of its first date in Vegas. More often than not, particularly with a Buffs team that has been challenged with depth the past month, extra rest at this time of season is a plus. But it sometimes can be a challenge. CU has played some its best basketball of the season in recent weeks, yet by the time they tip off in Las Vegas the Buffs will have played just one game in 11 days.

“It can help us for sure. But it also can hurt us,” CU senior forward Evan Battey said. The teams that go early to Vegas and play on Wednesday, they get used to the arena, they get used to the feel of it. The teams that play on Thursday, they’re maybe a little sluggish. We’ve got to be ready to play either way.

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