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Early schedule has done no favors for Colorado men’s basketball

The Colorado Buffaloes' KJ Simpson drives around Yale's Matt Knowling on Sunday in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
The Colorado Buffaloes’ KJ Simpson drives around Yale’s Matt Knowling on Sunday in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Given the early schedule, if the Colorado men’s basketball team eventually plays its way into the NCAA Tournament, it no doubt will be a spot the Buffaloes earned.

Yet the demands of that early slate have left head coach Tad Boyle second-guessing what they signed up for.

The sting of the Buffaloes’ uneven start was dulled somewhat by Sunday’s 65-62 home win against Yale, though if not for a few late turnovers by the Bulldogs the outing could very well have ended with a fourth bad loss for CU in the season’s first three weeks.

Sunday’s victory marked just the second home game so far for CU through seven games. That’s a rare situation for a power conference program, although certainly it’s one neither the Buffs nor their coach have used as an excuse. Still, working through growing pains has been doubly challenging given the early schedule, which continues this week as CU opens Pac-12 Conference play at home on Thursday against Arizona State (6:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1).

The Sun Devils (6-1) have been a pleasant surprise for the Pac-12 in the season’s opening weeks, topping then-No. 20 Michigan on Nov. 17 and receiving six points in this week’s Associated Press top 25 poll.

“I may have overscheduled for this team,” Boyle said last week, bringing up a point he reiterated following the win against Yale. “As a coach, I’ve got to look internally, and I schedule based upon what I think our team can be successful with. There’s a little bit of art to that. There’s a little bit of science. There’s a little bit of luck. I thought our team would be further along from a toughness standpoint.

“I expect our players to play with pride and play with toughness. Play Colorado basketball. But I may have overscheduled. Yale is an NCAA Tournament team. Boise State won the Mountain West tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee is obviously a top (team). But we’ve taken care of the ranked teams.”

Boyle has been consistent through his tenure in attempting to assemble nonconference schedules in tune with the expectations surrounding his club. In the 2017-18 season, for instance, when McKinley Wright, Tyler Bey and D’Shawn Schwartz were freshmen and classmate Evan Battey was sitting out a redshirt season, the Buffs’ multi-team event featured dates against Quinnipiac, Drake and Mercer, plus home games against Denver and Air Force. Two years later, when those players were veterans, CU played neutral-floor games against Clemson and Dayton, plus road games at Kansas and Colorado State.

CU played two ranked teams — No. 11 Tennessee on Nov. 13 and No. 24 Texas A&M on Nov. 18 — within the first five games of the season for the first time since 1973. CU also is one of only two Pac-12 teams to play only two home games so far.

In 35 seasons since the 1986-87 campaign (the first year of the collegiate 3-point shot, when CU played its first two at home and the next six on the road), the Buffs have played just two home games within the first seven games of a season only three times — the Chauncey Billups-led club of 1996-97; in 2007-08; and in 2011-12, Boyle’s second CU team that eventually won the Pac-12 tournament. (The 2020-21 pandemic season featured just two home dates in the first 10 games, but that was due to cancellations and wasn’t originally scheduled that way.)

The Yale game began a stretch of six of seven games at home for CU.

“It just felt good to be out there again, back with my teammates and my guys,” CU forward J’Vonne Hadley said. “Back at home with the home crowd, it felt good.”