In the last truly awful season for the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies won the regular season but didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. It was a two-bid league in 2012, those bid went to the conference champions Colorado Buffaloes and at-large California Golden Bears. That CU team had two underclassmen stars — one playmaking do-it-all guard and an athletically gifted defensive-minded forward. They also had an electric transfer guard, a polished inside-out big man and 3-D players at every other position. Though they didn’t quite live up to expectations during the regular season, they showed tons of promise, played selflessly and inspired, and they hit their stride when it mattered most. Sound familiar?
This Colorado team isn’t quite the same as the 2011-12 squad — they’re not as polished or anywhere near as consistent — and it’s very unlikely they go on a similar four-games-in-four-nights run, but it’s possible. (Please keep in mind that I’m high off the fumes from the LA sweep, so don’t be surprised if everything is overly confident.)
#12 California (8-22 overall, 3-15 in Pac-12) — Wednesday, 3:30 MT, Pac-12 Networks
Colorado can kiss their NIT hopes and all good feelings goodbye if they inexplicably lose to Cal. Sure, the Bears have won their last three games, including somehow beating Washington. But make no mistake, there’s a reason Cal lost their last 16 games before the Washington upset. This team is bad — they can’t shoot consistently, they hemorrhage points, they don’t have any single good defender, and unless Wyking Jones has something up his sleeve, it should be no sweat for Tad Boyle to continue his streak of winning at least one game in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Even in one of Colorado’s worst games of the season, they beat Cal on the road, and that was when this team was reeling and people were clamoring for Tad Boyle to be fired. This Colorado team, assuming their energy translates away from Boulder, should have no problem beating them up inside and on the boards. If things go as they should, hopefully the starters can rest some in preparation for the next day.
#4 Oregon State (18-12, 10-8) — Thursday, 3:30 p.m., Pac-12
The only reason Oregon State is the 4-seed instead of Colorado is because they beat the Buffs in their lone matchup. In that home game, the Buffs lost by 2 points because (1) they missed 10 free throws, (2) Tyler Bey looked completely disinterested and was eventually benched in favor of Alex Strating, and (3) they had yet to wake up from their early season malaise, which they did in the immediate aftermath of this embarrassing loss. The Beavers, too, were in the midst of a hot start where they looked like a team capable of making the NCAA Tournament. They have since tailed off and lost four of their past six, including getting swept at home by the Arizona schools.
Colorado’s home loss notwithstanding, the Buffs match up well with the Beavers. Tres Tinkle is their only consistent player and Boyle would be smart to have Tyler Bey shadow him. Ethan and Stephen Thompson are dangerous and have the size to be a defensive headache, but they’re inconsistent. CU has also played much better perimeter defense as of late and should be able to disrupt the Thompson brothers. On the other end, Kylor Kelley is Oregon State’s only real difference make, and though he might block four or five shots, he struggles with discipline and foul trouble. If Colorado can attack the rim like they have recently, they should be able to score enough to get a win. If CU gives birth to some threes — they have shot 31% from deep in Pac-12 play — then this should be an easy win.
#1 Washington (24-7, 15-3) — Friday, 7:00 p.m., Pac-12 — OR #8 USC or #9 Arizona
This is where Colorado’s NCAA Tournament will likely die. Washington has slumped a bit as they have lost to Arizona State, Cal (wtf happened?) and Oregon in the past month. They are still miles ahead of anyone else in the Pac-12 and are overwhelming favorites to cut down the nets in Las Vegas. They’re even better against Colorado because of matchup issues. CU has somehow learned to play against zone, but their pass-pass-pass strategy and lack of isolation scorers makes turnovers a critical issue against a team that has ball hawks preying in the passing lanes. On the interior, Noah Dickerson has long been a foe of the Buffs and Sam Timmins is the one player in the conference who can match up physically with Evan Battey on the block.
If Colorado is going to advance to the Pac-12 Final, they would need USC or Arizona to pull off the near-impossible; otherwise, they will have to take care of the ball, hit a bunch of outside shots, and play their best defense of the season. Defense is possible, especially if Washington has an off shooting night, but the others are very unlikely. For one, Colorado struggles with turnovers against everyone, and not everyone has Matisse Thybulle. For another, CU has yet to shoot consistently, much less against a team with the length and athleticism to disrupt every shot. For the Buffaloes to win, they would have to play their best game of the season and have a few lucky breaks.
#2 Arizona State (21-6, 12-9) — Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN — OR #3 Utah or #6 Oregon
If Colorado gets past Oregon State and Washington — and that’s a huge if — it’s hard to tell who they would play in the final. Arizona State has been the most consistent of the bunch and probably the most talented. They have deserved the #2 seed even if they are only a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament. Utah has somehow secured the #3 seed despite not being good or talented or experienced, which I suppose is a credit to Larry Krystkowiak for beating the teams they should, both home and away. Oregon, meanwhile has the third best chance at winning the Pac-12 Tournament (ASU is second and CU is fourth) despite having a disappointing and injury-plagued season.
Compared to Washington, there would be nothing for Colorado to fear in the final. CU has beaten all three of ASU, Utah and Oregon, and only ASU gave the Buffs any issues. (Losing at Utah doesn’t count in this analysis because McKinley Wright was injured and that team was clearly shook by not having their floor general and emotional leader.) If Colorado does somehow beat Washington, they would be playing like a team of destiny, and that would show in their intensity and confidence, both of which define CU’s success more than you would want in a team.