The Colorado Buffaloes stand atop the Pac-12 standings. They’re ranked 16th in the latest AP Poll. With a 19-5 record, they’re all but locked in to the NCAA Tournament. This is a position the Buffs haven’t been in memory, so it’s a bit difficult trying to piece together expectations.
For as mentally strong as this team has been, they will have their most difficult road trip of the season this coming week. They will visit the Emerald State to take on the Oregon Ducks (Thursday, 7:00 pm, ESPN) and Oregon State Beavers (Saturday, 8:00 pm, FS1).
The Buffs are not expected to win at the Matthew Knight Arena on Thursday. Colorado hasn’t won in Eugene since a 48-47 clunker back in 2013, back when Spencer Dinwiddie was running the show and Andre Roberson was dominating defensively. Even that was a huge surprise — this is a rivalry where the home team will always win, unending, until the Pac-12 collapses upon itself.
Colorado did beat Oregon comfortably at the CU Events Center and they do have a 40% chance of winning the second tilt, per KenPom.com. We know these Ducks to be vulnerable. They’re dealing with injury, they rely too heavily on Peyton Pritchard hero ball, and they’re subject to long scoring droughts. That’s how they’re just 7-4 in conference with consecutive losses to Stanford and Oregon State. They haven’t lost at home this season, but even then, Arizona took them to overtime and USC took them to double overtime.
Oregon State is a different beast for Colorado. They won the first matchup in Boulder after their 1-3-1 zone defense flummoxed the Buffs. In a somewhat paradoxical fashion, the Beavers only beat the teams they shouldn’t, and lose to teams they should beat. They’re 4-7 in conference with wins over Colorado, Arizona, Stanford and Oregon. The Beavers’ defense only seems to work against the best offenses in the conference.
Fortunately for the Buffs, they have seen all of Wayne Tinkle’s cards, as that 1-3-1 zone was a desperation move in a game CU had complete control over. Colorado has adjusted to trapping defenses — Shane Gatling will bring the ball up so that McKinley Wright can facilitate from the corner, among other strategies — and they have had few weeks to ruminate over that loss. Playing on the road is very difficult, especially after whatever emotions transpire against Oregon, but the Buffs should be highly motivated to knock off OSU.
If the Buffs were to sweep the Oregon series — which will almost definitely not happen, mind you — they would take a 2.5-game lead over the Ducks in the conference with only 5 games to go. Colorado would finish the season with home games against UCLA and USC before visiting Cal, Stanford and Utah — all games CU should win in a vacuum. Splitting the Oregon series would give them room for error. Sweeping would mean a two-loss cushion, which could realistically clinch the Pac-12.
On the other hand, if Colorado loses both games this week, they are still in solid standing in the Pac-12. They would need Oregon (or Arizona, potentially) to drop another game and CU would have to sweep those final fives games to win the Pac-12. CU probably can’t win the conference without winning at least once this week.
TL;DR: Buffs can almost win the Pac-12 with a sweep, stand firmly in first with a split, or have an uphill battle for the title if they lose both.
Possibly more important that the Pac-12 title, this will be a testing week for Colorado. They enter both games as the conference leader, they will have internal and external pressure to win at two very difficult arenas, and they will take each team’s best shot. They can’t afford a slow start or poor finish and they can’t show up with tepidity. If this trip doesn’t prepare the Buffs for the intense stakes of the NCAA Tournament, nothing will.