Bracketology: “the activity of predicting the participants in and outcomes of the games in a sports tournament, especially the NCAA college basketball tournament.” via Oxford Dictionary.
The Buffs entered the 2023-24 season not only expecting to make the NCAA Tournament, they instead wanted to reach new heights at the highest stage. Head coach Tad Boyle told the media before the season that he’d consider this year to be a failure if the team didn’t make it to the second weekend of the tournament. Despite their sky-high expectations, making it to March Madness is far from a certainty for the Buffaloes as things stand now.
Colorado’s record currently stands at 14-5 and 5-3 in conference play, ranking as the fifth best team in the Pac-12 standings. Two weeks ago, the Buffs went on a disastrous road trip where they lost to Arizona by 47 points and got upset by both Arizona State and Cal. Because of those ugly loses in Tempe and Berkeley, Colorado finds themselves sitting on the bubble and have about a coin-flip’s chance of making it to the Big Dance.
ESPN currently has the Buffs ranked as their third team out, right behind Gonzaga and Providence. CBS has Colorado as one of the first four in, playing Michigan State for the right to make it to the tournament as an 11 seed. The experts just can’t seem to decide what to think of the Buffaloes, especially after that third quadrant loss to Cal.
Team Rankings provides a more Colorado-centric view of the teams’ chances to make it to the tournament. According to their website, the Buffs have a 48.7% chance of making to March Madness, with a 37.6% chance to get an at-large bid and an 11.5% chance to get an automatic bid.
Considering how good Arizona looks, the Buffs will almost certainly need an at-large bid to go dancing, which is where things start to get very stressful. In order to get that at-large bid, Colorado would probably need to win 23 games to have a favorable chance at making it. Team Rankings predicts that the Buffs have a 52% chance of gaining an at large bid if they win 23 games, while that percentage skyrockets to 81.5% if they win 24 games.
That initial estimate of needing to win 23 games seems needlessly high, but it’s unfortunately probably the minimum amount required for this team to find themselves comfortably sitting with a spot in the tournament. This isn’t like in 2021 when the Buffs made the tournament as a five seed with a 23-9 record. The Pac-12 just isn’t that good this year, which bogs Colorado’s chances down significantly. The conference is commanding very little respect nationally, which the Buffs are going to have to compensate for. ESPN predicts that the conference will only field 3 teams in the tournament in 2024 and Oregon currently is getting priority over Colorado for the final spot.
Because the field of play is weaker than usual, the Buffs don’t have a single first quadrant win yet. This means that the team is going to have to build a stronger than usual resume to help combat their weaker than usual schedule and that loss to Cal.
Let’s break down Colorado’s remaining schedule to see how viable winning 23+ games is for this team. The Buffs have already won 14 games and have 12 games remaining in regular season play, meaning that CU can only afford to lose 3 to 4 more games to keep their at-large bid hopes alive.
If you take a quick look at the Buffs’ remaining schedule, going 9-3 isn’t going to be easy. The Buffaloes play five first quadrant teams to close the season, three of which are on the road. Colorado also has to play some the better second quadrant teams on the road, such as Washington and USC. Immediately, those are seven scary games for this team. All of those games are winnable (even Arizona) but they could also get ugly if the Buffs have an off shooting game.
The most likely way to finish 9-3 would be with losses to Arizona at home and Utah and Oregon on the road. This would mean that the Buffs would have to beat Washington (Q2) in Seattle, Wazzu (Q1) in Pullman and Utah (Q1) at home. That’s a VERY tall ask for a team, especially one that lost to both ASU and Cal. Losing only three games on their remaining schedule is doable, but it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult. Essentially, the Buffaloes have zero room for error going forward.
If Colorado loses 4 or 5 games to close the season, gaining that at-large bid is still possible. It would just require a stellar performance at the Pac-12 Tournament in Vegas in March, which this team could easily achieve. March is still a while away and we don’t know how the seeding is going to work out, which makes that option unpredictable and a bit of a wildcard. If the Buffs can manage to win 2 or 3 games against some of the higher end Pac-12 teams in Vegas, obtaining an at-large bid is still very realistic despite losing 4 or 5 games.
There’s an even bigger wildcard at play too: the selection committee. We just don’t know how much slack they’re willing to cut the Buffaloes. That 47 point loss in Tucson and heartbreaker in Tempe can both be chalked up to the team dealing with an injury crisis. The Buffs were without Tristan da Silva, Cody Williams and Julian Hammond against the Wildcats. Despite getting Tristan back for the game against the Sun Devils, Cody and Julian were still unavailable. The committee should recognize that the Buffs were shorthanded in those losses and cut them a bit of slack.
As for the Cal game, Colorado can’t really use injuries as an excuse. The Buffs had all five of their starters playing and the only player they were without was Julian Hammond. An argument could be made that Colorado’s collapse was the result of having to rely on players who were fresh off of an injury having to play 36+ minutes, but it seems unlikely that the committee will give the team the benefit of the doubt in this scenario. Losing to a third quadrant team with all of your starters playing is likely pretty inexcusable in the eyes of the committee, which is working against the Buffs.
Even if the Buffaloes end up going 8-4 to close the regular season, there’s a possibility that the committee overlooks the teams’ record in favor of the immense talent they display. When they hit their shots, Colorado’s ceiling is incredibly high and the committee will likely recognize that.
If Colorado can play well and at least keep things close in some of their tough games, an argument could easily be made that the team is much better than their 13-7 conference record suggests. Unfortunately, we just don’t know what the committee will make of the Buffs and we can’t conclusively know if they’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for their less than ideal record.
Overall, tournament hopes aren’t looking too hot for the Buffs at the moment. That loss to Cal threw everything out of whack and Colorado is currently on the outside looking in. A stellar end of the regular season could get the Buffs right back into the mix, but one mistake can lead to the derailment of the entire season. That 50% chance of making it to the tournament is pretty concerning considering their remaining strength of schedule, so the Buffaloes need to be on their A game if they want to go dancing in March.