It's no secret that the Buffs are in the midst of a prolonged slump. It's no secret that in said slump, the blowout loss to UCLA following the meltdown against USC was rock bottom. It's no secret that Wednesday night's matchup with No. 9 Arizona is a vital game for Colorado.
Assuming Colorado beats Arizona State (who have been pitiful as of late) and avoids an embarrassing loss in the Pac-12 Tournament (which is not a guarantee, mind you), beating Arizona would push Colorado into the NCAA Tournament. The Buffs have something to prove, and they want to come out and prove it against the Arizona fucking Wildcats.
It's no secret that Colorado hasn't defeated a ranked opponent in over two years. This lack of victories over ranked teams hasn't been for a lack of trying. Colorado has played six games this season against teams who've spent a significant time in the Top 25*. Iowa State, SMU and Oregon (the second time) were ranked when the Buffs faced them. Utah and USC were both a week removed from being ranked and Oregon (the first time) was a week away. You can argue that Colorado coulda/woulda/shoulda pulled off five key victories instead of just the one.
So what did the Buffs do in those games that led to losses?
Actually let's look at what CU didn't do in those losses: hold onto the ball.
Coming into the season, Iowa State was the biggest challenge the Buffs would likely face all year. With an Orion's Belt of stars in Georges Niang, Monte Morris and Jameel McKay, the Cyclones started the season No. 7 with high hopes of breaking Kansas's Big XII championship streak. No one gave the Buffs much of a chance at victory, and if they would've known that Josh Scott would have a mediocre game, they would've given them no chance. Thanks to George King's sudden emergence and tough team defense, Colorado almost pulled off the upset. As much as an efficient game from Scott would've helped, turnovers were what doomed CU. Eighteen turnovers wasn't ridiculous, but Iowa State only had twelve, and in a defensive battle this turned out to be, six lost possessions may have been the difference. Those six possessions could now be the difference on Selection Sunday.
Since beating the Isaiah Canaan-led Murray State Racers in the 2012 Charleston Classic, the Buffs have notoriously struggled in neutral site games. (To clarify, the Iowa State was technically a neutral site game as well, but it was a home-away-from-home game for the Cyclones.) True to form, the Buffs struggled and were barely able to beat a lackluster Penn State team. Next up would be the undefeated and 18th-ranked SMU Mustangs with Larry Brown back from suspension. It's a real shame SMU won't be eligible to Dance, because this team is absolutely loaded. But no matter the Mustangs' talent, CU played the better game. Unfortunately, turnovers down the stretch allowed SMU to come back and win. Considering how the Mustangs would perform in the coming weeks, Colorado had a golden opportunity slip through their literal fingers.
The next chance at getting a key win was against Utah in Colorado's conference home opener. Josh Scott struggled offensively, but his defense on Jakob Poeltl (he finished with 6 points on 2-8 shooting) and a huge 21-point game from George King powered the Buffs with a late lead. You know how this turned out. CU only turned the ball over twelve times in this game, yet it was still turnovers that doomed them. In those final minutes, Josh Fortune coughed it up twice, including a bone-headed pass with 20 seconds left in a tie game. CU wasn't automatically going to win if Fortune held the ball, but it was the exclamation mark in the Buffs' Choke! Once again, the Buffs seemingly (poorly) passed up a chance at a resume-building victory.
Yay! Colorado beat Oregon in a high-scoring thriller. In a game with a whopping 120 shots hoisted, the Buffs only committed thirteen turnovers, which is damn fine for any team in the country, let alone CU. Retroactively, this should be Colorado's signature win given the way Oregon has dominated since. Alas, Oregon was not ranked at the time so the national media forgot this game even occurred. Hopefully the selection committee will remember.
After uninspiring road wins over Stanford and Washington State, Colorado was still in need of a big road win for the ol' resume. A victory over Oregon wasn't going to happen, but hey, Oregon State? The Beavers weren't ranked or anything, but they're always respectable. A win over them in Corvallis would be better than anything the Buffs had. With great defense and terrible offense on either side, this was a slopfest if there was any. But where the Buffs lost the ball 24 times, the Gary Payton II was able to secure the ball for the Beavers as they had only twelve turnovers. If you turn the ball over twelve times more than your opponent, you deserve to lose. Colorado didn't do anything to deserve a win here and lost 60-56. I don't want to downplay the impact of Josh Scott's first half ankle injury and it certainly could've made up the difference, but
I don't want to write about the USC game. Is that OK? I'll just say that Colorado had 20 turnovers compared to USC's nine and were unable to handle the lead.
So let's review: CU lost to Oregon State and USC directly because of turnover struggles, they lost to Utah and SMU because they turned over the ball too much in crunch time, and they probably would've upset Iowa State if they had committed less turnovers. By my advanced calculations, Colorado should be 24-5 at best and 21-7 at worst. Colorado can't be expected to win every close game, but the reasons they lost were rather avoidable. I don't exactly want to harp on what might've been, but things look quite different when CU isn't cataclysmically bad at maintaining possession. Did you know that No. 10 Maryland is 23-5 and No. 9 Arizona is 22-5 right now?
So what does this mean for Arizona?
Arizona's defense will be good even if it's bad. I don't know what demonic potions Sean Miller forces upon his players, but whatever it is but contain remnants of the forbidden principles of a sound defense. Every possession against them will be vital. The only way Colorado can beat Arizona is if they hold onto the ball and pretend it's their long-awaited baby messiah because Sweet Baby Ray's do not drop that or you will damn all that you know to a fiery hellscape and it will be all your fault.
Maybe it's not that dire, but it is.
I'll have an actual breakdown of the Arizona-Colorado matchups for you tomorrow. Toodles.