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Buffaloes facing most critical juncture of season

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The next month and a half will determine both the short and long-term fate of the season.

There was pin-dropping silence in the CU events center when McKinley Wright went down against the Washington Huskies with what appeared to be a serious injury. Most would’ve thrown the white towel in on the game thinking Colorado had no shot — after all, Wright is their biggest leader both on and off the court, and the already struggling offense would miss its most important player.

Instead, young bucks D’Shawn Schwartz and Daylen Kountz filled in admirably and the Buffs were able to put up a fight and stay within arms length of one of the conference’s best. That put together with the blowout victory against Washington State two nights earlier gave the team positive reinforcement after a forgettable weekend in Arizona.

Thus far, the storyline of the year has been inconsistency and lack of identity on either end of the floor. Early on, the Buffs looked to have enough offensive firepower to outscore opponents nightly. Excluding the game against Washington State, they’ve looked like a different team since starting the Diamond Head Classic, mightily struggling to find the basket or any offensive rhythm.

Now, more than halfway through the regular season, Colorado faces the most important stretch yet. How they perform the rest of the way in conference play, and at a time when adversity is at its highest, will speak volumes about where this team and program is at.

How they respond could dictate the program’s future. While an NCAA tournament berth is looking more unlikely by the day, they still could get invited to the second tier NIT tournament, meaning there’s a lot to play for in the immediate future.

Perhaps even more important is that it could decide what this program looks like for years to come. To Tad Boyle’s credit, Colorado has had arguably their best period in program history under his guidance. But now they’re stuck in what feels like a standstill of mediocrity. They’ve been able to finish in the middle of the conference the past few years, pull off a few upsets, but they have haven’t sniffed actual Pac-12 contention since Spencer Dinwiddie was injured at Washington.

But as was the case with the Mike MacIntyre-led football team, the forward progress feels stagnant. Although they were able to pull off an upset against Arizona last year, Colorado feels like the conference powerhouses’ pesky, less attractive, younger sibling. Now it’s time for this program to take the next step forward and solidify their spot as one of the more elite teams in the Pac-12.

This regime has certainly done a better job recruiting top notch talent as of late but they’ve struggled to maximize that potential, and this season has been no different. Tyler Bey, Evan Battey, and Shane Gatling are all unique players that were highly recruited coming out, and could be big time contributors. Unfortunately none of them have been able to breakout, aside from several small flashes. Granted all three are young, raw, and inexperienced. Still in the world of college basketball, the maturation process is expected to come faster than usual and is typically expedited by good coaching.

Although it’s never good to see somebody get hurt maybe McKinley going down — the nature of his injury remains undisclosed — is exactly what the team needed to get everyone else to step up. Evidently there was a dependence on Wright to score points as guys would commonly pass up shots or opportunities to get in the paint and back it out to him.

Perhaps some of the secondary scorers will take more initiative in his absence and eventually grow into larger roles. Maybe this will prompt more creativity from an offensive game planning perspective. Regardless, some players are going to need to step up or it could be another disappointing final two months in Boulder, which could put Tad Boyle directly on the hot seat heading into the 2019-20 season.

Another disappointing ending could spell a major step backwards. With each mediocre year, it’ll become increasingly difficult to sell recruits on the long-term outlook for the team, draw fans to the seemingly empty events center, and develop a solid core group of guys.

Even though it may sound daunting to the players, they’re playing with a lot on the line for this team. Although the bar is certainly lower without their star point guard, reaching respectability in their conference and an NIT invite is certainly an attainable goal. Here’s to seeing if this roster has it in them to become the programs saving grace in the coming months.