8 p.m. EST
Coors Events Center - Boulder, CO
TV: Pac-12 Networks
SB Nation blog: The Ralphie Report
Things were looking up for the Colorado Buffaloes entering this season.
After making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade - and having star guard Chucky Jeffery earn a coveted WNBA roster spot for a brief stint with New York - they suddenly had a national spotlight on them. Sophomore Arielle Roberson was expected to build on a 2013 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year performance from last season. The Wilson twins were looking to make a last stand in their senior seasons.
With so much going for them on paper, the Buffaloes began the season ranked #19 in both polls. As they went through non-conference play only stumbling at Louisville by 7, expectations only heightened and the team rose as high as #11 in the polls.
Then the wheels fell off in January, as described by Matt Sparkman of SB Nation's Colorado blog The Ralphie Report after Colorado's three point loss at Utah on January 29.
...the Buffs fell to 2-7 in the Pac-12, and in the month of January.
It is a January the Buffs will surely part with willingly. At the beginning of the month, Colorado was 10-1, ranked 12th nationally, and seemed to be a lock to play in the NCAA tournament for the second straight second.
Now, Colorado's February will have to be stellar to get back on the bubble.
That game was one of five games they've lost by two possessions or less this season, which reflects a theme: they've played 15 such games this season and gone 6-5. Their worst loss? A 12-point margin at Oregon State, a program similarly expected to rise this season and likely tournament-bound.
None of that is the mark of a bad team - a favorable bounce here or there and we'd probably still be talking about Colorado as a bubble team. Nevertheless, February didn't help all that much: before Sunday's win at last-place Arizona, they'd lost four of their last five games and will likely enter the tournament searching for the rhythm they appeared to have back in 2013.
But what has gone so disastrously wrong in the first two months of 2014, when they've gone just 5-11 in conference play?
Looking at who they've beaten in conference play might hold a hint to explaining the Buffaloes' problems: they've only beaten teams in the bottom half of the Pac-12 (12th-place Arizona twice, split with Utah, Oregon once, and UCLA once). And the pattern holds when looking at their non-conference schedule: Colorado only played two teams with a top-100 RPI (#23 Iowa and #91 Colorado State) and beat them by a combined seven points. The win against Iowa at home might even have to come with an asterisk: that was the game that drew national attention for mandating that students who wanted tickets to the men's game against superstar NBA draft prospect Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks attend the women's game, a practice that Sparkman deemed demeaning to women's basketball at the time. And it was hard to ignore that it had some sort of an affect on the game.
In short, Colorado's early season success might have been illusory, their preseason expectations inflated by a hangover from last season's success. And it's not at all unreasonable to suggest that once they got into their Pac-12 schedule with 11 top-100 opponents, they were simply exposed.
Their statistics during conference play point to two specific problems that were exposed: they rank 11th in the Pac-12 in turnover rate with 15.9 per game and last in three point percentage at 25.8%. That means they're working with a limited number of possessions and not able to maximize that limited number with the added value of a three point shot. It's nice that they're able to attack the rim productively, but it's hard to win if you can't score and Colorado has ranked 10th in points per possession (0.87) during conference play.
All of their struggles in conference play add some limited significance to today's game against UCLA as they look ahead to the conference tournament, if only to secure a confidence boost: the highest they can finish in the conference play is eighth, where UCLA currently holds a one game lead over them. If Colorado can sweep injury-riddled UCLA with a win today and then knock off a slumping USC team that has lost six of its last nine games, they'll go into the tournament with a three-game winning streak and just outside the bottom third of the conference. Unfortunately, all that would do is pair them with the #9 team in the conference tournament in the opening round for the right to play Stanford in the second round.
It's small consolation for failing to meet the national expectations foisted upon them to begin the season, but at the very least it would give them something to hang their hat on as they look ahead to next season when they'll probably start over again as a team with tempered expectations.
For more on the Buffaloes, check out SBN's Colorado blog The Ralphie Report.