Pat Rooney: CU Buffs 3 extra points (March 11, 2024)

Mar. 11—BuffZone writer Pat Rooney discusses three topics surrounding CU Buffs basketball as the men's team heads to Las Vegas for its final Pac-12 Conference tournament, while the CU women hope to regroup ahead of the NCAA Tournament.

Righting the ship

The Fire Tad crowd was out in full effect for much of the season. The frustrations were understandable. The promised run at a Pac-12 Conference regular season title never unfolded. The Buffs were completely outclassed in both games against conference champion Arizona. And two road losses by a combined seven points at Arizona State and California left the Buffs fighting for their NCAA Tournament fortunes.

And yet, in the end, CU head coach Tad Boyle deserves credit for keeping the Buffs together while dealing with severe personnel issues throughout the past three months.

When you lose a single key player — even a star like Spencer Dinwiddie, who the Buffs lost in the middle of the 2013-14 season — you turn to the next man up and hope the new-look rotation has time to mesh. That hasn't been the case with the Buffs' injury issues this season. Far from it.

Boyle has been forced to massage a revamped lineup almost every week. Freshman Cody Williams has missed 13 games and counting, but it has been a constant shuffle with Julian Hammond III (seven missed games), Tristan da Silva (3), Luke O'Brien (2), and J'Vonne Hadley (1) also spending time on the sideline. That list doesn't even include the season-ending injury suffered by guard RJ Smith after seven games. Or the back injury Hammond tried to play through during the bulk of January or February. Or even Eddie Lampkin's slow start to the preseason due to offseason back surgery (Lampkin has played every game).

CU played 13 of 20 Pac-12 games without at least one of its top seven rotation players. The Buffs played nine Pac-12 games without two of those top seven players. Even with the missed opportunities along the way, finishing with a program-record 22 regular season wins while placing third in the league after being picked fifth is particularly commendable given the constant personnel issues.

Reversal of fortune

One month ago, on Feb. 11, the CU men's team was 7-6 in the Pac-12 and was about to fall to 7-7 with its fourth loss in five games. The CU women were 20-3 overall, 10-2 in the league, and about to tip off at home that night against Oregon State, the perfect setup for a payback game from a loss in Corvallis two weeks earlier.

Nothing has been the same since. For either team.

While the men's team takes a six-game win streak into the Pac-12 tourney this week, the reeling women's team is clinging to the hope it did enough to earn a No. 4 seed and serve as a host site for the opening two rounds. At this point, it's uncertain if that will happen.

The CU women remained at No. 16 in Monday's NET rankings, one spot ahead of Oregon State, but the Buffs won't host ahead of an OSU team that posted a 3-0 season sweep of CU. ESPN's Monday bracketology had the Buffs slotted as a No. 5 seed.

Regardless of where they land, the season-long belief the Buffs had both the pieces and mojo in place to surpass last year's Sweet 16 run have eroded in a hurry. Once again CU looked more like a team trying not to lose than one intent on finishing games while losing to OSU in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, squandering a 12-point lead over the final 7-plus minutes of the fourth quarter in what turned into a double-overtime loss.

No doubt, the Buffs have the ability to turn it around in a hurry. Maybe the two full weeks between games will prove to be a blessing, and having their backs against the wall will stir a spark. But going into the Big Dance on a 2-6 slide isn't what anyone expected from this squad.

Super sub?

No one from the CU men's coaching staff is going to ask my two cents on the matter, but even if Williams returns this week for the Pac-12 tournament, Boyle and his staff should bring the talented freshman off the bench.

Certainly that's no knock on Williams. Boyle reiterated last week CU is a better team with him than without, and that's not up for debate. However, the Buffs are playing their most consistent stretch of basketball all season with Luke O'Brien in the starting lineup. And there is no reason to tamper with the chemistry that has sparked a six-game win streak.

Additionally, although Williams sports a lofty .590 shooting percentage, he has struggled when returning from injuries previously. After missing seven games due to a wrist injury, Williams shot 7-for-23 in the first two games of his return, with a five-turnover game in his return at California. After missing the Feb. 3 game at Utah, Williams shot 7-for-16 in the next two games, with another five-turnover outing against Arizona.

It doesn't have to be a permanent move. If Williams comes off the bench in his return and lights it up, Boyle and the Buffs can reassess. Yet until that happens, being on the NCAA bubble in March isn't a time when the Buffs can afford to have any player to work off the rust in major minutes.