LAS VEGAS — The design always is much easier to script than execute.
For a team that began the season heavy on youth and inexperience, as was the case with the Colorado men’s basketball team in November, the plan always is to be a much-improved unit at the finish line compared to the season’s opening tip.
Along those lines, every basketball team in the nation hopes the drudgery of December and January, and whatever missteps occur along the way, leads to a club that nonetheless is playing its best basketball of the season in March.
Despite arguably more injury setbacks than any other year during head coach Tad Boyle’s 12 seasons at CU, as well as the bouts of inconsistent play typical of young teams, the Buffs have checked both those boxes as an improved team playing its best basketball at the right time. CU’s quest to ride that hot streak into a potential Pac-12 Conference championship begins on Thursday as the fourth-seeded Buffs square off against fifth-seeded Oregon in the quarterfinals of the league tournament at T-Mobile Arena.
Oregon advanced out of the first round to set up Thursday’s matchup with an 86-72 win against Oregon State on Wednesday afternoon. CU and the Ducks split their regular season series, with each team picking up rare wins on the other’s home floor.
“If we play together and play for each other, I feel like we’ve shown, and we know, we’re a pretty hard team to beat,” CU sophomore Tristan da Silva said. “We’ve matured over time. We learned from our games. We learned from our opponents. We’ve grown as a team and we’re still growing. It’s just fun out there with those guys right now, especially when we’re looking out for one other and we play for one another. It’s a great, great group to play with. It has shown over the past few weeks.”
The Buffs secured a first-round bye for just the second time at the Pac-12 Tournament — and their second in a row — after winning seven of their final eight games of the regular season. That surge included an upset victory against No. 2 Arizona in the home regular season finale on Feb. 26.
At the start of the Pac-12 tourney on Wednesday, the Buffs’ NET ranking remained at No. 75, meaning CU still likely needs to claim the tournament title to earn an NCAA Tournament berth and avoid the more likely fate of landing in the NIT.
Boyle has warned his club this week of the challenges of playing the first game of a pressure-packed tournament in an unfamiliar arena against a foe that was able to get accustomed to the environs the day prior. However, the Buffs also own a track record of performing well in Vegas. In 10 previous appearances at the Pac-12 tournament since joining the league, CU has won its opening game nine times. The lone blemish was in 2020, when CU lost a first-round game against Washington State before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the remainder of the tournament the following morning.
“We’re fighters. We’re not quitters,” CU freshman guard KJ Simpson said. “We’re not going to give up. And even though we have guys who went out, we have a bunch of people on this team who can step up and can fill those roles and contribute in different ways that benefit the team. We’re not going to stop. We’re always going to fight.”
No. 5 Oregon Ducks vs. No. 4 CU Buffs men’s basketball
Pac-12 Conference Tournament quarterfinals
TIPOFF: Thursday, 3:30 p.m. MT, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.
BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network; Radio — 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: Oregon 19-13; Colorado 20-10.
COACHES: Oregon — Dana Altman, 12th season (299-123, 709-366 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 12th season (253-153, 309-219 overall).
KEY PLAYERS: Oregon — G Jacob Young, R-Sr., 19.5 ppg, 3.2 apg; G De’Vion Harmon, Jr., 10.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg; F Quincy Guerrier, Jr., 9.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg; C N’Faly Dante, Jr., 8.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg. Colorado — F Jabari Walker, So., 14.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-Sr., 12.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .521 3-point percentage; G Keeshawn Barthelemy, R-So., 11.0 ppg, 2.5 apg; F Tristan da Silva, So., 9.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg.
NOTES: The Pac-12 on Wednesday announced its early-season, standalone matchups to start conference play in the 2022-23 season. CU will open its Pac-12 schedule at home against Arizona State on Dec. 1 and visit Washington on Dec. 4…Oregon is competing without its best player, senior guard Will Richardson, who has been ruled out of the tournament due to a non-COVID illness. Richardson, a second team All-Pac-12 selection, leads the Ducks in scoring (14.1), assists (3.6), and 3-point percentage (.388)…Oregon’s win against Oregon State in the first round on Wednesday was Dana Altman’s 299th win at Oregon…Oregon’s Jacob Young scored a game-high 21 points during the Ducks’ win at CU on Feb. 3. Young also led the way during Oregon’s first-round win on Wednesday against Oregon State with 23 points, 11 assists and three steals…The winner between Oregon and the Buffs will play either top-seeded Arizona or ninth-seeded Stanford in Friday’s semifinals.