LAS VEGAS — Tad Boyle limped out of T-Mobile Arena with a protective boot over his right foot Wednesday, and maybe it was some sort of karmic payback.
After a 97-85 win over ASU that put the Buffaloes into a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal game against Arizona on Thursday, the Colorado coach blamed himself for a late-game skirmish in which only he was actually hurt.
With the Buffs up by nine points with seven seconds left, a time-and-score situation that generally calls for restraint, freshman forward Tyler Bey threw down an alley-oop dunk. Before anyone knew it, three technical fouls were called, two players were ejected — and Boyle strained or possibly tore his right calf while trying to break it up. (Nobody on either team was suspended for a future game.)
“We certainly weren’t trying to rub it in their face,” Boyle said, apologizing to the Sun Devils. “We haven’t gone over that situation a lot, and that’s my fault as head coach. … We don’t want to maybe throw an alley-oop lob and make somebody feel like we’re showboating.”
But it’s a fine line, really. Colorado has pulled off two wins over UCLA and ASU, and has beaten Arizona and Stanford, in part because it relies on youthful exuberance and confidence.
Boyle doesn’t want to stifle any of that.
“This coaching staff preaches a lot about confidence,” says Colorado senior guard Dom Collier. The freshmen, “they’re young, but they know they can play with anyone out there. We don’t have any doubt they’re gonna get the job done.”
Certainly, the baby Buffs did Wednesday. Colorado started four freshmen against ASU and two of them collected double-doubles: Bey (14 points and 10 rebounds), a power forward playing in his hometown this week, and point guard McKinley Wright (20 points, 11 assists).
Collier can probably speak with some authority on the subject of the Buffs’ young talent. The CU freshmen have been so good that Collier has been mostly bounced out of the starting lineup while earning the Pac-12’s co-sixth man award.
Namon Wright can vouch for them, too. He’s a junior guard from Los Angeles who once drew UA’s recruiting attention before initially enrolling at Missouri, and has started only 13 of 29 games in part because of McKinley Wright (no relation) and CU’s other freshmen.
“He’s gonna be good,” Namon Wright said of McKinley. “He’s like our engine to this team.”
Colorado actually handed McKinley Wright that kind of role back in August, when the freshman from Minnesota led the Buffs in an exhibition tour of Italy.
Wright went on to play well in the nonconference season and really began to blow up once ASU and Arizona came to Boulder right after New Year’s.
Wright had 19 points and five assists in Colorado’s 90-81 overtime win over then fourth-ranked ASU on Jan. 4, then had 16 points and 10 assists two days later when the Buffs beat Arizona 80-77.
“That just added to what we already had,” McKinley Wright said. “When you can beat teams like that, it boosts your confidence, and lets us know we can beat any team in our conference.”
The odd thing was that, while Colorado was collecting wins against the top half of the Pac-12 this season, it lost at Washington State, was blown out at Washington and lost twice to USC and Utah, including a dismal 64-54 loss to the Utes in their regular-season finale last week.
They were 1-10 in true road games this season, with the lone win even more oddly being at UCLA.
Maybe that was youthfulness, too, experiencing true road games for the first time. Or maybe it was the reverse of the high-altitude effect, that they lose their conditioning edge when playing at or near sea level.
Whatever the case, Las Vegas seems to work for the Buffaloes. It’s not quite sea level, and it’s not quite a road game, although it may feel like that to Colorado on Thursday with UA expecting another big T-Mobile Arena crowd.
“One of our alumni said Colorado has never been a great road squad, but I think a neutral environment is relaxed for us,” wing George King said. “We’re not on our heels. We’re really confident, and that’s had a lot to do with us winning ballgames.”
Colorado is 11-5 in the Pac-12 Tournament, with all games but its four-win romp to the 2012 title being played in Las Vegas, and the Buffs have never lost a first-round game.
But Arizona has made a habit of stopping all that momentum in recent Pac-12 Tournaments.
Although the Wildcats lost to Colorado in the final of the 2012 Pac-12 Tournament at Los Angeles, falling to the NIT that season, they have beaten the Buffs in four straight Pac-12 Tournament games since then: in the quarterfinals of the 2013, 2016 and 2017 tournaments plus the semifinals of 2014.
Of course, the CU freshmen never played in any of those games.
All they know is they beat Arizona in Boulder this season and gave the Wildcats a pretty rough time at McKale Center three weeks later, when UA led by just four points with two minutes to go.
“Coach stressed to us that we’ve beaten every team on our side of the bracket, so we have to go out and play with confidence,” McKinley Wright said Wednesday. “We’re very confident with this game coming up tomorrow.”