MERILATT MONDAY

A talented Buffs roster should’ve reached uncharted waters

Mar 25, 2024, 4:00 AM | Updated: 10:08 am

It’s moral victory time in Boulder. Break out the orange slices. Everyone is happy that the Buffs lost a close game on Sunday.

Well, phooey to that idea.

Yes, Colorado hung in there against No. 2-seeded Marquette, falling 81-77 in a game that went down to the wire. But that’s not good enough. And it shouldn’t be celebrated.

CU had a legit shot at advancing to their first Sweet 16 since 1969. Had they made it to next weekend, anything was possible. They’d have faced No. 11 NC State in the next round, giving them a great chance to move on to the Elite Eight, a place the program hasn’t been in 61 years.

So it’s disappointing that they couldn’t get it done against the Golden Eagles. They let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.

K.J. Simpson and Cody Williams had wide-open three-point attempts in the waning minutes of the game and couldn’t connect. Williams also missed a key free throw with the Buffaloes trailing by three points in the final seconds.

Most people will lament those miscues. Most will write off CU blowing their chance as college kids simply missing shots. It happens, they’ll say.

While that’s true, and it would be unbelievably unfair to blame the loss on two of the Buffs best players for missing shots, that’s not the whole story. And the deeper dive is what makes Sunday so infuriating.

Ultimately, the Buffaloes just seemed happy to be there. They seemed content with getting this far.

An argument can be made that this was the best CU team ever. They posted a school-record 26 wins across the regular season, Pac-12 tournament and March Madness. And that’s because they’re loaded with talent.

Three Colorado players are likely headed to the NBA. Williams is considered a lottery pick. Simpson could go in the first round. And Tristan da Silva will have a chance to make a roster.

That’s a darn good group. And it doesn’t end there.

Eddie Lampkin is a big man that gives most college teams fits because of his size and skills. J’Vonne Hadley is a sneaky scorer at times. And Luke O’Brien does all of the dirty work that good teams need to have done.

In other words, it wasn’t a talent issue on Sunday. No one could argue that Marquette had the better roster.

Yet the Golden Eagles are advancing and the Buffs are going home. That begs one question: Why?

Well, the team’s demeanor after the game provides a clue. In most close losses, players who see their season end are despondent. They’re being consoled on the court, burying their faces in their jerseys to hide the tears.

There were no shots like that on Sunday’s broadcast. The TV cameras couldn’t find anyone who was overly dejected.

It can be argued that this is a good thing. After all, it shows that the players keep the game in perspective.

Fair enough. But that’s not how teams with championship mettle normally respond.

Perhaps the players took their cue from their head coach. After all, he wasn’t overly bummer after the loss.

“It’s another game in March and we came up on the short end tonight,” Tad Boyle said after the game. “We didn’t have much of answer for them on defense. When a team shoots 61% and you still have a chance at the end, it meant we did something right. We competed our tails off.”

The head coach is right about that last part; the Buffs didn’t quit. Trailing by 11 points at halftime, they stormed back and had the lead at multiple junctures after intermission.

But it wasn’t good enough. And the first part of Boyle’s answer is the reason why.

“We didn’t have much of an answer for them.” Really, coach? Nothing? That’s the explanation?

That’s just unacceptable. It’s just not good enough.

“Just a hell of a game in March,” Boyle added. “What else can I say?”

Perhaps explain why your team couldn’t slow down Tyler Kolek? The 6-foot-3 guard poured in 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including a bucket in the paint that put Marquette up by three points with 54 seconds to play.

Maybe offer an answer as to how Marquette shot 61.8% from the floor? From two-point range, they made 25 out of 34 shots, a blistering 73.5%.

This comes on the heels of a game in which Colorado gave up 100 points to Florida. The Buffs escaped with a two-point win over the Gators on Friday, but couldn’t overcome their defensive deficiencies in round two.

Those problems persisted all season long. CU surrendered 71.5 points per game, ranking 140th in the country in that category.

Boyle’s postgame quotes sound a lot like a team that is simply happy to be there. And to some extent, the Buffs were.

At one point in the season, CU was 16-9. They won eight-straight games to get back into the mix for an invite to the dance, losing only in the Pac-12 title game in the last month of the season.

At 24-10, Colorado was squarely on the bubble on Selection Sunday. They got an invite, but were forced to play in the First Four in Dayton.

It seems like CU is always in that position. Every year, they’re on pins and needles, waiting to see if they get one of the final invites to the tournament. It feels like it’s a flip of a coin on an annual basis.

That’s not good enough anymore. Neither is exiting in the round of 32 again. In their last eight trips to the tourney, the Buffs have been one-and-done four times; they’ve lost their second game in the other four appearances.

Enough is enough. It’s time for more.

Colorado has enough talent to compete with any team in college basketball. There’s not a matchup that could’ve come their way where they would’ve been overmatched. Yet, they’re exiting the tournament on the first weekend once again.

That’s not worth celebrating. That’s a total bummer.

Teams with big aspirations get that fact. Those who are happy to be invited to the party don’t.

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