LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: Nate Tomlinson #1 and Austin Dufault #33 of the Colorado Buffaloes celebrate the Buffaloes 53-51 victory against the Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the Pacific Life Pac-12 basketball tournament at Staples Center on March 10, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Colorado Buffaloes came into the last two weeks of the regular season with as good a chance as anyone to win this conference. Despite a rather inefficient offense (the worst among the nine competitive teams in the conference), their defense and rebounding have been so strong that it kept them in mix to take the Pac-12 despite these deficiencies. It looked like they had a chance to pull out this incredible run
Then Stanford started raining down shots on them from everywhere and anywhere, as the Buffs (who had only lost one game at home and were undefeated at the Coors center against teams like Arizona and Oregon and Washington) lost by 24 at home. It looked as if Colorado recovered with a great Senior Day effort against Cal, but after taking a solid halftime lead in Eugene, the floodgates opened offensively, and the Buffs stumbled into the Pac-12 tournament with a road sweep in Oregon. So most of that was forgotten before the tournament.
What shouldn't have been forgotten was how tough Colorado played the top teams in the conference. The Buffaloes do two things extremely well--get to the free throw line and rebound the basketball, and those are skills that translate excellently in a tournament environment. Thomas Robinson is the best rebounder in the country, but Andre Roberson is on the shortlist for being number two. Everything starts with Roberson, who makes his impact felt in numerous ways defensively while also contributing offensively.
But most importantly, Colorado has enjoyed their greatest success with their halfcourt defense, which Tad Boyle has his team executing to perfection in their four wins in four days.
When Colorado digs in on D, they do a good job of digging in with their long and athletic squad, forcing an offense not just out of its first option, but its second, third, even fourth options. If their opponent runs pick and roll, they do a great job rotating defensively and covering ground in a hurry; if they try posting it up, they bring the double team or converge in on the defender to make the shot as tough as it can possibly be.
This of course comes at the cost of usually conceding outside shots, so if a team gets hot from out there, the Buffs usually fall behind in a hurry (Colorado's offense isn't terribly strong). But when they didn't fall and Colorado forced their opponents to clang threes, like they did for four straight games? It was a recipe for success. After Arizona nailed nearly 41% of their threes in the first half, they clanged all seven threes in the second half. In fact, Arizona, Oregon and Cal totally had no ability to hit their triples in the final 20 minutes of each game, going 2-21 overall and 14-57 in all three contests. And these are three of the five best point shooting teams in the Pac-12!
No doubt Colorado had some luck in this tournament (just as the numbers above show). They drew Cal (the top Pac-12 team they gave the most trouble) instead of Stanford (the team they had their number on each occasion) in the semifinal, they faced an Arizona squad that lacked Josiah Turner, meaning inefficient offense and a Wildcats team that ended up with poor shot selection, and Oregon couldn't hit ANY of their shots, open or not open. But the Buffs generally made their own luck with the style they played, and it paid off with a Pac-12 tournament championship after an improbable four game run in four nights.
For months, Larry Scott has been chided for bringing new teams into the conference that weren't traditional powerhouses, and in some ways the naysayers have proven that there is merit to their criticism. Colorado football and Utah basketball had been pretty good once upon a time, but they were close to dead weight this year, with Utah being deader than dead. However, Utah football proved to be one of the few strong performers in a top-heavy conference, and now Colorado basketball has the NCAA tournament bid. It's all going to work out.
And indeed, the best story of the new Pac-12 has come from Tad Boyle's resilient Buffs. They played tough and hard, unlike most of the rest of the conference for most of the season, and those characteristics paid off with a championship.
Perhaps they'll provide a new model for the rest of the conference to follow. Because if the Pac-12 is slow to adapt when Colorado fills up with talent and experience, the Buffs will be ready to add regular season championships to the mantle.