Last Saturday afternoon, for about the fifth time in this college basketball season, I sat down to watch the University of Colorado men's team.
Playing against Utah in Salt Lake City, the Buffaloes faced a must-win as they tried to stay in the Pacific 12 Conference race. But Utah clearly felt equal motivation, trying to turn around an extremely disappointing year. And when the Utes battled back from an 11-point deficit to a 44-44 tie entering the final five minutes, CU looked to be in trouble.
Instead, the Buffs did what they've done a lot this winter: They ran their offense and clamped down on defense. They made big shots, sank big free throws, grabbed big rebounds, made big defensive stops. And they walked away with a 55-48 victory, making them 18-8 for the season and a highly impressive 10-4 for third place in the Pac-12.
Looking only at those numbers, you might assume Colorado has a good shot to atone for its bitter frustration of a year ago and secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
But don't get your hopes up. CU has done nothing more than play itself back onto the crowded NCAA bubble, and isn't making anybody's predicted brackets at this point. Not in the 68-team field, not in the "first four out" and, for that matter, not even in the "next four out." Most projections are putting the Buffs back into the National Invitation Tournament, just like a year ago when they sailed all the way to the NIT semifinals in New York before losing 62-61 to Alabama and finishing at 24-14.
That CU team felt wronged by the NCAA selection committee, and it was hard to argue, given the Big 12's overall strength and the Buffs' quality wins over Missouri and Texas, plus their stunning 3-0 sweep against Kansas State.
Now, as another March Madness looms, Colorado has a better record but weaker ammunition to make its case for an NCAA spot. Yes, the Buffs are 3-4 on the road in league games, but those wins came against the Pac-12's doormats: Southern Cal, Arizona State and Utah. In fact, one could argue that CU's best road win this season was an overtime squeaker at Air Force back in November.
As we lapse into NCAA-speak, here are Colorado's biggest problems: not one victory against a team among the Top 50 nationally in the RPI (ratings percentage index); an RPI ranking in the 70s this week; and a paltry 116th in strength of schedule. And then you consider the Buffs' early losses to Colorado State, Wyoming and Maryland. As if that weren't enough, the Pac-12 as a group rates about 10th among the major conferences, well below others such as the Big 12 and even the Mountain West.
(That's why MWC member Colorado State, at 17-9, is given a much better shot at making the tournament, because its RPI is 24 and strength of schedule an eye-popping No. 5 nationally.)
Sure, Colorado has improved. And yes, head coach Tad Boyle has made the most of a nice nucleus of leaders in senior transfer guard Carlon Brown, sophomore forward Andre Roberson, senior forward Austin Dufault, senior guard Nate Tomlinson and two freshmen guards, Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie.
But do the Buffs have a realistic shot? Probably not. The general assessment among national "experts" is that, to have any kind of chance, Colorado has to win at least three of its final four regular-season games: at home this weekend against Stanford (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., ROOT) and California (Sunday, 3:30 p.m., ROOT), then on the road at Oregon (March 1) and Oregon State (March 3). A split of those four would put the Buffs at 20-10, and 12-6 in the league.
Beyond that, there is the Pac-12 tournament March 7-10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. California and Washington are considered the favorites, with Arizona the most likely darkhorse. But if Colorado can stay in the top four, meaning a first-round bye, that would set up its best chance of advancing to the NCAA — winning the conference tournament and grabbing the league's automatic bid.
That's a lot to ask, but it's not as daunting as trying to win the Big 12 tournament in past years.
Such is life on the bubble, where nothing is guaranteed, as Colorado knows all too well.