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February 13, 2013
Don't be surprised if some Colorado Buffaloes have had Feb. 14 circled in red ink on their calendars for a while now. And no, it has nothing to do with Valentine's Day.
Not much love here - this is more the red that sends gets runners trampled in Pamplona. With weeks of bubbling frustration and a recent win streak giving CU momentum, and ninth-ranked Arizona reeling from inconsistent play of late, the Wildcats come to Boulder, Colo., on this most romantic of holidays Thursday but shouldn't anticipate flowers, bouquets or chocolates from the CU faithful.
"They're excited to have us [at Coors Events Center]," guard Nick Johnson said. "From ... how the last game turned out, they're definitely going to have a great crowd."
How the last game turned out refers to one of the most controversial finishes of the season, when UA won 92-83 in overtime on Jan. 3.
Sabatino Chen launched a 3-pointer that, officially, never happened. Unofficially, it was freeze-framed and GIF-animated on television replays and websites for days.
CU head coach Tad Boyle has seemingly moved on from the sting of dropping that contest - one in which his team outplayed the then-unbeaten Wildcats for the majority of 45 minutes and led by as much as 17. But that night, his frustration was evident.
"I just saw the replay that you guys just showed me and that just makes me sick to my stomach," he told reporters after the game.
The waning moments of regulation were not the finest hour for Pac-12 Conference officials, who called a foul on UA guard Mark Lyons when CU point guard Spencer Dinwiddie fell over away from a mid-court trap.
Controversial or not, the negative momentum that carried into overtime spilled over into the following weeks. CU dropped three of the next four, and the reigning Pac-12 champion's NCAA tournament bubble looked to be burst about a month ago.
"If you look at our record after that game, everyone's going to point to the fact we had a hangover," Boyle said. "We start 1-4 [in the Pac-12] and everyone points to a hangover. Whether it was or wasn't ... doesn't matter. What does matter is we've put it behind us."
With wins in five of the last six and a 16-7 overall record, the Buffaloes have a tourney pulse. A resume win over a top-10 ranked opponent would send their hearts aflutter.
Indeed, there's no shortage of motivation for the Buffs with the prospect of reclaiming the portfolio-fattening win that slipped away a month ago.
"We're a better team than when we came to Tucson," Boyle said.
"We've finished games pretty well the last few weeks. If you look at the last four to six minutes of every game we've played, we've played well on both sides of the ball."
Finishing is ultimately what vexed CU at McKale Center on Jan. 3. UA overcame a nine-point deficit in the final 1:53, forcing Chen's last-ditch effort in regulation.
CU may be a better team than when it visited Tucson, but is UA? The Wildcats have one of the best records in college basketball at 20-3, 7-3 since that notorious defeat of CU. On its face, that's hardly a bad mark.
However, UA has needed rollicking rallies against Utah, Washington and Stanford through that stretch. The same problem of starting slow that came literally a fraction of a second from costing the Wildcats against the Buffs last time is still rearing its head.
And if CU is indeed a better closing team now, that poses UA a problem. Head coach Sean Miller cited the frontcourt at the root of some of the Wildcats' struggles. An injury to Grant Jerrett and foul trouble have forced Solomon Hill out of position, sliding to power forward.
Sacrificed strength on the glass is one prospect UA wants to avoid, particularly against CU rebounding machine Andre Roberson. He's averaging almost 12 boards per game.
"That's dropped off recently, our offensive rebounding," Miller said. "That's a really strong emphasis for us in these next seven games, to get that back."
Otherwise, UA's preparation should not deviate from other conference games, according to Johnson. The sophomore guard said the Wildcats "have no control" over any motivation the Buffs might take into Thursday's clash.
"Nobody wants to lose in that way," Johnson said. "But at the end of the day ... we're going to prepare the same way we would for any game."