William Whelan BOULDER, Colo. – While I’m not entirely sure what Colorado’s record is under Tad Boyle when a star player misses one or two games with a short term injury or illness, it has to be better than just about anyone would have predicted during the pregame warm ups of said contests. Think about games when Andre Roberson went down briefly with mono, or the times when Josh Scott missed games as a freshman (think Stanford, in Palo Alto). No, the Buffaloes haven’t been perfect without their stalwarts, but they’ve been good enough. This last weekend, when the Buffs hosted UCLA and USC, they once again rallied without a key member of their team. Shortly before tip off against the Bruins, Boyle told his team that they would be without Scott, due to back spasms. Not only did his group neutralize UCLA’s tremendous rebounding attack, but they fought out two Pac-12 wins, and seemed to get their mojo back. Colorado (9-5, 2-0) defended, assisted, and made enough plays to win two games they couldn’t have possibly needed more. With UCLA, it wasn’t so much that the Bruins were “better” than Colorado, ever. Despite their bevvy of five-star recruits, ever since Colorado joined the Pac-12 it seemed like the Buffs could never quite overcome themselves. There were slow starts in Boulder, first games without a starting point guard…always something. No slump of UCLA or run of Colorado ever seemed to be enough for them to get over the hump. Friday was different, as the short handed Buffs found ways to do just enough, just the extra free throw or rebound was enough to down the struggling visitors. It was the program’s first win over UCLA since their arrival in the Pac-12, the final conference foe that CU had to beat. With USC, well…they’re bad. Real bad, especially without stud freshman Jordan McLaughlin. The Buffs were more seasoned, more talented and more willing to make some sort of effort defensively. It was the type of win that we’d expect with both teams at full strength. Colorado has yet to lose to the Trojans as Pac-12 comrades. So what is to be made of this Colorado team as they share the top spot in the conference standings with Stanford and Utah? It would surely be too soon to suggest that Boyle’s boys are back, back to the level that many thought they would be to begin the season. This team still has perimeter defense issues, and the lack of consistent third scorers is still something to be dealt with moving forward. But it would be wrong not to see the positives displayed this weekend, and not to gain some sort of confidence from them. Askia Booker continued his stellar play, and somehow, his season numbers are starting to look sincerely like a First Team Pac-12 guard (15.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists per game, 40-percent from deep). Xavier Johnson has arguably been the team’s most consistent player through 14 games, and Wes Gordon enjoyed a coming out party of sorts against UCLA. Dustin Thomas performed at a career best level on Sunday, and Boyle’s new offense finally felt like it had some rhythm to it—especially with Dom Collier on the floor, and especially with him on the floor against a zone defense. Most importantly though, this team looked like a team. Bench players finally—and I’ve been harping on this for two years now—stood up and clapped for big plays that weren’t alley-oops. Players fed off of one another’s energy, and created for each other. They clapped hands after assists as they ran down the floor. They actually talked on defense, well, for the most part. Whatever happened between Hawai’i and Boulder, it worked, even if it was only for the weekend. Of course, all of this is well and good, and somewhat expected, of a team coming back to the friendly confines of home. How will things go when they march into Salt Lake City to take on the Utes, a team that I recently picked to win the conference? Utah’s style of basketball is exactly the kind that tests a team’s chemistry and togetherness. Offensively, they share the ball, averaging over 14 assists per game. Star point guard Delon Wright pushes the pace when it’s needed and can finish in any number of ways. When he’s not open to get to the cup, he finds spot up shooters on a team that shoots nearly 40-percent from beyond the arc. Why’s that so tough on a team? Well, first, it puts your point guard (like Talton or Collier) in foul position by asking them to defend Wright in the open floor off of rebounds. Then, if they do, it forces wings and big men to back track in a hurry and find shooters and secondary cutters. Screw that up two or three times, and someone’s yelling at someone in the huddle, telling them to get their *** back on defense. Off of a make, Wright works Utah into their offensive sets, sets designed to put him in a position to make defenders choose their own poison. Hedge hard up top, and he’ll swing it quickly to a Brandon Taylor, who can either hit the trey or hit the rolling Jakob Poeltl. Or, they can swing it to Jordan Loveridge, so he can shoot or drive on his man. Say Wright keeps it, and sees even an inch of space between Jaron Hopkins, as he recovers, and the rim…that’s where he’s most special. Again, he’s an absurd finisher at the rim, but still maintains discipline in his vision, as his wings rotate to open shooting spots. Simply put, Utah makes you play as a team, especially on defense, if you want to win. Defensively, it again starts with Wright. He, Taylor and Tucker clog passing lanes and force opposing guards to start the offense as far out as possible. Should someone get past their man, Poeltl averages 2.1 blocks per game in the middle. They make you play so disciplined, and so together, that a team that has tendencies to rely on just a few guys have trouble scoring consistently. The main match up that I have interest in is Xavier Johnson, and whether he sees more of Loveridge or Tucker defensively. His strength and aggressive style poses a foul trouble nightmare for Utah, and if he can engage Loveridge in such a way, it would go a long way for Colorado. Defensively, he has to play his most disciplined defense yet, as does Hopkins who will likely draw the match up with Wright. Colorado doesn’t have to beat Utah to keep the good vibes going. Hell, they could lose by 20 and have simply been beat by a superior team. But win or lose, if it’s done in a functional and competitive fashion, I think we will be ready to start talking about a team that could make things interesting atop the conference standings.