BOULDER - When the Colorado Buffaloes step onto the basketball court next week in the Arizona desert, the degree of difficulty will soar. But based on their final two non-conference games, the Buffs believe they are very close to being Pac-12 ready.
CU hammered Hartford 80-52 on Saturday afternoon at the Coors Events Center, opening 10-2 for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Eight days earlier, the Buffs polished off Northern Arizona 98-51 - but don't expect a repeat of those kinds of scores anytime soon.
On Thursday, CU opens its Pac-12 schedule at No. 3 Arizona. Figure on the Wildcats playing with an extra-large chip on their shoulders; the Buffs defeated them 53-51 in last season's Pac-12 championship game in Los Angeles. And following the trip to Tucson, CU visits Arizona State on Sunday, Jan. 6.
Starting in Tucson, reminded Buffs coach Tad Boyle, "the price of poker goes up, the intensity goes up, the level of competition goes up . . . but I think we're ready for conference play."
Rather than concentrating on Saturday's final snapshot of non-league work, Boyle preferred to reflect on the big picture - the Buffs' 10-2 non-conference record.
"Right now, what's on my mind is perspective," he said. "We're 10-2 and for the most part I'm happy. There are still areas for us to get better and taking care of the ball is one of them (CU had a season-worst 21 turnovers). But when you look at our schedule and the strength of our schedule, 10-2 feels good. We're not satisfied, but we've taken care of most of the opportunities in front of us."
He said the Buffs "should dominate Northern Arizona and Hartford, but now the test comes. Can we dominate Arizona? They've got men, they've got animals. I'm not sure we can dominate, but we can stay with them . . . our guys love challenges; they're competitive and believe in themselves."
CU quickly disposed of Hartford (7-6). In fact, the Buffs hardly were challenged, romping to a 45-21 halftime lead and holding at least a 25-point lead for most of the second half. Their largest second-half lead was 37 with just under 12 minutes to play.
Freshman post Josh Scott led CU with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while sophomore guard Askia Booker added 19 points. Junior wing Andre Roberson had 14 points and 14 rebounds for his 31st career double-double - the sixth this season. Sophomore point guard Spencer Dinwiddie added 11 points, his second straight game in double figures after getting five total in the previous two contests.
The Buffs hadn't played since Dec. 21, but the long Christmas break left no ugly marks on any part of their game. After bolting to an 11-0 lead, they increased their advantage to 31-9 with 6 minutes remaining before intermission, then led by 24 points at the break.
Said Dinwiddie: "I think that every time you have an extended period of time off (and) have a lot of practices between games you're more focused."
Hartford was a long way from home and way out of its league, which happens to be the American East. The Hawks lost 71-63 in early December at Arizona State, and they will reflect on that loss as their closest call with a Pac-12 team. Their first 20 minutes in Boulder were seriously forgettable; they shot only 25 percent (7-for-27) from the field and didn't reach double digits (12) until the 5:51 mark of the half.
Meanwhile, CU was in another holiday sharing mood, particularly in the game's first 6 minutes. After recording a season-high 24 assists against Northern Arizona, the Buffs dished out 10 assists in Saturday's first half. That helped them hit 60 percent (18-for-30) from the field and also was instrumental in outscoring the Hawks 28-0 in the paint in the first 20 minutes.
The first-half board battle wasn't close to even being a skirmish: CU outrebounded the visitors 28-6 and finished with a 52-21 board advantage. The Buffs prevailed in the paint 44-11.
Said Scott: "We're always trying to get a hefty rebound margin . . . we just went out and did it."
By intermission, three CU players already were in double figures - Booker and Scott with a dozen points each and Roberson with 11.
Large halftime leads sometimes can result in an early second-half malaise, but it didn't work that way for the Buffs. Not quite 4 minutes into the second half, they had increased their lead to 33 (56-23) and showed no signs of slowing to rest.
Still, with 7:35 remaining, playing mostly against Buffs reserves, the Hawks cut their deficit to 25 (68-43), prompting Boyle to return his five starters to the court. He said his bench "is not where it needs to be mentally. With 11 minutes to go, I wanted to let our bench take us home."
Instead, Boyle's reserves gave up some layups, committed a handful of their 21 turnovers and were generally not as crisp as Boyle envisioned. When conference play opens, Boyle conceded "our bench has to get better - and I think it will. There are guys there we're going to have to count on."
Of the turnover total, Dinwiddie said, "We definitely heard about that (from Boyle). We went to keep our turnovers in an eight to ten range and today, we didn't do that. Our turnovers continue to be a work in progress. Part of it is a product of how we play, because we try to play fast. So we're going to be higher than most teams. But we always want our (assist-to-turnover) ratio to be positive, of course."
By the 5:07 mark of the last half, the Buffs had righted themselves and surged to a 32-point advantage (75-43) on a pair of Sabatino Chen free throws. A three-point play by Jeremy Adams brought a 78-43 lead, and at that point, Boyle inserted sophomore center Ben Mills for the second time in two games. Just under 3 minutes later, sophomore guard Beau Gamble left the bench, marking the second time in two games Boyle has used all of his players.
Boyle said his starters "are playing together, playing at a high level, sharing the ball, moving the ball . . . I told our team that there's not one guy who can beat the Pac-12 on his own; we've got to do it together as a collective group. I like where we are."