Each visit to the Coors Events Center, the basketball arena with the highest altitude in the Pac-12, has proven to be a difficult climb for the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team.
Since the Colorado Buffaloes joined the conference in 2011-12, the Huskies have played here twice, and twice left defeated by wide margins. In their history, they have won in Boulder just twice in eight tries, and not since Dec. 15, 1977 – before the Coors Events Center even opened. It’s worth noting, too, that UW holds a 7-1 record against CU at home, with the loss coming in 1956.
In 2012, it was an 87-69 blowout for Colorado. Last season, the Huskies played perhaps their worst game of the year in Boulder against a Colorado team they had beaten at home, losing 91-65.
“They just flat-out beat us both times,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said.
Their game against Colorado at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Fox Sports 1) should be more competitive. And not just because the Buffaloes are at less than full strength, with junior guard Xavier Johnson suspended for a game — he scored a career-high 27 points in last season’s beatdown — and forward Josh Scott still day-to-day (back spasms).
This year’s UW squad seems a little more capable when playing away from home, though the Huskies did lose their first two Pac-12 road games, at California and Stanford, during the opening weekend of league play. A victory over Seattle University at KeyArena still stands as UW’s only true road win, despite it being played five miles from campus.
But they’re also 5-0 this season on neutral courts — including a win over then-No. 15 Oklahoma in Las Vegas — and Romar doesn’t think the Huskies lack confidence on the road.
“You can go on the road, and you can watch teams that (have) just a little doubt – ‘Can we really get this done?’ You have that kind of look on your face,” Romar said. “I haven’t seen that with this team.
“I’ve never sensed that we had doubt or have been afraid to play on the road. I actually feel like we’ve embraced it at this point.”
Still, the Huskies are searching for their first victory at a Pac-12 opponent’s arena since Feb. 22, 2014, when they won at Oregon State. That was a bright spot during a season in which UW compiled a 3-8 road record (and went 0-2 at neutral sites).
The challenge in Boulder is always a little different. Buffaloes fans are proud of their arena’s altitude — 5,345 feet, a sign outside the visitor’s locker room informs — and Romar said he believes the thin air can have an impact on visiting teams. For about five minutes, anyway, before they catch their breath. Any lingering effect after that is probably psychological.
More problematic is that Colorado has simply fielded quality basketball teams since joining the Pac-12. But this year has been a struggle. The Buffaloes are 9-8 and coming off an ugly sweep at the hands of Arizona and Arizona State, games they played without either Johnson or Scott.
Washington (13-4, 2-3) saw its rotation shortened with a knee injury to starting forward Jernard Jarreau, and has adapted by playing almost exclusively zone on defense. That’s an adjustment Romar never anticipated he would make, but with Jarreau unavailable, Romar likes the zone because it allows the Huskies to leave big men Shawn Kemp Jr. and Robert Upshaw in the game longer.
Kemp’s evolution as an adequate perimeter defender has been a key component of that defensive gameplan.
“One of the things that’s important if you’re doing something new or changing something is, there has to be a belief that it’s going to be able to work,” Romar said. “And I think the more we do it, the more we’re effective in it, the more our guys believe that it’s something that can work for us.”
Colorado shoots 38.2 percent from 3-point range as a team, and with an undersized starting lineup, the Buffaloes seem more likely to test the Huskies on the perimeter than try to sneak past Upshaw’s long arms in the paint.
UW wants to tighten up its rotations to make sure any 3-point attempts are contested.
“There’s some areas that we can tighten up in that zone, but we got two wins, so I think it worked good enough,” sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Not that we can’t shore things up, but it worked for us this past weekend.”