Chris Hines knew before most everyone else.
Watching Colorado in November against Wichita State, the Utah guard saw the Buffaloes move the ball crisply. His former teammate, Carlon Brown, led the Buffs with 15 points, and a small forward came off the bench to grab 10 rebounds. The other new team in the Pac-12 played together, even in a nine-point loss.
“They didn’t look like the No. 10 team to me,” Hines said.
A month earlier, Pac-12 media picked Colorado to finished in a 10th-place tie in the conference, dismissing its trip to the NIT Final Four seven months earlier. The Buffaloes were moving on without Alec Burks, who was drafted after his sophomore year by the Utah Jazz, and three of their other top players, who either graduated or left for the NBA.
The Buffaloes (17-8, 9-4) have spent this season bucking low expectations. While Utah is enduring one of the worst seasons in program history, Colorado is making a push for the NCAA Tournament.
Coors Events Center has become the toughest place to play in the conference, and Colorado hasn’t lost a home game in the Pac-12. Going into Saturday’s game against Utah, which Colorado beat 73-33 on New Year’s Eve, the Buffs are a game and a half out of first place.
Colorado is one of the league’s best defensive teams, freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie has been — at times — sensational, and sophomore forward Andre Roberson is the only player in the Pac-12 averaging a double-double (11.2 points, 11.1 rebounds).
“I think a lot of people didn’t realize how good some of the players we had come in were,” senior forward Austin Dufault said.
Any notion that Colorado, which finished 24-14 last season, would struggle to get acclimated to the Pac-12 — the players, the coaches, the systems, the arenas — was quickly dismissed, former Oregon coach Ernie Kent said.
“They’ve seemed to conquer that so far and put themselves in the hunt to finish out a really good season,” Kent, a Fox Sports Network analyst, said.
So where did the Buffaloes come from and how did nobody see it?
“A lot of credit has to go to our seniors,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. “They’ve given us great stability, great leadership this year.”
He means Dufault, guard Nate Tomlinson and Brown, who played three years at Utah before transferring after the 2010 season. Then there’s Dinwiddie, who averages 10.9 points.
“Once we played together a few times I could tell we had a chance to be a pretty good team this year,” Dufault said.
Kent said Boyle is among his top picks for Pac-12 coach of the year and that Roberson is a candidate for player of the year.
While Utah’s 40-point loss in Boulder represented a low point for the Utes, that game also served as an announcement of Colorado’s presence.
“It kind of just set the tone for what we wanted to do for the rest of the season,” Dufault said, “play tough defense and get out and run on teams.”
Dec. 31 • Colorado 73, Utah 33
Jan. 5 • Colorado 87, Washington 69
Jan. 21 • Colorado 64, Arizona 63
Andre Roberson • 11.2 points, 11.1 rebounds
Carlon Brown • 12.6 points
Spencer Dinwiddie • 10.9 points
Utah vs. Colorado
P At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff • Saturday, 3 p.m.
Radio • 700 AM
TV • ROOT Sports
Records • Utah 5-20 (2-11), Colorado 17-8 (9-4)
Series record • Colorado 21-15
Last meeting • Colorado 73-33 (Dec. 31)
About the Utes • Utah has lost 20 games in a season for the first time in program history. … Junior center Jason Washburn led the Utes with 15 points at Arizona. He has not posted back-to-back double-digit scoring games since Jan. 19 and 21. … Freshman forward George Matthews is out for the season after tearing a ligament in his foot at Arizona State last week. He averages five minutes per game.
About the Buffaloes • Colorado’s 40-point win over Utah on New Year’s Eve was the team’s largest win of the season. … Former Ute Carlon Brown leads the Buffs with 12.6 points per game, the same number he averaged as a junior at Utah in 2010. … Colorado is just a game and a half out of first place in the Pac-12, but all four of their conferences losses have come on the road.