I tried, I really did, to keep this to a reasonable length, but to no avail. I am just too pumped up for basketball season to start. This will be long and rambling, consider yourself forewarned.
Again, I'm sorry.
Before I get started, I'd like to take a quick look back at what was one of the best years in CU basketball history, courtesy of the fine folks at CUBuffs.com:
2010-11 was a magical year for CU basketball. Despite not reaching the Tournament, the team set records for wins, and the program experienced unprecedented fan participation and attention in the form of repeated sell-outs down the conference stretch. While there have been far more successful years in CU basketball history (NIT championships, trips to the Dance, a Final Four appearance, and a string of conference titles in the 50s and 60s), last season certainly belongs as a brief aside to the discussion of best Buffs basketball season ever.
Now, all that's left is building on the momentum created last spring.
The conventional wisdom in basketball circles is that CU will struggle this season. Losing 60% of minutes and 75% of points will do that to your prospectus. But what the conventional wisdom is missing is the tireless preparation the coaching staff put in to life after Higgins and Burks; what I'm saying is that the team jumped off a cliff, only to be saved by a golden parachute built out of transfers and seniors who have been playing the last 3 years.
I'll say right at the top that this team will not make the NCAA tournament, but another run in the NIT is within reach. This future shouldn't bum you out; from where this program was at the end of the Ricardo Patton era, to realistically expect back-to-back successful post-season campaigns is like manna from Heaven. Add to it the prospect of a top-20 recruiting class, and Buff hoops junkies are living in a Golden Age.
In this preview, I'll take a close look at year two of Tad Boyle's Fantastic Boulder Voyage, breaking down every aspect of the program as it begins its first tour of duty in the Pac-12.
With that out of the way, if you're as ready to get this party started as I am, then grab a beer and click below...
Where else to start but with the roster. Part of the reflexive action by the national media to ignore the 2011-12 Buffs is the fact that the roster is missing the names Burks, Higgins, Relphorde, and Knutson (the other part is force-of-habit; CU has only had back-to-back post season appearances once since Sox Walseth left the Buffalo bench.) But there is some good talent still hanging out in Boulder, certainly enough talent that can play at a high level right away to make any bottom-dwelling prediction highly unlikely.
I talked about the newcomers earlier in the summer, but it's now time to delve into the roster in its entirety.
- Carlon Brown, 6-5, 215lbs, Sr from Riverside, CA -
The transfer from Utah will be the key to success this season. Ostensibly he will be filling the role of Cory Higgins, but few could completely fill the shoes of the Buffs all-time games played and scoring leader. The basis of comparison comes from Carlon's similar ability to fill up the stat sheet; scoring, distributing, and rebounding in significant numbers for a guard. He has Tournament experience, and has been through the wars, even if this is only his first season on the Front Range.
He comes to CU from newly minted rival Utah. Relegated to the bench by a new coaching staff, the quick wing decided to look elsewhere for a full compliment of PT. Despite the negative connotations, I'm not too concerned about his semi-contentious departure from Utah. Considering how hard he worked behind the scenes last season to make his teammates better, there's no reason to doubt his commitment to CU. He's got one season left to prove his capabilities, and I fully expect him to play balls-to-the-wall from November to March.
The only thing I worry about with Carlon is his outside shot. While it's been two years since he last played for Utah, Brown struggled from 3-point range in a Ute uniform, hitting only 35% of shots in '09-'10, and barely over 30% for his career. CU will have to look elsewhere for distance production, but that isn't that big of a concern as Carlon has a few teammates around him who can hit the 3.
Still, expect Carlon to be the CU leader in points and minutes. If he can add in 5 boards and a few assists per night, I'd be very happy. Also, I'd put some money down on huge nights from him against his former Ute teammates. Revenge is a dish best served cold with a side of Told-ya-so.
- Nate Tomlinson, 6-3, 185, Sr from Sydney, Australia -
Nate has to score more. With the scoring gap left by the departing crew of offensive dynamos, the sharpshooter from Down Under will be relied on to take, and hit, more shots than he has in previous seasons. Minutes and shots taken should all jump dramatically from where his mostly deferential role took him last season. I have confidence that he can handle the load.
In addition to his point guard capabilities, Nate can be expected to hit close to 50% of his shots, while chipping in over 45% shooting from deep. If Levi Knutson experienced a nearly perfect shooting season last winter, I would tab Nate as the man most likely to showcase similar efforts. His shot isn't as pretty as Levi's set, with Nate essentially flicking his wrists and barely leaning forward, let alone jumping, to get the ball off, but the release is quick, and it works for him. If his more frequent 3-pointers start falling at typical rates, look out, 'cause this team will suddenly become very dangerous.
His assist numbers took a slight dip last year, but that was probably a result of reduced minutes, and injury that kept him out of a few games, and a change-over from the Princeton's assist-oriented offense. A year of study under his belt, I feel these numbers should go back up.
- Sabatino Chen, 6-4, 185, Jr from Louisville, CO -
The other player emerging from transfer-status purgatory, Sabatino looks to fill the hustle player role on Coach Boyle's bench. He's still a mostly unknown quantity, having limited playing experience from his time at DU, and I'll be interested to see what the Monarch High product brings to the table.
Can he shoot in game situations? Can he eat up minutes if a few of the front-line guys get into foul trouble? Can he guard explosive Pac-12 competition? How many minutes will he really receive? There's plenty of questions on the table for Sabatino to answer, but I don't know how much PT he'll get to really answer them.
- Andre Roberson, 6-7, 210lbs, So from San Antonio, TX -
Coach Boyle continues to list 'Dre as a guard, so I will as well. Maybe it's one of those motivational things. With 'Dre's perimeter game being his largest question mark, maybe listing him at guard is meant to get him playing and thinking like a guard. But, and let's be honest, he'll spend most of his time filling the role of, and defending against, a forward.
He's one of the more hyped talents on the team, with NBADraft.net going as far as to place him in the top-5 of their 2013 mock draft. They figure, as many do, that, with even a slight improvement in his offensive game, scouts will begin to drool over his potential as an NBA player.
A few months back, the great Ken Pomeroy devoted a whole section of his blog to the potential of 'Dre Roberson. His rebounding numbers, put together in slightly limited minutes last season, are a thing of beauty. Tenacious, aggressive, instinctual - these are all terms used to describe the way the lanky Texan attacks loose boards. I'd like to add the cliched 'high-motor' to his rep, cause he sometimes just refuses to quit.
He attacked both the offensive and defensive glass to the point that he, rather easily, set the CU freshman record for rebounding and lead the team in boards - all while coming off the bench. While a little foul prone, his outstanding athleticism was the difference in more than a few Big XII games. Now, he only has to combine those freakish rebounding skills, with a budding offensive game, and he'll be set to carry the Buffs when needed.
I refer to his offensive game as if it's completely absent from his repertoire, but he shot over 55% from the field in 2010-11, and seemed to dramatically improve as the season went on. He was more of a slasher last season, sometimes capable of hitting the open outside shot. If he can just add a consistent jumper to an interior game propped up by his explosive athleticism, he's going to be deadly. Seriously, if you aren't excited to see Andre Roberson play this winter, you're missing something.
I also like that his sister followed him to Boulder. With all the preseason hype he's getting, it'll be nice to have family around to ground him.
- Jeremy Adams, 6-5, 215, So from Madison, MS -
With the clock on the Alec Burks era running out, Coach Boyle brought Jeremy in to a raucous CEC to watch one of last March's NIT games. Jeremy apparently liked what he saw, because he immediately signed on to the black-and-gold. A prolific scorer in his Mississippi high-school days, he went the JuCo route after not finding the environs in College Station to his liking. How viable an option he is in his first full year of D-1 play may very well determine how well CU finishes this season.
Primarily a perimeter player, Jeremy is one of many pieces being used to fill the void left by the departing class. While I don't expect him to consistently start right away, he could figure as one of the first guards off of the bench. He missed playing in the scrimmage at the Meet-the-Buffs event, so I have yet to see him play; I can't wait to take a peek at his game on opening night.
Boyle had this to say about him in the Blue Ribbon preview "He's just a solid player. Jeremy's good at a lot of things. He's a guy who can shoot the ball from the perimeter and has great size. He will be a good defender. We felt we needed to bring in somebody who can produce some points and rebounds and he's been battle-tested through a year of practice at A&M."
- Shannon Sharpe, 6-1, 210, RSo from Corona,
Shannon didn't have the year I was expecting him to have last season. He was almost exclusively a bench player, emerging as the second option at point guard. I still see loads of talent. He can be a lock-down defender against smaller guards, and he's still essential to the bench as Nate's back-up at the point.
And he's still crazy explosive:
He made a sweet jumper in the extremely brief M-t-B scrimmage, but I still have questions about his mid-range and outside shot. He can certainly bring it, however, if the opponent is foolish enough to let him get to the rim. More minutes will give everyone a better idea of his game; he could only scrounge 13 per game last season, and I wonder if he won't be afforded more this year. Coach Boyle has expressed a desire to play multiple point guards in his offense, and Shannon has a full season of D-1 basketball to push him over the incoming freshmen.
- Beau Gamble, 6-0, 175, So from Boulder, CO -
The first of two walk-ons named Beau who hail from the Centennial State, Beau Gamble comes home to Boulder from WCC power Santa Clara. He only got into 4 games for the Broncos before leaving the program. A standout player at near-by Fairview High, Gamble is looking forward to continuing his studies closer to home.
- Spencer Dinwiddie, 6-5, 190, Fr from Woodland Hills, CA -
Spencer shot up a few inches over the summer. When CU landed his LOI last fall, he had yet to sprout, and is now inching towards the magical 6-6 height for bigger guards. However, he's yet to fill out that elongated frame, so I'm wary of how effective his game will be for this season. He needs a year of nutrition and muscle before I think he'll be ready for the rigors of high-major hoops.
Known as a pass-first point guard, he's seems like the perfect fit in Coach Boyle's system. He showcased a pretty sweet stroke in the M-t-B scrimmage, and I'm interested to see how that develops. Spencer has a little flair to him, and he seems to like playing it up for the crowds; if his game develops along the lines that many think, he could easily use this flair to become a fan favorite. He was recruited because the staff perceived him to be a winner.
Additionally, his service in the AAU circuit has lead to many connections with high-profile recruiting targets for the 2012 class. The guys at AllBuffs want to call him "the Mayor" since he seems to know so many players who could one day help the Buffs.
- Askia Booker, 6-1, 160, Fr from Los Angeles, CA -
ESPN named Askia, known appropriately for the region as "Ski," as its incoming sleeper for the Pac-12. He's lightening fast, and seems capable of becoming a one-man fast break by weaving between would-be defenders. Word on the street is that he's got a sweet long-range jumper, but I have yet to see too much of it; hopefully he can develop as a consistent outside threat off the bench.
Much like Spencer, Ski should get some early playing time as a reserve, before becoming more relied upon in future years. Ski is very explosive, and he should be very hard to guard.
- Beau Webb, 6-4, 190, Fr from Lone Tree, CO -
The other walk-on named Beau, Webb comes to the Buffs bench from Arapahoe High. He's got good size for a reserve guard, and was well known for his assist numbers in high school.
- Austin Dufault, 6-9, 225, Sr from Kildeer, ND -
It feels like Austin, and fellow senior Nate Tomlinson, have been haunting campus as long as I have, but in reality it's been three solid seasons of production from the duo. Austin, especially, has fought through seemingly constant foul trouble and playing out of position to put together a strong CU career. With one campaign left in his time on the Front Range, Austin is looking to roll into a new conference with post reinforcements for the first time in his career. This should allow him to play a position that's more natural, while still showcasing the experience gained while battling Big XII bigs for three seasons.
Last season, while Austin remained in deferential offensive duty, he showed me something, routinely acting as the high-motor trailer in the Buffs fast-break. He had a few high-profile put-backs to put the hammer down on opponents who payed too much attention to Burks and Higgins. On defense, he made some big leaps last year, and became a reliable stopper on the floor. Austin leaves it all on the court, and is a great example for younger forwards like Shane Harris-Tunks and Ben Mills.
Coach Boyle mentioned at Pac-12 Media Day that he thought Austin was primed for a Levi-esque break-out season. While I'm more inclined to place that mantle on Nate, the big North Dakotan should see statistical improvement across the board. With the return of Shane, Austin will see extended minutes in the '3' or '4' role on the court, allowing him to show off his sweet jumper, and attack smaller forwards. A lead-guard in high school, he has a lot of untapped potential with the ball in his hands. Versatility is his buzz-word. A well-deserved increase in minutes, along with a more natural role in the offense, should lead to a big season.
- Trey Eckloff, 6-10, 230, Sr from Engelwood, CO -
Time is running out for Trey to grab onto that reserve forward role. Every now and then he's shown some flashes of beautiful basketball, but he just hasn't grabbed enough court time to really showcase his skills. With Trent Beckley gone, he'll be counted on to put together some tough minutes when the front-line guys need a breather or run into foul trouble. I don't think it's too much to ask to get him 10 minutes per night, as I trust him more than Ben Mills to eat up the block when called upon.
He's always liked that long-range shot from the top of the arc, but it's a little awkward to take a big body out of the paint for a low-percentage shot in the motion offense. He'll use it to stretch the defense, but he doesn't get enough playing time for it really to be that effective a use of his time.
- Shane Harris-Tunks, 6-11, 250, RSo from Liverpool, Australia -
Big Shane was a big missing piece from last year's team. With his defense and rebounding I think CU could've won one or two more games... enough to sneak into the Tournament. Word is that his knee is completely healed, and he should be ready to run from day one. I'm not sure that he'll be in the starting five night in night out, as I feel Coach Boyle will want him as the 6th or 7th man off the bench. Still, he should be seeing a lot of the floor this year, as his size and help-side defense will be much valued by the defensive-minded Boyle. His presence on the block should allow the likes of Austin and 'Dre to become a little more adventurous on offense, allowing offensive sets to take on more of a 4-guard look at times. For the first time in years, CU will truly be capable of going big to attack a larger team.
I remember his ability to run the floor from his freshman campaign, and I'm interested to see if he can showcase it a little more under Coach Boyle's run-and-gun style of offense. He's got a good handle, and is a pretty good passer for a big-man. He was shooting 3's in the 3-point competition at M-t-B, but I'd rather see him stay inside.
- Ben Mills, 7-0, 220, So from Hartland, WI -
The big 7-footer wasn't ready for prime-time last season. While he showed a few flashes of what he will eventually become, he's just not there yet. More weight and more practice time is what is required, but that sky hook of his sure is a pretty thing to watch. There was some talk earlier in the summer about possibly red-shirting Ben to buy him another year of development, but the non-arrival of Damine Cain put the kibosh on that.
The highlight of his '10-11 season has to be the lock-down defense he played against K-State's 7-footer Jordan Henriquez. Mills entered the home game against the 'Cats with the mission of eating some minutes and containing Henriquez, whose size was causing problems for the undersized Buffs. He did just that, shoving a shot back in Jordan's face for emphasis. As that and a few other moments from last year show, Ben will get there; he just needs more time, and next year could be huge for him.
- Tad Boyle, 48 years old, from Greeley, CO, graduated from Kansas -
Talk about hitting the ground running. Coach Boyle inherited some strong offensive pieces from the departing Coach Bzdelik and put them to good use, riding the explosive backcourt to a school-record 24 wins and a berth in the final four of the NIT in only his first season in Boulder.
He erased almost any questions surrounding his hire by putting the pedal to the metal, playing an attractive brand of offense to go along with a renewed commitment to rebounding and defense. Packed houses and media attention followed, and Buff basketball fans were treated to about as exciting a year as was conceivable. But what can he do for an encore?
Much of that front-line talent he relied on last season has departed. In past seasons, such heavy roster turnover had proven to be near-fatal to the program. But, as I discussed this past summer, Coach Boyle and his staff did a great job preparing for the oncoming wave of departures, and the cupboard is stocked with a level of talent I'm comfortable with in a transition year. Additionally, he's proven capable of hitting the recruiting trail like no CU coach has done before him
With success, strong program management, and high-profile recruiting success comes outside attention, and with it the threat of departure. Coach Boyle has maintained his mantra that this is where he wants to be, even reportedly telling A&M to take a hike when they began sniffing around last spring. Still, until the athletic department steps up with a long-term extension, and probably even after that, the specter of Boyle's departure will hang over the programs success. It's just the nature of the coaching beast.
Regardless, he's here now, and I couldn't be happier. Keep up the good work, Coach Boyle!
While there is talent on the roster, no one really knows how it will all fit together under the lights of regular season play. Of most immediate concern is how quickly this crew will gel and begin playing at a good level, and how quickly they go about replacing the departed class. I trust Coach Boyle, but it will take some getting used to to running an offense without Cory or Alec on the court to bail you out when the going gets tough. A senior-heavy starting 5 (with Carlon, Austin and Nate anchoring the rotation) should help solve many of those issues.
Four starting spots are locked in stone, with 'Dre joining the seniors in the opening lineups on a nightly basis. The 5th slot is up in the air, but isn't as important; playing time down the stretch will be more important to the teams success. I would expect the nod to go to a guard more often than a forward like Shane as Coach Boyle prefers a guard-heavy rotation.
While the Buffs are tasked with filling a daunting 75% of last season's points, you can see the game plan where that is expected to come from. Carlon Brown will do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the two 4-year seniors are expected to handle large workload increases as well. The rest will have to come in expected bumps from younger players like 'Dre, Shane, and the three newcomers: Jeremy, Askia and Spencer.
Expecting to find all of that 75% in this roster is probably asking a little much. However, if CU can grab-back 85% of the lost production (about 50 points per game), I think they'll be alright with the expected increase in defensive capabilities dampening the opponents production to even things out.
I'll be interested to see what kind of roles the three primary new-comers find themselves in come January, and if they can make a dent in that 75%. Coach Boyle sees some promise, saying "It's yet to be seen what all three of them will do, but they have the ability to be impact players. That's what you want when you recruit them." (link) If they find a way to become impact players early in their careers, then the rotation will become that much more dangerous.
Regardless of the immediate progress of the newcomers, there will surely be a dip in offensive production from last season. However, I expect to see a team much more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball. Particularly post defense, which had been a weak spot for some time, should be much stronger. The return of Shane alone should mean a lot in terms of cutting down easy looks from the opponent. While the non-arrival of Damiene Cain hurts depth, the front-court should be more of a strength on both sides of the court.
This all plays into Coach Boyle's strengths. He preaches an exciting style of fast-paced offense while emphasizing hard-nosed defense that, given an increased ability on the block, should help make up for the departed star-power. Boyle would like CU to focus on two factors, rebound margin and defensive field goal percentage, believing that success in those two areas leads directly to victory. I think CU, with the improved front-court, will be able to improve in both areas this season. With that full pack of forwards, CU should be able to expand gains earned in the rebounding category last season. Additionally, the continued emergence of the 'Dre's defensive skills and the return of Big Shane should cut down on easy looks in the lane for opponents.
While rebounding and defense look to improve, I should mention that CU will probably take a big step back at the free throw line. Alec, Cory and Levi were deadly free throw shooters, and many of their points came from getting to the line. This will be a tough area to replicate their success, as no one on the roster even comes close to their consistency from the charity stripe. Close games could be lost if CU begins struggling from the charity stripe.
In the end, I like the roster, and the direction it's headed in. It's almost too much to ask for the program to "re-load" rather than "re-build," but a hybrid approach, where the Buffs still get a shot at the post-season (NIT) while preparing for the arrival of the best recruiting class in CU basketball history should be possible.
RECRUITING AND THE FUTURE OF THE ROSTER
I had an 'aha' moment at some point over the past few months. Recruiting, which had always seemed like a massive load of bullshit, began to make a little sense to me. My epiphany probably had a lot to do with CU finally having tangible success on the recruiting trail.
The program has been as well tended as can be expected over the past few years. They've added new weight facilities, locker rooms, and coaching offices to the CEC. And now, just in time to build off of the magical run of '10-'11 comes the completion of the long awaited practice facility. No longer is Colorado basketball stuck in the Jurassic Age.
This, along with repeated trips into the fertile California recruiting ground befitting a full-fledged member of the Pac-12, has made CU an enticing spot for recruits to commit to. With, at the time of writing, two top-100 players, CU is headed towards its best recruiting class ever. Headlined by Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, get ready for some fireworks in the future.
This is what happens when you actually pay attention to the basketball program. Upgrade the facilities, pay for a good coach and an accompanying staff, and you begin to see results. CU will still be young next fall when the 2012-13 season tips off, but it'll be under the guise of "re-loading" rather rebuilding. Buff basketball is on the rise by every measurable metric.
While the core of the 2010-11 non-schedule was heavy on the fluff, the beginning was full of tough road dates. For a team struggling to learn with a new coach, this was too tough of a challenge to bear, and CU struggled in the early going. This season again features a tough early test at the Puerto Rico Invitational, but the rest of the schedule is manageable, and is headlined by plenty of winnable games at home.
11/11 - Ft Lewis College - Boulder
11/17 - Wichita St - San Juan, PR
11/18 - Alabama/Maryland - San Juan, PR
11/19 - Iona/Purdue/Temple/Western Michigan - San Juan, PR
11/23 - Air Force - Colorado Springs
11/28 - Georgia - Boulder
11/30 - Colorado State - Ft Collins
12/7 - Fresno St - Boulder
12/9 - Wyoming - Boulder
12/19 - Cal St Bakersfield - Boulder
12/22 - Texas Southern - Boulder
12/28 - New Orleans - Boulder
Once the team gets back from Puerto Rico, it won't have to leave the state again until the 4th conference game of the season. 11 straight dates will be played in the Centennial State from Nov 23rd through Jan 7th. This includes nine home games, and road dates at Air Force and CSU. No one opponent will knock your socks off, but we should see an over-all increase in non-con SOS over previous seasons. All-in-all, it's the kind of favorable early season scheduling I wish the team had last season.
The Puerto Rico tournament will be a tough nut to crack, especially with so much of the team still feeling out their roles. Much like the Maui Invitational two seasons ago, I expect CU to back into a 1-2 record on the island. Once they get back to the Centennial State, however, I see a bunch of wins headed the Buffs' way. Say CU takes 2-of-3 from the AF-Georgia-CSU week, the Buffs should be able to enter Pac-12 play with a 9-3 record. Respectable from a team still feeling each other out. The benefits of a home-heavy non-con schedule.
12/31 - Utah - Boulder
1/5 - Washington - Boulder
1/7 - Washington St - Boulder
1/12 - Cal - Berkeley, CA
1/14 - Stanford - Palo Alto, CA
1/19 - Arizona St - Boulder
1/21 - Arizona - Boulder
1/26 - USC - Los Angeles, CA
1/28 - UCLA - Los Angeles, CA
2/2 - Oregon St - Boulder
2/4 - Oregon - Boulder
2/9 - Arizona - Tucson, AZ
2/11 - Arizona St - Tempe, AZ
2/18 - Utah - Salt Lake City, UT
2/23 - Stanford - Boulder
2/26 - Cal - Boulder
3/1 - Oregon - Eugene, OR
3/3 - Oregon St - Corvallis, OR
3/7 - Pac-12 Tournament - Los Angeles, CA
That's odd... 18 games... Thursday/Saturday splits... some place called "California" on the travel itinerary for three weekends. Yep, we're definitely in a new conference.
One thing to watch out for is how CU adjusts from the Wednesday-Saturday scheduling system in the Big XII to the Thursday-Saturday scheduling system in the Pac-12. That extra day of preparation and rest can mean more than you would think, and I'll be keeping an eye on CU's record in road Saturday games throughout conference play.
Conversely, there may be an advantage to be exploited when the traditional Pac teams travel east to Colorado and Utah. Because of the travel partner scheme, teams from the coast will have to spend the whole weekend huffing and puffing over a mile-high, and those quick Saturday turn-arounds after Thursday night games may be tough for some teams to handle. Interestingly, three of CU's four toughest home dates land on Saturdays (Arizona, Oregon, and Cal), which might give CU a few opportunities to steal home games against quality competition they wouldn't normally beat. (BTW, in the linked ESPN piece, where the fuck was Andy Katz going with that Nebraska line? Neither CU or NU ever set the hoops world on fire, and the Devaney Center was no more of a feared place than the CEC. I'd imagine the altitude would put the advantage in the Keg's favor, in fact.)
With the CEC expected to be a big advantage for the Buffs, look for CU to win six conference games minimum at home. All told, that would put my base-line expectation (no worse) at 15-15 (6-12). However, that projection includes no road wins, and three home losses. I think CU has a solid chance to improve on that, even with the number of questions on the roster. No, at no point will CU sniff a Tournament invite this season, but I think they can challenge for a .500 in-conference record and maybe 18 total wins on the season. Another trip to the NIT would then be in store for the end of the year. Not to bad for a "rebuilding year," huh?
This league isn't as year-in, year-out tough as the old Big XII was, but the new Pac-12 is a premier basketball conference, capable of sending five or six teams to the Dance every season. CU has a chance to create for itself a new and vibrant hoops role in the new digs, and a surprisingly strong first season will go along way towards making that happen.
Below I've placed my quick thoughts on each of our 11 new conference brothers. If you have an ESPN Insider subscription, click the school name to get directed to the Blue Ribbon preview, a BONANZA of vital information on each team in the conference.
- Arizona -
I was really high on defending conference champions before the exhibition loss to Seattle Pacific. Maybe they just need more time in the oven to mature and recover from the departure of Derrick Williams. In the exhibition, SP may have exposed a weakness in the paint and on the glass that may prevent the Wildcats from being truly elite this season. Still, they have a tantalizingly large amount of young talent, and once that gels they'll be ready to take on the nation.
- Arizona State -
A year after winning Pac-10 coach of the year in '09, ASU Coach Herb Sendek saw his Sun Devils crash and burn last season. This year, however, he has a very exciting freshman in the form of Jahii Carson who's expected to breathe some life back into the program in Tempe. ASU has never really been known as a basketball power, but every now and then, like '09-'10, they can jump up and bite the conference. It won't happen again this season, but Carson might be capable of igniting some basketball fire in the Valley of the Sun.
- Cal -
Cal enters '11-'12 with as much expectations on its collective shoulders as there has ever been in recent memory. Not traditionally a basketball power, at least in modern times, they often find their way into the Tournament, but usually without any promise of a deep run. Now, with a bevy of returning talent, including Denver product Jorge Gutierrez, not only are the Golden Bears expected to compete for a Pac-12 title, but a deep run in the Tournament is possibly on the table. Almost everyone from that team CU bested in the NIT is back this season, and that experience should breed success.
The big news from the Bears offseason was the stunning announcement by Head Coach Mike Montgomery that he recently went through a bout with bladder cancer. He's apparently cancer free and ready to challenge for his second Pac title in Berkeley.
- Oregon -
Eight new players litter Coach Dana Altman's bench in Eugene. Much like CU, the heavy influx of new talent will take some getting used to, but I full expect Oregon to be a tough nut to crack in '11-'12. They may not challenge for the top of the league, but they'll be on the cusp, probably also sneaking into the Tournament for the efforts.
- Oregon State -
Nope, I don't buy it. Some are predicting a respectable finish from the Beavers this season, but I'm betting on another bottom-quarter finish. Yes, they're returning a whole bunch from last year's team, but the team crashed into a thud at the end of last season, losing 13 of 16 down the stretch. Even with the loss of some "disgruntled" seniors, that end to the season didn't impress me all that much. CU dominated this squad in Boulder last year, and I've never been too impressed with Coach Craig Robinson's teams.
- Stanford -
A traditionally strong basketball program, Stanford has slipped in past years. They haven't had a winning conference campaign in three seasons, and routine trips to the Tournament are now a distant memory. They've slowly been building since the departure of Brook and Robin Lopez, but I think they're still a few years away from serious contention. This is a middle of the pack team, and one that CU could leapfrog with a strong season.
- UCLA -
This is the Kansas of the conference, the marquee name that should attract a crowd in every gym they roll through. If KU was the program by which basketball success was measured in the Big XII, then UCLA are the big boy out west. Tradition, tradition, tradition; this is the program that John Wooden built afterall. Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Goodrich... the names in the rafters will give you chills.
The Bruins have plenty of size in the front court, including standout Reeves Nelson. This will be an extremely tough team to play, and they have a good shot of taking the inaugural Pac-12 crown; so good in fact that they were the media's pick to win the league. Historic Pauley Pavillion is undergoing a large renovation project, so all the Bruins 'home games' will be played at various sites throughout LA, shouldn't be that big of a detriment though. It a shame we won't see them in Boulder this season.
- USC -
It has always been a mystery to me why USC isn't more of a basketball powerhouse. Sure, next door neighbor UCLA is a dominant force, but there should be enough high-profile talent to go around in the recruiting hotbed of Southern California. Regardless, USC has never been that big of a player on the national scene, and I'd rate them as 'inconsistent' at best.
One exception was the Tim Floyd era, and the recruitment of OJ Mayo. Unfortunately, that recruitment also lead to two years of heavy sanctions from the NCAA. That's behind them now as Coach Kevin O'Neil has spent the last two years trying to dig out of the Floyd-Mayo hole. That process took a big setback this summer as both Jio Fontan and Curtis Washington failed to make it through the offseason, succumbing to injuries that have seemingly derailed the '11-'12 season before it even started. Expect USC to struggle this year as a result.
- Utah -
The Runnin' Utes, a proud traditional basketball power, are in a bad spot heading into the new conference. CU's make-shift rival has undergone repeated coaching turnover since the departure of legend Rick Majeras, and the lack of consistency has lead to a decline of fortunes. Recruiting has dried up, and talent has been run off (including the Buffs own Carlon Brown). Even though the program won the '09 MWC conference title, these guys are no where near the level they need to be at playing in this conference.
If they don't finish last or next to last, it'll be an upset. CU needs to sweep the 2-game series with the Utes.
- Washington -
The Huskies have an interesting mix of talent in place that should compliment nicely with potential freshman super-star Tony Wroten. This kid is one of the more hyped young players in the west, and I'm dying to see him on the court. This team could contend for the league crown if everything falls in to place, but they certainly should be in the top-4 regardless of how it all shakes out.
- Washington St -
Klay Thompson carried this team into relevance last season, but Klay is currently sitting at home awaiting the NBA lockout to end so that he can begin playing for the Golden State Warriors. They should struggle without Thompson, and this traditional Pac also-ran will be back to normal this season. It would also behoove CU to sweep the two game set with these guys.
Nothing is ever given to CU basketball; they have to earn everything they achieve. Case in point, almost every prognosticator is slotting the Buffs in the bottom 4th of the Pac-12. Regardless of all the nice things people have to say about Coach Boyle, Andre Roberson, or Carlon Brown, there's that itch the media has to scratch to down-play CU basketball; it's basketball in Boulder, there's bound to be a letdown after a year like '10-'11, right?
Any other era in the program's history, and I'd have to agree with them. But not now, not with the effort the university has put into pumping up the program. The whole basketball program has been experiencing an unparalleled level of support for the program from both the Athletic Department and the fan base. Donations, facility upgrades, recruiting hype, fan discussions... never has CU basketball been anywhere close to what it has at its disposal right now. They need to take advantage.
But will they?
This is but one of the many questions asked of this season, and, as Coach Boyle has noted several times this offseason, there are few answers. But that doesn't mean that those answers won't end up being positive in the long run. No, the Buffs won't necessarily improve on last season's efforts, but I don't think it's out of the question that this crew wins 18-ish games and springs back into post-season play.
It's tough, being the new kid on the block and hoping to compete, but I think this season should be another positive step in the building process that shocked the Big XII last season.
In summation, Tad Boyle is awesome.
- Fin -