Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, April 5, 2012

2011-12 Review Part 1: A hell of a ride

It's easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of March.  The beauty of the collegiate game is that, with the lose-and-go-home tournament format, anything is possible at the end of the year.  In 2012, CU finally took advantage of that system, and ran the table in LA, securing the program's first conference title in over 40 years.  That alone makes the season a resounding success.

However, to properly understand the value of a season, you need to pull back your lens and refocus on the year as a whole.  After the jump, I'm going to go on a narrative journey through the 2011-12 basketball season, delving into the story lines to get a better appreciation for how the season developed.  Next week, I'll conclude with some thoughts on player performance, and an overall look as the team's statistical trends.

Click below for part one of my season review...

Season Narrative

It's easy to forget that the Pac-12 champions started the season by playing some pretty suspect basketball.

There were some warning signs in the early going.  After a pre-season, closed-door scrimmage with Creighton, the rhetoric from the program dipped a bit, giving me the impression that Coach Boyle needed more time to get his team ready.  A season-opening tune-up with Division-2 Ft Lewis was all that coach and team would be afforded, and it proved to not be enough.

The season opened in earnest with a trip to Puerto Rico that would set the tone for early struggles.   The opening round loss to a veteran Wichita St squad was anticipated, but the second round loss to Maryland brought on a sense of foreboding doom.  CU managed to blow an 8-point halftime lead through poor free throw shooting (10-20 in the second half alone) and non existent perimeter defense (Terp guards Stoglin, Faust and Mosley combined for 11-19 beyond the arc).  That the Buffs had to come from behind to save face against bottom feeding Western Michigan the following morning only furthered the sense of desperation.  CU would limp back from the island after a 1-2 performance.
The loss to Maryland set a bad tone for the start of the season.
Even in victory, things only managed to get worse once the Buffs got back to the mainland.  While CU won two in a row over Air Force and Georgia, play remained sloppy.  Down in Colorado Springs, the Buffs managed to cough up 18 turnovers (which the Zoomies turned into 27 points) and again struggle from the line, leading Coach Boyle to later say, "[...] tonight we took a major step backwards." Against Georgia, the Buffs managed to turn a comfortable second half lead into a nail-biter, as missed free throws kept the Bulldogs in it til the final horn.

The string of poor play would finally catch up to CU in Ft Collins.  In a clash between eventual Tournament teams, neither squad really looked the part.  The Buffs never played particularly well that night, and CSU matched that level of ineptitude by allowing the struggling Buffs to hang around until the end.  CU even managed to take a miraculous lead with seconds left, as Nate Tomlinson turned a boneheaded Ram inbound into two points.  Stunned into action, the Rams drove the length of the court to regain the lead.  Nate's responding last second shot rimmed out, and the CSU students rushed the court.

Ft Collins thankfully in the rear-view mirror, the non-conference struggles would reach their zenith on December 9th when the Wyoming Cowboys strolled into the CEC.  It was a head-scratching disaster as the Cowboys out-worked the Buffs in their home gym.  The Wyo zone confounded, the Buffs were beaten on the boards, and turnover (15), free throw shooting (63%), and perimeter defense (Luke Martinez went 4-8 from 3) woes continued.
Luke Martinez and the Cowboys made the Buffs pay for poor execution.  From: the BDC
The Buffs had been riding a 27-game non-conference winning streak in the CEC prior to that effort, and I can say without equivocation that the Wyo loss was the low-point of the season.   Headed into a break for finals, the team sat at 5-4, and had looked beyond lost at times.


I look back to a Coach Boyle quote from the wake of the CSU game.  He summed it up by saying "I told our guys in the lockerroom I do not fault your competitiveness, I don't fault your desire . . . your will to win, I don't fault any of that stuff. But what I fault is our execution."  The Buffs just weren't ready yet.

The big lesson from the first nine games was that this team was better at making life hard on themselves than playing good basketball.  The Buffs managed double-digit turnovers in seven of their first nine games, and shot a paltry 58% from the line in the month of November.  Other than the opening night win over D-2 Ft Lewis, the month featured discomforting performances that had everyone thinking unhappy thoughts.  If you would've told me at this point that CU was destined for a post-season run, I'd have laughed you out of the room. They looked like the rebuilding team that many assumed they would be.

This was, afterall, a team picked to finish in a 10th-place tie in the preseason media poll.  To this point, the Buffs were validating the media's assumption about their performance.

But, all was not lost.  While on court production was less than appetizing at times, the program was flourishing off the court.  Attendance was way up over historical norms, and Coach Boyle managed to land potentially the best recruiting class in CU history.  Fan attention was at an all-time high to the point that, when that recruiting class was announced, the athletic department was able to hold a winter sports recruiting luncheon.  The foundation was there for a promising future, it was only a matter of whether the present could deliver.


After stewing on the early season struggles through winter break, the Buffs hit the hardwood for the final three games of their non-conference slate.  Faced with three cupcakes (CSU-Bakersfield, Texas Southern, and New Orleans), the soft schedule allowed CU to regain their confidence, while racking up easy wins in the process.  A light scare from TSU notwithstanding, the Buffs headed into Pac-12 play on a high note, capped by a 58-point thrashing of D-2 bound UNO.
The light side of the schedule allowed CU to flourish towards the end of December.  From: the BDC
New Year's Eve saw CU open conference play with Pac-12 travel partner, and ostensible rival, Utah.  The struggling Utes came as tasty fodder for the suddenly peaking Buffs, and CU would pick them apart en route to a 73-33 win.  It was a historic victory for a number of reasons, but, most importantly, it kick started conference play and washed the taste of early season struggles away. 

CU would go on to extend their win-streak to a season-high six games through wins over Washington and Washington St.  In some of the best basketball played in the regular season, the Buffs came out against the Huskies, a west coast hoops power, and comfortably pushed them around.  After a slow start, CU played +27 ball over most of the game.  Sparked by a strong defensive effort (The Buffs held UW to 37% shooting, 20% from behind the arc), CU began to look like a team capable of beating quality opponents.  The 3-0 start to conference play left the Buffs in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12; even in a down year for the Pac-12, this was a massive turn of events, and some even began discussing the Buffs as title contenders.
CU rode a 6-game winning streak to the top of the Pac-12 mountain.  From: the BDC
The early stay at the Pac-12 penthouse was short-lived, however.  The following trip to San Francisco would remind Buff fans that the road is a scary place.  While CU hung close with Cal, they were walloped a few nights later by Stanford.  The Cardinal were allowed to shoot nearly 60% from the field in the second half, and at one point ballooned their lead to 27 points.  The loss was so frustrating that Coach Boyle was driven to describe his squad as "mediocre."

Second half car wreck in Palo Alto aside, the two game sweep in NorCal was not all that unexpected.  Both Cal and Stanford were playing solid hoops at the time, and CU hadn't played a game outside of the state of Colorado since the trip to Puerto Rico.  Once again, the Buffs just weren't ready for the challenges they were faced with; this time, the schedule was to blame.

Back from San Fran, CU once again defended the home court, picking up key victories over the Arizona schools.  The win over the Wildcats, in front of a sold out CEC, was particularly exciting.  Coming down to the final possession, Arizona had a chance to win.  Left without a timeout to set up a play, however, the 'Cats ran into the teeth of the C-Unit without a plan.  The last second heave from wing Kevin Parrom never even touched iron, and the Buffs escaped with a 1-point win.  CU would carry the momentum of that win into Southern California, where they would earn a vital road victory over a depleted USC squad.
Coach Boyle had the team rolling at home.  From: the BDC
February started with home matches against the Oregon schools.  Breaking the vaunted 1-3-1 press with ease, CU had no problem with Oregon St.  Two nights later, against the Oregon Ducks, was a different matter entirely.  The Buffs again left things late, as the Ducks looked more than capable of breaking up CU's home court advantage.  Oregon shot over 40% on the night and out-rebounded the Buffs, but still CU persisted into the final seconds.

Some key missed Duck free throws allowed Nate Tomlinson to escape on the break in a tie ballgame.  Nate wisely took it to the rack, drew contact, and hit the game winning free throw on the front end.  The Oregon bench howled in protest, but the Buffs' 7-0 conference record in the CEC was intact.  The Buffs headed into the final stretch of conference play in second-place.
Here you can clearly see Nate drawing contact from E.J. Singler.  Suck it up, Ducks, it was a foul.  From: the BDC

Suddenly, ears were perking up.  If CU could beat UW, Arizona, and Oregon they were a force to be reckoned with.  Backed by constant defensive effort, a sneaky fast break, and a suddenly omni-present student section, CU was extremely tough to beat at home.  The tone for the rest of conference play had been set: with #YouCantWinAtAltitude in full effect, the Buffs would only have to find a few more road wins like USC to stay in the conference race.
The C-Unit was helping to make the CEC the best home court advantage in the West.  From: the BDC
The key was a return to Coach Boyle's principles of shot percentage defense and rebounding.  Through the first 11 Pac-12 games, CU was holding opponents to just under 40% shooting, and had a combined +51 rebounding advantage.  The Buffs would go on to finish 2nd in the conference in FG% defense, and first in defensive rebounds per game.


Up to this point, the scheduling gods had been kind to the Buffs.  Conference play had mostly taken place in the CEC, with the resulting 7-0 defense of home court keeping the Buffs in discussions for a regular season conference title.  The final stretch, however, would mostly play out on the road.  Five of the final seven games would take place outside of Colorado, including the next three games.

The Buffs would start out well enough, going 2-1 on the trip, dropping the nationally televised game against Arizona before picking up wins over ASU and lowly Utah.  Those wins gave CU three road conference wins on the season; one more than the magical '10-'11 season had.  Still in contention for a title, the Buffs returned home to face off against Stanford.

It was a disaster of epic proportions.  What had been a house of conference play perfection was destroyed before the first media timeout showed up.  At no point during the proceedings was CU anywhere close to making the Cardinal sweat.  For only the second time on the year a visiting team left Boulder with a win, and the Cardinal did it in seemingly effortless fashion.  The loss was so depressing that I was driven to watching Alf reruns.
The tall trees kept the Buffs from getting out on the run.  From: the BDC
Stanford shot just under 50% from the field, exactly 50% from 3, and destroyed CU on the boards 50-26.  For their part, the Buffs only managed to shoot 29%, even finding a way to miss open layups.  It was clear the team was overly nervous with title-implications on the line, and a packed house expecting blood.  In two matchups with Stanford, CU had looked helpless; feel free to chalk that up to being a bad matchup.

A home win over Cal on Senior Day soothed some wounds, and gave the Buffs their 11th conference victory.  The problem is that that was the final regular season win they would earn.  The regular season ending trip to Oregon the following week was as forgettable as the two game series with Stanford.  The Ducks and Beavers combined to shoot 54% against CU that weekend, and combined to put up 173 points.
It was a rough close to the regular season.
Only two weeks prior, the Buffs were coming in off back-to-back road wins, and sat only a game out of first place.  A 1-3 close to the season saw the Buffs slip all the way to sixth place in the final standings.

This lead senior Nate Tomlinson to famously take the Buffs to task for their lack of quality.  In a post-Oregon film session, Coach Boyle asked for comments.  Nate offered "I don’t think we’re that good. I’ve played against Kansas, Texas. We’re just not that good. The only chance we have is if we guard, rebound and compete our (fucking?) tails off."  With the looming Pac-12 tournament starting in a few days, the Buffs wouldn't have long to take the leader's message to heart before heading for LA.


It's not as if Nate was wrong.  Even considering the following run through post season play, this was never an overly talented bunch; they weren't that good.  Last year the Buffs won games because the "Big Four" were one of the best groups in the Big XII, and could match talent against any team on the schedule.  The '11-'12 Buffs relied on sharing the ball, taking good shots, and busting ass on defense.  Execution and effort (and a little balls) had been keeping CU in the Pac-12 title hunt; now they were suddenly in short supply.  Nate was right to kick them square in the ass.

What's more, key players had picked an awful time to hit a slump.  Carlon Brown, especially, was struggling down the stretch of conference play.  The senior had woken up a little in Oregon, but prior to that he had been mired in a slump that saw him average less than 10 points and shoot under 35% (including 19% shooting from beyond the arc) over 11 contests.

This combined to leave me with a pessimistic view of CU's chances in LA.


After dispatching Utah in a very forgettable first round game, the Buffs were awarded a rematch with Oregon in the conference quarter-finals.  It had only been a week prior that CU allowed the Ducks to hang 90 on them.  This time, however, things were different.  Oregon's hot shooting from the previous game cooled off, as CU held them under 40% on the evening, and Senior Carlon Brown began to get red hot.  Scoring 18 in the game, he was a dominant force in the half-court, looking every bit the NBA prospect that had tested draft waters a few years back.
It didn't matter how many they put on Carlon, the dude was on fire.  From: the BDC
Much like the home leg of the Oregon series, this one came down to the wire.  A beautiful up-and-under reverse layup from Carlon Brown got CU within a point with a minute to go.  After playing some rock-solid defense, an Andre Roberson offensive rebound/put-back combination gave the Buffs a one-point lead.  Duck guard Devoe Joseph would get the iso look in the final seconds.  Nate Tomlinson stuck to him like glue, and his desperation heave went begging.  The Buffs were headed to a conference semi-final for the second consecutive season.

Suddenly, I could see the bracket open up.  Cal had dispatched Stanford the previous night, meaning CU would face the Golden Bears in the semis.  It also meant that Stanford, the worst possible matchup for CU, was out of the tournament.  I even liked the matchup with Cal, as CU had held their own against them in Berkeley, and had proven skilled at holding Cal star Jorge Gutierrez silent over three previous meetings.  Could the Buffs really make an improbable run at the conference title?

If you can watch only one replay from the past season, I highly suggest the Cal game in the conference semis. It was a bravura performance full of precise offensive execution, and solid effort on defense.  Carlon Brown was again the star, scoring 17 on a beautiful series of finger-rolls and fade-away jumpers.  He even added the exclamation point: a break-away windmill dunk that will grace every CU highlight package for years to come. All told, CU shot 50% on their way to briskly dispatching Cal by 11 en route to the Pac-12 title game.  Arizona now stood alone between CU and their first conference title since 1969.
Carlon was having the tournament of his life.  From: the BDC
The title game featured two understandably tired teams.  For CU, it was the fourth game in four days, and both teams combined to only shoot 37%.  The Buffs, behind a barrage of 3-pointers from freshman Spencer Dinwiddie (4-4 in the game), managed to take clear control of the game with nine minutes left and a 12-point lead.  Exhausted, CU attempted to sit on the ball, hoping for the clock to save them from the eventual Arizona spurt.  As the Buffs would only manage to score an additional three points over the final nine minutes of play, it almost didn't work.

Arizona took a while, but they eventually began to close the gap.  With the Colorado lead cut to four with under a minute to play, Carlon Brown (soon to be named tournament MVP) gave the Buffs all the points they would need with an explosive dunk.
Missed free throws gave the 'Cats a chance, but left without a timeout to set up a play (just like in Boulder), the final shot was never close as strong defense from Nate Tomlinson made a quality look impossible.  The Buffs were crowned the inaugural Pac-12 champs with a 53-51 win.  Improbably, CU had busted down the door and forced their way into the NCAA Tournament.
The impossible made possible.
For the first time since 2003, only the third time since 1969, the Buffaloes would be attending the Dance.


Step back for a second; a God-be-damned conference title!  It never really occurred to me that winning the conference tournament was a possibility; looking back on my posts from the past season, I rarely even fantasized about such an occurrence.  Beyond the fact that CU had never before managed the feat, the Big 8/XII had conditioned me against such nonsense; even quality Buff squads had no chance of running the table against the likes of KU or MU in their back yard.

Something weird happened in LA.  That wasn't the team I had spent four months obsessing over (the team that had struggled early on, and stumbled down the stretch of conference play).  Coach Boyle would later say they found their heart in LA, I'd say they found their game.  Players who had been struggling (Carlon Brown) were suddenly on fire, others who had been consistent all season (Andre Roberson) found an extra gear at the perfect time.  It was a perfect storm of excellence.

Just look at the performance of Andre Roberson.  Including the forthcoming Tournament games, he would close out the year by scoring in double figures for each of his last eight contests.  In post season play he notched four double-doubles in six games, while averaging 14/11 and shooting 62% from the field (5-9 from beyond the arc).  The team, as exhausted as they were down the stretch, somehow found a way to elevate their game.
Whose ball?  'DRE'S BALL!  From: the BDC
Besides giving the Buffs a conference title, the win also improved CU to 6-1 against teams faced for the third time in a season under Coach Boyle.  That lone loss was against Kansas in Kansas City last year.  All told, CU is now 10-3 in post season play over the past two seasons.  That's the resume of a coach who knows how to find a way to win in tournament situations.

It's also important to note that the team wasn't going through this run alone.  In addition to the normal traveling party (staff, high-level boosters, cheerleaders and band), CU also decided to bring along select members of the C-Unit as a reward for being named one of the top-8 student sections in the country.  For the low-low price of $67,200, the Buffs would bring the excitement of the CEC on the road with them throughout post season play.

The endeavor, besides being a source of support for the team, also made waves in the media, and suddenly Colorado, yes Colorado, was a traveling force to be reckoned with:
"The Colorado crowd was by far the most boisterous of any of the eight teams in attendance. The raw euphoria from fans young and old had the security at the Pit sprinting out in anticipation that Buffs backers might actually storm the court. A number of fans, who were a part of an impressive CU contingent of about 2,500, had started to move down to the lower level, gathering right above the band in what looked like a precursor to a storm." (-link)

Last season, a very talented Colorado squad was snubbed by the Tournament selection committee.  As almost a mea culpa, the auto-bid Buffs were afforded a sweetheart seeding deal, getting matched up with a struggling UNLV squad in Albuquerque.
That about sums it up.  From: the BDC
You'd be hard pressed to find a better neutral site venue for the Buffs.  Not only is Albuquerque an easy 5-6 hour drive down I-25 for the CU fanbase, but the town sits at nearly the exact altitude that Boulder is listed at (slightly over 5,300 feet).  The Buffs would enjoy the advantages of a supportive crowd and the mental edge that comes with altitude.

Riding the emotional wave from LA, CU stormed out to an early lead that they would never relinquish.  By halftime the lead was 11, by the 15-minute mark in the second half it was 20.  The Buffs could seemingly do no wrong, shooting 50% from the floor in the first half (66% from 3) while holding the Runnin' Rebels to a pedestrian 28%.  The win looked to be in the bag, and I was about ready to circle "Colorado" on my bracket.
Ski and the Buffs were making it look too easy in New Mexico.  From: the BDC
Then, just like in the Pac-12 title game, the Buffs took their foot off the gas.  Over the final 15 minutes of play, UNLV would play +16 basketball.  It was a terrible time for CU to try and sit on the ball.  Instead of running and gunning, as they had done in the first 25 minutes, the Buffs were content to play half-court against the physically imposing Rebels.  The resulting UNLV run was inevitable, and they were able to cut the Colorado lead to two points at the 4:30 mark.

Luckily, the Buffs circled the wagons, and a 3rd thunder-dunk in as many games from Carlon Brown sealed the deal in the final minutes.  For the first time in 15 years, CU would make the weekend at the NCAA Tournament, where they would square off against old Big XII rival Baylor.
The lesson, of course: do not make Carlon mad.  From: the BDC
Baylor, the #3 seed in the South region, was an imposing force.  With size and athleticism up and down the roster, I was sure CU would be beaten inside.  Instead, the Buffs made like hell on the Baylor front-line, packing the defense, and limiting Bears stars Quincy Acy, Perry Jones, and Quincy Miller to a total of 23 points on 36% shooting.  The gameplan was working for a time, and CU even had a lead with 10 minutes to play.  The problem was, this focus in the paint opened up the perimeter, where Scott the Dick was waiting to have the game of his life.
"Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum... I smell kraft dinnah!"
Formerly known as Brady Helsip, Scott the Dick rained 3s down on the helpless Buffs.  Despite trying six different defenders on the cocky Canadian, he still managed to hit 9-12 treys attempted.  While he barely contributed to the game otherwise (his only other positive stats were a rebound and a steal in 39 minutes), his 27 points from beyond the arc were more than enough to send the Buffs packing.

The year concluded, the Buffs headed back to Boulder having come oh-so-close to pulling off the impossible: a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.  It was a tough way to end, but the hard truth is that only two teams of any significance will end the season with a win.  That the Buffs had even managed to make it this far was an accomplishment beyond comprehension way back in November, when the team looked doomed to a .500 finish.


Check back next week for player analysis, a team-wide statistical discussion, and my concluding thoughts.


shang said...

rumblin... love your blogs... great shit....totally sums up the season in a non objective... major dose of reality as the season unfolded... keep up the great work...

RumblinBuff said...

I appreciate it. Thanks for reading!