PITTSBURGH 77 - COLORADO 48
You've seen that scoreline a lot over the last few months. Coach Boyle, in all of his wisdom, has refused to let the memory of that painful day in Orlando, FL die, even posting that score throughout the program's offices. 'We can't let that ever happen again,' is the message. It's not about shaming the kids for a rough afternoon on a national stage, just emphasizing that simply making the Tournament is not the goal; doing something with that Dance ticket is just as expected now as earning the trip.
You see, His Tadness has promised to 'keep it real' with the team, the fans, and the media. That constant reminder of how last season ended is just part of the effort. He's been particularly blunt this summer about the team's shortcomings, and what that could mean going forward. The simple fact is that the 2013-14 Colorado Buffaloes didn't live up to their potential. There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure, but a 5th place finish in the Pac-12 and a humiliating second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was not how last season was supposed to go. Naturally, given the sputter across the finish line, there are going to be questions, and Coach Boyle has been quick to posit a number of solutions.
BuffNation was treated to the highs and lows of this sport in '13-'14. At one point last year, CU was the #15 team in the country, and viewed as a potential challenger to the Arizona Wildcats for the league title. The early efforts against Kansas and Oregon were some of the best, most entertaining basketball I've ever seen this program produce. Then, in an instant on a road trip to Seattle, everyone was treated to a lesson on impermanence. Success is, of course, fragile, and should not be treated lightly. Even the best teams need to be prepared to respond to dire adversity; nothing is just handed to you at this level. But the team wasn't ready to deal with the stress. While struggling to come to terms with a traumatic injury to one of their star players, they began to lose their way, and some truly ugly basketball followed. The Buffs would tussle with the .500 mark the rest of the year, as, what was once a season filled with promise, turned uncomfortable. They still made the Tournament, to their credit, but what should've been a happy month for the program turned sour in a hurry.
Luckily, the disappointing end to last season is not the final word on the matter. Those '77-48' signs will come down on Friday, just as the curtain rises on the 2014-15 basketball season, and the focus will become about the present, rather than the regrets of the past. That's what 'keeping it real' is all about. Ignoring the past - passing it off as a blip, or a result of some miss-fortune - is not going to prepare the team properly for the coming winter. There's still a lot of talent on this roster, a group that has a world of potential to capitalize upon. They need to meet last year's mistakes head on, learn from them, and then move forward.
Believe me, as frustrating as last season was, there's a lot of promise on the horizon for 2014-15. CU is legitimately one of the three or four best teams in the Pac-12, and look to be on the precipice of making program history by surging through to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-consecutive time. The Buffs are as deep as ever this year, and as experienced as they've been since the start of the #RollTad era. Behind this group, the program will continue to rack up the wins, the CEC will continue to be sold out, and the banners of the University of Colorado will continue to fill the national consciousness. The state of this program continues to be strong.
In this virtual tome, I will attempt to 'keep it real' about the 2014-15 University of Colorado Men's Basketball Team; previewing them from a variety of aspects, and predicting whether they will be able to make that return trip to the NCAA Tournament. I'll look at the roster, profiling the players, and discussing how the coaching staff will look to deploy the best returning depth in the conference. I'll look at the schedule, touching on both the non-conference and conference slates, and announce my baseline win projection for the campaign. Finally, I'll look at the Pac-12, noting how our rivals are dealing with a metric ton of roster turnover. Usually, I'd close with a look at the upcoming recruiting class, but CU doesn't have one, yet, so that discussion will have to wait...
Those of you who have been here before know that the word 'massive' in the title is not a misnomer. I'm long-winded to a fault. Consider yourselves warned. If, with that understanding, you're not dissuaded, if you love Colorado basketball too much to let a thing like 'TLDR' get in front of a good time, then grab a beer, strap in, and click below for the preview...
This is the fifth iteration of the Massive Basketball Preview. Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here.
CU has made a habit in recent years of rebounding from the early exit of one of their stars to find their way back to the NCAA Tournament. From Alec Burks to Andre Roberson, similar departures in other eras of this program's history would've spelled a slide back to irrelevancy. Now, however, that is no longer the case. Colorado basketball can survive the early jump to the NBA of one of their stars, and still field a Tournament-caliber team. That's how you know this program as arrived. Teams come and go, but programs live on.
Case-in-point, the matter of Spencer Dinwiddie now playing with the Detroit Pistons. Dinwiddie was one of the best players in Colorado history, and his jump to the professional ranks, while leaving a year of eligibility on the table, will hurt the ceiling of 2014-15. There's a solid argument to be made that, had he returned, the Buffs could've been a dark horse Elite Eight contender. That dream may no longer a possibility, but this team should still make the Tournament. The continuance of the program at a high level is not in question.
Part of that is because the core of the 2013-14 team remains intact, and learned a few things about playing without the Mayor in the process. Losing Spencer Dinwiddie early, not to the NBA, but to an ACL tear at the start of January, was a shock to the system. In addition to the loss of freshman role player Tre'Shaun Fletcher, the sight of the Mayor in pain, along with his absence from the lineup, seemed to shake the team from their rhythm. They would lose three of their next four after the fateful day in Seattle, and plummeted from the top-20 to the wrong side of the Tournament bubble. That was not the end of the story, however. Much like before, the team rebounded in the absence of a player who had been so counted on, digging deep to win six of ten down the stretch and a pair of games in Las Vegas to salvage the season, and make the NCAA Tournament for the third year running. That bit took heart, it took determination, and it took maturity from a team dominated by underclassmen. I honestly didn't think they had it in them. The result against Pittsburgh was certainly disappointing, but just making it to Orlando was a major victory when looking back to the final weeks of January.
That doesn't mean that there aren't problems that need fixing. You could see the core of the traditional elements of #TadBall in play all year, especially when you note that the team finished 16th nationally in rebounding margin, boosted by a 75% defensive rebounding rate that was 6th in all of college basketball. But the team struggled to score the ball, especially after Dinwiddie and Fletcher were removed from the equation. CU had been encroaching on the national top-50 in offensive efficiency before the injury laden trip to Seattle pushed them to settle an ugly 159th overall, but this was a year-long issue. Many of the struggles were familiar - the Buffs turned the ball over too much (19.7%), and didn't share it enough (.85 assist-to-turnover ratio, 296th nationally) - and some of them were new - 31.8% from three point range (289th), 46.4% non-transition eFG% (267th nationally). Without the threat of an outside shot or an inventive pass, opposing defenders were able to collapse on CU's strong forwards, gumming up the works, and causing serious frustration. That's how, after a promising start, Colorado stumbled to 9th in the Pac-12 in scoring with 72.4 ppg.
The key, then, for this year is increasing offensive efficiency through more creation from the guards. Thanks to a superlative center with undeniable generational talent, and some surprising depth behind him, for the first time in the Tad Boyle era, the roster is truly forward focused. For them to be allowed to shine, someone from the guard corps will have to step up to take pressure off of the paint. Luckily, the team is lead by a senior guard with a bulldog mentality, fearless in the face of long-odds. Supporting him is a local point guard on the verge of a breakout season, an athletic dynamo, and a heralded freshman with a world of potential. How they meld to work with the front line will be essential to a fourth-straight ticket to the Dance.
- Askia Booker, 6-2, 175 lbs, Sr from Los Angeles, CA - #0
|From: the Pac-12|
What's this? An every game starter who also happens to be a true, four-year senior? CU hasn't enjoyed that basic luxury since 2011-12, when both Nate Tomlinson and Austin Dufault roamed the hardwood. I don't think I need to remind you how that season ended...
Yes, Askia 'Ski' Booker - the grand master of #SKIBALL, the hero who felled Kansas, the last remaining player from the 2012 Pac-12 championship squad - is back for his final run in Black and Gold. We've been through a lot with Ski - from unheralded spark plug to 6th man linchpin, a spectacular Tournament as a freshman, the MVP of the Charleston Classic, and, soon, a program record in wins and NCAA Tournament appearances. He hasn't always been the player some in BuffNation would've wanted, but, in that fine Dark Knight mold, he's the player the fanbase has needed. Like a Facebook relationship status, 'it's complicated.' I, personally, can't get enough of the kid, and rarely does a game go by where he doesn't bring a smile to my face. He is the very definition of the word 'gamer,' a player who will give every ounce in his body to win. The kid cares and bleeds for his teammates. I wish there were 12 more just like him to fill out the roster.
It's no small measure that Booker will most likely leave Boulder as the winningest player in program history. Let me tell you right now, no other player in America, let alone this program, out-works Askia. He has always put in the hours before and after practice, hoisting shot after shot, working on his free throw shooting, and improving his endurance. This offseason was no different
"I'm strong, I'm athletic, faster than I've ever been. I feel great. (Strength and conditioning coach James) Hardy, he gave us a lot of numbers to meet when we came back, and I actually blew those numbers out of the water." -linkIf there are any stumbles in his game, it's not from a lack of effort off-court. But, as the man himself says:
I don't care how hard you work — you can be the hardest worker, shoot 1,000 shots a day, make 1,000 shots a day — if you don't have confidence in your game and who you are, you don't even need to be on the floor. -linkJust as no man out-works Ski, very few can say they have as much confidence. How else could a player take as many chances as Booker, yet usually find a way to make it all work. How else does he have the balls to euro-step into the greatest shot in program history? This dude is confidence with a capital C.
|I could watch this til the end of time.|
The injury situation had Booker playing point guard almost 80% of the time last winter. While his ppg and assists all went up over the remaining half of the season, something that was all but guaranteed when searching to replace the production of a program cornerstone, the peripheral stats started to slide. Turnovers and jump shooting were a particular problem, as Booker took more of the offensive load onto his shoulders.
For a time, at least, he seemed to find a way to work around it. After the team regrouped from the painful road trip to Arizona, Booker authored a fantastic six game stretch, averaging 19 points and over six assists per. Consequently, CU went 5-1 for those three weeks, and life was all roses and sunshine. It looked like the whole team was turning the corner, with Ski leading the charge...
Then the cameras descended on Boulder for the Arizona game, Spencer was dragged out of cold storage for interviews, and everyone seemed to be reminded that Colorado was missing something, rather then just playing good basketball. Booker immediately went into a tailspin that would spike his stat lines for the rest of the season. From Feb 22 on, Askia would only shoot 35% from the field, a shocking 9% from beyond the arc (that's not a typo), and post a nearly 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. CU went 3-5 over that stretch, as Ski only played two games with an offensive rating over 100.
Even after all of that, on the eve of the NCAA Tournament, Booker said, "My whole life, I've been a scorer; now I have to do more." I just don't think that's the case; in fact, I think he's already taken on too much. Yes, as the lone senior in the rotation, this is his team, but that doesn't mean he has to do everything - it's a team sport, after all. I think at this point in his career, we should all know what Booker can bring to the table, and asking him to do more is just looking for trouble, as we saw last season.
The man simply known as Ski has said he wants to handle the rock as the primary point guard this year. As any friend of the slopes would tell you, however, rocks and skiing do not mix well. In my mind, Askia would be better served to stay off the ball, wreaking havoc as a two-guard. He's an explosive scorer - let him be that explosive scorer! The point should be made, though, that there's a fine line in Coach Boyle's system between the traditional point guard role, and other guard responsibilities. Maybe then it's just a simple matter of Booker finding comfort in his role, whatever it is, and bringing the joy - the SKIBALL - back to the forefront. With only one final bite at the collegiate apple remaining, I hope he can.
- Kevin Nelson, 6-2, 190 lbs, Sr from Albuquerque, NM - #12
|From: the CU Independent|
Originally a member of New Mexico's 2009 recruiting class, he's an old hand at this basketball stuff, bringing a veteran voice to the locker room. In the past, Coach Boyle has singled him out for praise, citing him with Booker as the hardest workers on the team. Given his history with the trainer's table, I hope Kevin can enjoy a completely healthy season to cap his career; he's earned it.
- Geoffrey Bates, 6-3, 200 lbs, Sr from Plano, TX - #35
I honestly don't know much about Geoffrey. I reached out to the magical world of twitter for help, and program insider @RealMatSmith assured me that Bates, like all walkons, works hard in practice, and can also hold his own in the post. Hopefully, the Buffs can get a big lead on opening night so BuffNation can finally be introduced to the kid from Plano.
- Xavier Talton, 6-2, 185 lbs, Jr from Sterling, CO - #3
|From: the CU Independent|
Xavier, probably more than anyone else on the roster, benefited from the extra playing time made available when Dinwiddie and Fletcher were lost to injury. He had started to see his minutes dip slightly in the lead-up to conference play, but was thrown back into the action as the team searched for consistency in the immediate wake of the 'Seattle incident.' Given the opportunity, Talton seized it, lighting a fire in the team with his relief appearances. After a majestic performance at home against Utah, where he almost single-handedly lead the Buffs to an overtime victory, he finally began to appear in the starting lineup. He would start the final 13 games of the season, getting nearly 29 minutes per to shoot him past in-house competition, like Jaron Hopkins, on the depth chart. At this point, he's earned the trust of his coaches, and I would expect to see him earn big minutes for the foreseeable future.
Projecting, I think Talton has the opportunity to become a deadly shooter for the Buffs. I love his form; it's calm, composed, and repeatable. Given a little more free reign to fire last season, he knocked down a decent 37% of his attempts from deep, but missed a few key shots that could've really helped the team out (the regular season finale in Berkeley springs to mind). I would expect, as a junior, that those crunch time threes will begin to fall for the Sterling Tiger. He has certainly been working at it, hoisting ($) upwards of 1,200 shots per day over the summer.
Going farther, I look for him to get a little more aggressive in attacking the rim. He's never going to play above it, but Talton would be wise to give defenders a reason to stay on their heels, rather than crowding him behind the arc. Given that extra split-second to get his shot off, it could be the key to a big season for him.
- Eli Stalzer, 6-3, 195 lbs, Jr from Brea, CA - #5
'The Musicman,' Stalzer is a solid role player on the court, in addition to being an accomplished piano player off of it. Along with Talton, he began to see more minutes in Pac-12 play due to the injury situation. He went from seven DNPs out of 11 games prior to Seattle to appear in every game for the rest of the season. He seemed to move up to take the role that Xavier Talton had been filling prior, that of the ninth man in the rotation, and the third option at point guard. He didn't disappoint, hitting five of eight threes through the remainder of regular season play, and grabbing a surprisingly high number of rebounds (18).
I worry though, with Talton asserting himself, Jaron Hopkins continuing to figure for minutes, and the addition of a heralded freshman recruit, Dominique Collier, to the mix, Stalzer could see his minutes all but evaporate in third year of his career. As we saw last season, however, you never know when a gritty veteran point will be needed to fill a role, and it's comforting to know that Stalzer is there, ready to answer the call. Really wish he would've kept the goatee, though...
- Josh Fortune, 6-5, 205 lbs, Jr/Tr from Hampton, VA via Providence College - #44
Here's a fun trivia question: prior to Josh Fortune, who was the last CU men's basketball player to come from the Commonwealth of Virginia? The one, the only, Chris Copeland. That's some good company to be among.
Fortune, of course, will be sitting out this season as a traditional transfer, which is a bit of a shame, as, should Ski settle into the point, Fortune probably sits as the best two-guard on the roster this year. Much like the walk-ons, his primary benefit this season will be the effort he puts in behind the scenes to make the team better. Into the future, however, I would expect him to be a big component of the program. He has the shooting and athletic spark to be a solid back court replacement for Booker in 2015.
At least he'll have two years to play two, once the eligibility requirement is met. The interesting thing is, as a traditional transfer, I think he has the ability to affect the team in a more positive way than many of the exempted transfers from around the nation who don't have to sit. Fortune will have an entire year to really focus on blending in with the program, and coming to grips with his place in Tad Boyle's system. By the time he sees the court, there will be a built in familiarity with life as a Buffalo, which could be invaluable. That lengthy transition certainly served Carlon Brown well, and I would imagine it could do the same for Josh.
- Brett Brady, 6-1, 160 lbs, Jr from Highlands Ranch, CO - #22
That talk, for whatever reason, began to bypass reality to take on a life of it's own. Beat writers from the BDC and Rivals were asked about him week after week, to the point that the myth of Brett Brady as savior really began to frustrate me. I would recoil at the very mention of his name, which wasn't fair to Brett. Dude works hard in practice to make his teammates better, after all. So, I've come to terms with it. I actually want Brady to get on the court and prove me wrong. Take those shots, hit those shots, Brett! Give the writers reason to talk about ya!
- Jaron Hopkins, 6-6, 200 lbs, So from Mesa, AZ - #23
|From: the Pac-12|
I continue to question his jump shot. It looks like he's just lobbing it up there, rather than really 'shooting.' While he hit some big ones early in the season (the CSU game springs to mind), you could see the limitations of his form catch up to him as the year went on. His shooting percentage would go on a roller coaster ride throughout the season, as he would go stretches without hitting a single jumper, before breaking out for a few weeks. He ended up shooting 31% for the year, which is actually higher than he probably should've been. Unless something changes, that aspect of his game should probably be de-emphasized.
On the flip side, his ability to attack the rim and create chances for himself and others cannot be denied. He's lightning quick in the open court, and can out-jump almost anyone. The dribble-drive and kick opportunities with him on the court are numerous, and God help the opponent if he's leading a fast break. Given the offseason to mature and develop, along with the extra experience he earned last season, I would expect this to be where he focuses his efforts on offense this year. On defense, I have no doubt that he'll also continue to be the team's best backcourt defender.
- George King, 6-6, 220 lbs, So from San Antonio, TX - #24
|From: the AP|
As if to answer that call, King and the coaching staff have decided to put a halt to his season before it even began. He'll be taking a redshirt year, returning to the rotation next season. I like this move for more than just the basic 'he needs more time' reason, though. It'll also even out the roster in terms of class groupings, which helps out the whole program. We'll catch back up with him next season.
- Dominique Collier, 6-2, 170 lbs, Fr from Denver, CO - #15
Collier comes to Boulder as one of more heralded recruits in the modern history of Colorado high school basketball. A do-it-all point guard from Denver East, he lead the Angels to a 5A title as a senior when he averaged 23/4/3/3. For his efforts in high school, he was named Mr Colorado Basketball two years running, and earned a four-star ranking and a top-100 grade from most recruiting services.
Dominique had been on the national recruiting radar since even before he was a freshman at East. CU had to beat out interest from schools like Arizona, Gonzaga, and UCLA for his services. When Coach Boyle and staff earned his commitment, not only was it a major coup, but it also marked the first time since the heady days of Chauncey Billups that the University of Colorado signed a national recruit from a Denver high school. The comparisons, therefore, will be impossible to avoid as Collier develops.
He boasts a high basketball IQ, with a strong feel for the game and how best to apply himself in any given situation. Flashy one minute, deftly distributing the next, the times I saw him play in high school, he struck me as a player who makes his teammates better, while also being able to get his own. Against Boulder High a few years back, I thought Dom was having a good, not great game on a slightly tweaked knee, only to look up and see that he had stuffed the stat sheet with a 25/8/6/3/3. He has undeniable talent, and I'm very excited to see him finally don the Black and Gold.
I hope too much pressure isn't thrown on Collier out of the gate. I certainly would not expect him to start from day one, or anything like that. He's been on campus since June, taking classes and practicing, but has been fighting off an ankle injury of late, and is still a little lean, coming in at a generous 170 lbs. Dom will have to get healthier and bigger quickly to factor once the competition level gets ratcheted up (the coaching staff wants to see him up near 185). Missing all these crucial practices doesn't help, either. In addition, there's the typical transition issues:
“In high school, it was easy for me to get to the basket, but going against college guys, it’s harder for me to get where I want on the court. In high school, you can get away with the little things, but in college everything counts.” -linkStill, there's no doubt in my mind that he'll be fighting for key minutes sooner rather than later, and could be a big part of the rotation by the time conference play comes around.
- Josh Repine, 6-3, 180 lbs, Fr from Englewood, CO - #33
He knows his minutes will be few as a Buff, but he has hope for the future. "I understand my opportunities might be limited, but the nice thing I have is I'm only a freshman. So, I still have years to grow."
- Josh Scott, 6-10, 245 lbs, Jr from Monument, CO - #40
A concern going into last season, Scott held up much better over the second half as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. His numbers didn't dip in conference play; if anything, they only got better as he averaged 15/8 over the crucial 18-game stretch, and lead the conference in offensive rebounds (despite increased attention and competition). He also asserted himself more as a defender in 2013-14, both on the ball and off of it. Jelly's defensive rebounding rate shot up to over 20% (Andre Roberson being in the NBA helped, but still), and his block rate was up to a respectable 4%. All-in-all, a fantastic season from the big guy, which alludes to an even better 2014-15.
A big benefit for Josh continues to be his strong free throw shooting. This is one of the little thing's about Scott's game which elevates him over his peers. He raised his percentage from 75% to 81% last season, despite elevating his free throw rate to near 70%, and taking more than 100 extra attempts over his freshman campaign. I don't think I've ever seen a collegiate big man as comfortable and consistent from the lie as Scott, and he's only getting better. As he continues to draw defensive attention, and get hacked for his efforts in the paint by lazy defenders, his free throw shooting acts as a firewall against having a bad game. Josh can still points on the board, even if his shots aren't falling. What a luxury!
He's still listed at 245 lbs, but I don't think that tells the whole story. From what glimpses I've seen of him this summer, Josh looks to be more cut, more physically strong, which is a whole hell of a lot better than just getting bigger for weight's sake. He proved last year that the days of hulking brutes like ASU's Jordan Bachynski pushing him around in the post are gone; Josh is now the pusher, rather than the pushee. Yet, despite the increased aggression in the paint, he posted an obscenely low 2.3 fouls called per 40 minutes last season. Case-in-point, in the Boulder rematch with Bachynski last February, as physical a game as any I've ever seen, Josh walked out after 35 minutes with his opponent satisfyingly bloodied having not committed a single foul. That just proves that he's developed into an incredibly smart, savvy forward... only now with a mean streak.
|Smart... savvy... except when it comes to choices about his facial hair.|
"If I can help get a shot for somebody else, then that helps our team out tremendously, especially with all the attention I'm going to get [...] I worked a lot on my passing this summer and then I worked a lot on spinning out of double teams for a jump shot and hitting (jumpers), just squaring up. I did a lot more of that. You'll probably see a little more step-backs in there, too." -linkHis teammates will also help out here, schematically, with more off-ball movement, giving Scott more options to get rid of the ball quickly. I don't see this as being a continuing problem going forward, honestly. I trust Josh to put in the work.
Overall, I think there's a chance Josh could pop his numbers into averaging a double/double each night. The only question is minutes. While Josh is, undoubtedly, a crucial component of this team, he averaged almost 34 minutes per conference game a year ago. With more options in the paint, including a freshman bull who looks to get some run, there's a possibility that Coach Boyle may try to artificially cut back Josh's court time to keep him fresh for crunch time. Nothing dramatic, but something in the 31-32 min range. When it all boils down, however, the Buffs need everything he has to give to reach their full potential. With all he brings to the table, Boyle may just have to play him 35 minutes a night, whether he wants to or not.
I don't want to hype this too much, but I think there's an outside chance for Scott to earn some All-American honors this year. A lot of it depends on how well the Buffs do, but he has all the tools, the peripheral numbers, and the upside to spell out a hell of a year. If that happens, this could be his last go around in Black and Gold. BuffNation, please appreciate this kid while you can!
- Xavier Johnson, 6-7, 230 lbs, Jr from Los Angeles, CA - #2
|From: CBS Denver|
Xavier brings a lot of offensive versatility to the table. He's good off the dribble, is a strong passer, shows a good shot from both long- and mid-range, can rip a few boards, and has good size. Generally a nightmare for opponents to matchup against. The only problem is that he can disappear at times, either getting caught up in foul trouble, or struggling through the occasional listless performance. It's all about consistency going forward. He takes good shots, but will he consistently make them? He will occasionally make a big play on defense, but can he put forth a solid defensive effort the entire time he's on the court? Positive answers to those questions could turn him into an All-Pac-12 performer.
We saw a regression in his three point shooting from a year ago - almost a guarantee with how hot he was as a freshman from behind the arc - and the free throw shooting is still below where it probably needs to be. If he can flirt with 40% from three (he shot 44% in March), I think he'd be living up to his ability. Something closer to 70% (just over 61% last year) would be appropriate from the line.
'Big X' also enjoyed a trip to China with the Pac-12 All-Stars this summer, providing him with the same level of international experience that has served so many of the Buffs well in recent years.
|I love this picture, both for Xavier's combo look of boredom and shock, and for the fact that his CU gear pops.|
- Tre'Shaun Fletcher, 6-7, 210 lbs, So from Tacoma, WA - #10
|From: the AP|
Tre'Shaun was key to depth a year ago, as his size and length were more than welcome off the bench. For a while, he was CU's 6th man, and good for a few great plays each night. The Kansas game, certainly, would've turned out quite differently without his contributions. In his absence, bench depth was brutalized, leading to many of the growing pains witnessed over the final half of January.
Luckily, Tre'Shaun is healthy, and working to get back into his pre-injury groove. He went with Athletes in Action to Europe this summer, and has been a full participant in fall camp. CU certainly needs him on the court. While fellow sophomore Jaron Hopkins is more of a point guard, Fletcher plays as more of a combo wing, and proved to be great as a reserve option to Xavier Johnson. With his length and lefty athleticism, he adds a dimension that many of his teammates aren't able to duplicate. It's a little simplistic to just say that Fletcher is a good basketball player, but he does so many things well that it's hard to single out any one skill as his best attribute. Just know that the Buffs are glad to have him back and participating.
- Wes Gordon, 6-9, 240 lbs, So from Colorado Springs, CO - #1
Looking to build off of that solid freshman season, Wes stayed in Boulder over the summer, working not only on the court, but in the weight room and the classroom, as well. Listed at about 15 pounds heavier than he was in '13-'14, he says "I'm stronger, most definitely. I just tried to develop more strength and ... I think I'm in better shape than last year. This offseason was really a big benefit for me." That dedication could pay big dividends for his teammates, who will rely on his effort and tenacity on defense to help defend the rim. He was already hauling down six rebounds and blocking over a shot per game last season, numbers which should climb in this, his sophomore campaign.
More than just being a defensive presence, however, I look to Wes to develop his offensive package. As a strong offensive rebounder, he's going to be in position for plenty of put-backs, but his improving ability to take corner jumpers may open up lanes for his teammates. Combine that with his ability as a passer, and you're cooking with gas. I expect his assist totals to tick upwards, as a result.
- Dustin Thomas, 6-7, 225 lbs, So from Texarkana, TX - #13
|From: the CU Independent|
So, then, could this be the year we start to see flashes of the superlative offensive player as advertised on signing day? I certainly wouldn't bet against it. His shooting stroke is too good for smart shots not to fall this season, and his length and versatility should allow him to take advantage of frequent miss-matches. A breakout seems to be close with this kid.
One thing that will help is staying out of foul trouble. He had, by far, the highest foul rate on the team (6.3 per 40 minutes played), which artificially cut his playing stretches short, at times killing any generated rhythm. He seemed to try and live up to a sense of physicality as a reserve forward that just wasn't always called for. Taking a step back, and simply playing smarter, will help here.
- Tory Miller, 6-9, 255 lbs, Fr from Kansas City, KS - #14
|From: the Pac-12|
The really intriguing thing is that Miller brings the big, wide, physical presence in the post that CU hasn't had since, who, Marcus King-Stockton? Julius Ashby? (A few names I bet you didn't think you'd see in this preview). Certainly, Coach Boyle hasn't had a player of his mold over his tenure (Damiene Cain possibly could've been), but Miller is a different sort of athlete in Black and Gold. To me, it seems that Tory was recruited with the Arizona State series in mind. We've become used to the long, athletic slashers of TadBall, now, with Tory in the fold, it's BuffNation's turn to see a bull thrown into the china shop.
Listed at 255, the freshman says hes dropped down under 240 through his first few months on campus, but that number isn't as important as the way he plays. There's raw power here - the ability to back a guy down, or push an opponent off the block. That's not to say Tory is a one-dimensional bruiser, I saw flashes of a deft touch and the beginnings of a mid-range game in his recruiting films, but his big value this first year is coming in and making the opposing centers work while the vets are grabbing rest. If he can do that, the days of the Bachynski's and Oraby's of the world taking cheap shots at CU forwards may be cut short. Like most big men, however, it's going to take some time before he gets used to playing against forwards his own size. There's going to be a steep learning curve, but look for an upswing in court sense and production as the year goes on.
- Tad Boyle - 51 years old, from Greeley, CO, graduated from Kansas -
|From: Colorado Avid Golfer|
The claim isn't just merely based on his 92 wins through four seasons, it's also based in the complete and dramatic reversal of attitude and fortune in a program that was once D.O.A. on the national landscape. That qualitative about-face, still stunning to me, even as I saw the program start to take baby steps under predecessor Jeff Bzdelik, has changed the nature of sports at the University of Colorado. The fanbase is no longer one sport fluent, although many are still neophytes when it comes to the sport of basketball. There isn't a member of BuffNation today who doesn't know what #RollTad means, or look forward, in one way or another, to the start of basketball season, if only because they know that winning will soon be back in style in Boulder. It's been a revolution on the south side of campus, headlined by 'the one that got away,' a star basketball recruit who once spurned his home state school for the national powerhouse. 30 years later, he has come home and made things right. It's a wonderful, full-circle story that seems like something out of a movie.
Over the last few years, I've used this space to try and reassure all the BasketBuffs out there that Coach Boyle wouldn't be going anywhere. It seemed like every summer one affluent program or another would be rumored to be calling Tad and offering the moon in terms of cash. This summer, however, there didn't seem to be any of the 'OH MY GOD, TAD COULD LEAVE AT ANY SECOND' panicking that had been so pervasive before. Maybe BuffNation and would-be suitors alike are getting the hint - Coach Boyle ain't going nowhere. For the record, a contract extension through 2019 is on the books, although that is mostly a formality.
|I don't know what's going on here.|
The symbol of finishing in the top-third of the Pac-12 would confirm what we've all known; that CU is a basketball program to be reckoned with. You don't back into the top-four of a league like this one, you have to earn it. Case-in-point, the last two seasons when CU went into the final day of the season just needing a win to finish above the cut line. Both times, they weren't able to finish winnable games, and wound up a disappointing fifth. Tabbed, once again, to finish in the upper echelons of the Pac-12, it's time the Buffs capitalized.
There are practical rewards for the achievement, as well. First and foremost, Colorado could skip the opening day of the conference tournament in Las Vegas. One extra game may not seem like much, but leap-frogging into third last March would've granted the team an extra day of rest at a critical end-of-season juncture, and saved them a lot of unnecessary effort. It would also help seeding for the real Tournament, as the extra wins required would make for a better resume.
Additionally, Coach Boyle's teams since his first vintage haven't been able to play fluid, appealing offense. For the last three years Colorado has finished in the mid-100s nationally in offensive efficiency. Particularly last season, if the Buffs weren't getting out on the break, they really struggled. After three years, this is a trend; there needs to be more focus placed on off-ball movement, passing, and assist ratios. What's the point of playing defense that well if you don't score enough to make it count?
Finally, there's the little matter for the 2015 recruiting class, which remains vacant. There's still plenty of time, and a big fish looms, waiting to be caught, but this recruiting cycle has mostly been notable for the number of players that have passed on the Buffs. The program will be fine into the immediate future, but I was hoping for a more successful foray into the world of big-time recruiting.
Still, Coach Boyle remains the best gift this program has ever received. Colorado is now even perceived as a, *gasp*, basketball school. The stadium is sold out, the fan base as engaged and passionate as ever, and the national media pays attention when CU scores come in. I only expect a continued period of high tide as the program continues to rise up the national ranks. #RollTad, indeed.
It seems obvious to me that there's a hierarchy of talent on this roster. The big three of Askia Booker, Josh Scott, and Xavier Johnson - highlighted by the interplay between Ski and Jelly - should dominate the stat lines and each get well over 30 minutes per game. They will be the backbone of any crunch time lineup I can think of, and are the key to the team's overall success this season. All should be in consideration for the All-Pac-12 First Team, and a special campaign from any one of these guys could make for highlight reel stuff.
The next tier, spots 4-8, are open to interpretation and rotation. Here we'll see players like Wesley Gordon, Xavier Talton, Jaron Hopkins, Tre'Shaun Fletcher, and Dustin Thomas. I like this group; they're still a relatively young core, with only Talton having more than a season under his belt, but they all played big minutes last year, and look to only improve going into '14-'15. This group fills out the dynamism quotient of the roster. The big three can only do so much, and at least one of these players needs to step up to 'reliable' status if the team is to hit their goals. My money is on Talton, but all five have the talent and experience to become an All-Pac-12 honorable mention-type player. As Tad said on media day, "the 'X' factor will come off the bench." Even if none prove to have a special season, however, consistency from the group will be crucial.
Behind them are the freshman wild cards. After years of needing immediate production from the freshman performers, it's actually kind of nice to play wait-and-see with the 2014 class. Not only am I not sure of what we will see from the frosh, Dominique Collier and Tory Miller, I'm not sure where their minutes will come from. The top-eight all have pretty established roles, and it might be a case where the pair of newbies need to wait for a slip-up from that group to see meaningful playing time as the season lurches towards conference play. Collier, at least, should see some action as the third or fourth choice point guard, but he'll have to fight for those minutes, especially as he hasn't been practicing this fall, due to that ankle concern.
Finally, there's veteran role player Eli Stalzer. He will be used in specific circumstances, but won't otherwise figure to see many minutes unless something goes haywire. Not that he can't play the game, just that the other options on the roster supersede him. George King would've been slotted here, as well, had he not gone with the redshirt option
To me, it's a good mix. There's good depth - the team can go eight deep, with authority - and trademark versatility. Almost every one of the 12 eligible scholarship athletes can play multiple positions, and Coach Boyle should be able to get creative with the way he attacks opponents.
I think the most interesting aspect of this roster is the heavy emphasis on veterans for the first time in years. There may only be one senior on the roster, but BuffNation will be treated to an intensely deep roster, boasting an entire compliment of bloodied vets. The fruits of the 2012 recruiting class have finally ripened, and the projected starting lineup features four from that group. In total, the team looks to send one four-year player and four three-year players out to the court to start opening night, and all but one player projected to be in the rotation has seen extended Pac-12 action. That's a very exciting luxury.
The quiet story of the last two years has been that underclassmen have dominated the performance load. Seniors have either been non-existent, or limited role players, which is less than ideal. Using weighted experience averages, provided by KenPom, Colorado has been in the 300s nationally in each of the last two campaigns, which is downright Caliparian. Unlike the UK Wildcats, however, CU hasn't boasted the one-and-done talents that Kentucky can reload with, leaving the team playing a little short-handed in crunch time against better, older competition. Last year was especially youth-reliant, as two straight years of large recruiting classes meant that the team averaged well under a year of experience per player, finishing 343rd in the country. This reliance on youth to power the team was also a significant factor in the less than sterling postseason runs of the last two seasons.
That will not be the case this year, as almost 93% of minutes played return. Not since the 2011-12 championship season, when the team averaged 1.68 years of experience, has the program had this level of veteran leadership at their finger tips, and I expect it to show. The days of a 20% turnover rate are numbered. Consistency should also follow, as the vets will not only play big minutes, but also heavily relied upon to put numbers up on the board.
There is a double-edge to that sword, however, as all those returners come in off of a team that was far from perfect a season ago. As Coach Boyle said on media day, last year's team was 14-2 with Spencer Dinwiddie, and 9-10 without him. It's that 9-10 team that returns, so it's that team that will have to improve. There is no magic pill to take, no 5-star recruit waiting in the wings to rescue '14-'15; they're going to have to do it themselves.
Partially, they're going to have to do it on offense. One thing that's going to help without any artificial enhancement is a regression to the mean in jump shooting. Many of these guys are better shooters than they showed last season, when they finished 289th nationally from beyond the arc. Askia Booker isn't going to hit under 30% of his threes in his senior season, Xavier Talton should step up to take more of the attempts that Jaron Hopkins was heaving up last year, and sophomores like Tre'Shaun Fletcher and Dustin Thomas will be much more confident in using their good strokes to positive use. The team-wide 31.8% clip from beyond the arc should get much closer to the 34.5% they had two seasons ago. Smarter shots with the right players will get the team to where they need to be.
Beyond that, however, the coaching staff seems dedicated to 'tweaking' the offense. Per Coach Boyle, "It's nothing that's going to be a major overhaul, but we want to play faster, we want to attack the basket constantly, and obviously we've got to be able to get the ball inside to our big guys." The key phrases will be offensive efficiency, assist ratios, ball movement, decision making, and spacing. The idea is to always be in attack mode, and make good decisions to get teammates better shots. There's a lot of generalities there, and we've heard some of them before, but, certainly, leveraging advantages with speed will be helpful. Half court offense has never been the program's strong suit, so anything generated on the break, or even shortly thereafter, will help. It's where the value of versatile, lengthy players shows itself best, afterall.
Generally, I look for the Buffs to have a plan on offense this year. At times in '13-'14, they seemed to wait for something special to happen. If it didn't, they were screwed. More movement and urgency with the basketball will help create chances out of the half-court set, and save some pain. At the end of the day, it's all about generating good shots for the players to take. I've seen them make them in the past, so a few schematic tweaks may be all that's needed. A little can sometimes go a long way...
The only worry here is how the veterans will take to pushing the tempo. To date, at least according to the ever-critical Coach Boyle, it sounds like turnovers are still an issue. After the recent scrimmage with DU, Boyle expressed as much, saying "Our guys are trying to make it happen after the first attack. Just get it moved and the second attack will happen. The third attack, we're going to get whatever we want, but it never gets there because we're turning it over; we're making bad decisions before we even get to that point." Because, of course, taking care of the basketball is critical. On media day, Coach made the wry comment that the team's ratio last season was nothing to write home about. That's sort of the understatement of the century. CU finished 296th nationally in A:T ratio in '13-'14, 247th in assist to made field goal ratio; both were dead last in the Pac-12. Last year's team simply did not value possessions and share the ball enough. They did not make the good decisions required to get teammates into good positions to score. Improving here will make the team more efficient, along with making them easier to watch. Essentially, take care of the ball long enough to let your offense work for you.
That only leaves the defense, which took a a few steps back last season. They were 150th nationally in field goal percentage defense, which is a stat that Coach Boyle preaches like it came down with Moses from Mount Sinai. More holistically, they were in the top-50 nationally in defensive efficiency, but the point remains that the 2013-14 team was the softest defensive squad in Boulder since the 2010-11 team that couldn't guard anybody.
There was a reason for that; by the end of the season, the defense didn't know who to turn to for a stop at vital moments. More worryingly, the sense I get is that they still don't know. Who will be the Cory Higgins, the Andre Roberson, the Spencer Dinwiddie - the defensive dynamo tasked with stopping the other team's best? Coach Boyle was very public with his frustration from a lack of an answer to that question last week. He knows he has some good defenders on the current squad, but doesn't see anyone with the mentality to step up. "If we had a player that walked in my office and said, 'Coach, I'll do whatever you want defensively; put me on the best offensive player on the other team, give me a shot,' that dude would be playing 30 minutes a game and probably start. [...] I haven't had one player do that."
That doesn't mean someone won't step up, however. Players like Jaron Hopkins and Tre'Shaun Fletcher certainly have the size and ability to guard a whole host of opponents. Hopkins, especially, fell into something loosely resembling that role last season, meaning my initial instinct is that he will again assume that mantle in '14-'15. But, assumptions only get you so far, and it remains a question mark, the answer to which could have a lot to say on the final win-loss record of this team.
I'm still, however, much more concerned about the state of the offense. As coach Boyle said emphatically last week, 'we WILL guard.' Tad will do as Tad does, after all (the Tad abides). I expect that the defense will shake itself out; the whole matter of scoring, efficiently, is the trickier question to answer. We'll see...
The Buffs have made the last two Tournaments based on their success in non-conference play. Not only has the coaching staff put together tough schedules, but the team has followed through with taking care of business in November and December. The program has gone 21-4 the last two years in the early going, which has made up for just above average runs through the Pac-12. They need to do the same this year if they plan to get back into the Dance for a fourth-straight season. Energy and effort will be the call from this Friday through Christmas Day.
11/14 - Drexel - Boulder, CO
11/17 - Auburn - Boulder, CO (part of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon)
11/22 - Wyoming - Laramie, WY
11/25 - Air Force - Boulder, CO
11/30 - Lipscomb - Boulder, CO
12/3 - San Francisco - Boulder, CO
12/7 - Georgia - Athens, GA
12/10 - Colorado State - Boulder, CO
12/13 - Northern Colorado - Boulder, CO
11/22 - Wyoming - Laramie, WY
11/25 - Air Force - Boulder, CO
11/30 - Lipscomb - Boulder, CO
12/3 - San Francisco - Boulder, CO
12/7 - Georgia - Athens, GA
12/10 - Colorado State - Boulder, CO
12/13 - Northern Colorado - Boulder, CO
12/22 - DePaul - Honolulu, HI (Diamondhead Classic)
12/23 - George Washington/Ohio - Honolulu, HI (Diamondhead Classic)
12/25 - Loyola Marymount/Wichita State/Nebraska/Hawai'i - Honolulu, HI (Diamondhead Classic)
You think people lie in recruiting, they lie in scheduling more - Tad Boyle
There's a certain truth to that statement; year-in, year-out, coaches say they want to challenge their teams against the best in the nation, but usually find a way to avoid really stretching themselves. Coaches 'want' to play the big teams in showpiece events, just never in their opponent's gym. After last year, when CU clipped Kansas on national television, you can bet it'll be a cold day in Jayhawk hell before they ever climb back up to 5,345 of Rocky Mountain high altitude again. Oh, I'm sure Bill Self would graciously host Colorado one more time, but the return ain't happening. The word is out, Boulder is a place where pristine non-conference records go to die.
So, the Buffs face the interesting challenge of building a reasonable, home-based schedule without anyone of note wanting to enter into a home-and-home with them. Sure, Coach Boyle could book the team for something ludicrous, like a single trip to Lexington or Chapel Hill, but that's not going to help the current group out any, and a one-off like that won't fill the coffers like a home game would. Therefore, it's down to teams in the RPI 50-150 to build the schedule; i.e., teams just desperate enough for their own RPI boost to risk the trip to the CEC. Coach Boyle has done a good job of looking to this pool to fill out the schedule, to the point that, should the team draw Wichita State in Honolulu, there's a good change that this non-con slate will actually rank higher in the RPI charts that the star-studded grouping of a year ago.
Seriously, while there aren't the Baylor's and Oklahoma State's of the world on the docket, only three teams on this schedule featured in the RPI 200+ last season (AF, Lipscomb, and UNC). Two of those games are local-interest tilts, and the other is pure schedule filler meant to keep the team in rhythm - a necessary evil, and not uncommon. While names like Drexel, San Francisco, Georgia, and the GW/Ohio possibilities in Honolulu might not lift many skirts, they are solid teams who have decent shots of re-appearing in the RPI top-100 this season. If Auburn can manage to do anything in the first year under Bruce Pearl, the profile only gets better.
Of course, that means that, while the opponents may not have name recognition, they're all sneaky dangerous. That opening stretch - against gritty mid-major power Drexel, enlivened Auburn (after everyone's bed time, no less), and at program bugaboo Wyoming - is particularly difficult. Colorado could lose any of, if not multiple, of those games if they don't get a good kick out of the gate. The final two games of November are significantly easier, but they only lead into another tricky stretch, featuring the first trip out of the Mountain time zone to Athens, GA, and a visit from little brother.
However, the most interesting portion of the schedule for me is the trip to Honolulu and the Diamondhead Classic. Not just that I'm going to be there myself (*cough*), but there's a lot of enticing combinations to come out of that mix, and a good chance that CU will face two Tournament teams while on Oahu. To my mind, Colorado should be able to at least make the championship game, potentially facing off against old rival Nebraska for the first time since the breakup of the Big XII (who will be real good this winter). Regardless, the results from the Islands will tell us a lot about this team.
Overall, the assumption here is a bare minimum of 10-2 on the plane ride back from Hawai'i. Let's say a loss up in Laramie (again), and reasonable defeat in the Classic's title game. Any worse than that, and it'll take some extra work in Pac-12 play to make it back to the Tournament.
1/2 - UCLA - Boulder, CO
1/4 - USC - Boulder, CO
1/7 - Utah - Salt Lake City, UT
1/15 - Arizona - Tucson, AZ
1/17 - Arizona State - Tempe, AZ
1/22 - Washington - Boulder, CO
1/24 - Washington State - Boulder, CO
1/29 - USC - Los Angeles, CA
1/31 - UCLA - Los Angeles, CA
2/7 - Utah - Boulder, CO
2/12 - California - Boulder, CO
2/15 - Stanford - Boulder, CO
2/18 - Oregon - Eugene, OR
2/21 - Oregon State - Corvallis, OR
2/26 - Arizona - Boulder, CO
3/1 - Arizona State - Boulder, CO
3/5 - Washington - Seattle, WA
3/7 - Washington State - Pullman, WA
Off the top, the Buffs don't get to play host to the Oregon Schools, and don't get to make the trip to the Bay Area. It's a shame, that, as the UO series, particularly, has been good for Colorado (now up to 5-1 vs the transfer melange from Eugene), and the San Francisco swing had been the site of some very meaningful games over the last three seasons. Additionally, the home UCLA game is over Winter Break, so the students will be gone.
Speaking of the opening weeks, playing the Bruins - a team the Buffs have never beaten - in a deadened gym before traveling to Utah and Arizona is a death sentence. Whoever dreamed up the Colorado going from SLC to Tucson is now on my shit list. As a result, CU could very well start conference play out 1-3 or even 1-4, ending any hopeful discussion of a league title before it even starts.
At least it gets better after that, as CU should start to take advantage of the weaker teams in the league. I would expect that the Buffs can get the double over the Washingtons before heading out to Los Angeles. With at least a split there, the team should be near .500 entering a hyper-critical homestand against Utah and the NorCal group. Those three games, win or lose - particularly the tilt with the Utes - could make or break the season.
Down the stretch, I like Colorado to finish strong, as both of the Pacific Northwest swings should bear fruit. Yes, the team will finish with four of six on the road, but they're all winnable games. Sandwiched around the visits from Arizona and ASU, the veteran Buffs should be able to steal some wins from the visiting locker room. A strong road finish, or a makeup win over the Wildcats, will be the key to finally breaking into the top-4 of the Pac-12, and back into the Dance.
Overall, I'm looking for seven home wins and around four from the road as the baseline; another 11-7 campaign (for those keeping track, that means I'm expecting at least 22-9 this season). The key, once again, will be how the team performs on the road. Since joining the Pac-12, as good as they've been at home, the Buffs have been sub-par out and about. 10-17 as the visitor over three seasons, particularly, is the reason CU hasn't been able to get over the hump and into a first round bye in Las Vegas. Sure, they're going to lose in Tucson, but a statement win over a team like ASU or UCLA could go a long way here. If the veteran Buffs can edge towards .500 away from home, BuffNation could be in for a treat.
Between those who graduated, those who turned pro early, and those who 'decided' *cough* to leave their respective schools for other opportunities, only three of the 10-member 2014 All-Pac-12 First Team (and only one of the five-member Second Team) have returned for 2015. (Counting Josh Scott, the other two are Delon Wright from Utah and Chasson Randle from Stanford.) No wonder public perception of this league has plummeted. Only four teams - Arizona (#2), Utah (#25), Stanford (#26), and Colorado (#28) - appear in the initial AP top-25 poll, a step down from last year's six. Notice who those teams are: perennial power Arizona, and the teams featuring those three returning all-conference players. Not that this dip in expectation isn't expected, it's bound to happen when nine players are taken in the NBA Draft. The media isn't stupid, they follow the talent, and it left this league in a hurry.
I'm leaning towards accepted convention here, and I expect a step backwards from the league that was as strong as any a year ago. No, it's not going to be anything like 2012, when the Conference of Champions was lucky to get two teams into the Dance, but still a marked reversal of fortune from third in conference RPI in '13-'14. The Pac-12 started with six teams receiving votes last season, and, not inconsequentially, six were selected for the NCAA Tournament. Likewise, I'm expecting this to be a four-bid league in 2014-15, as the remaining eight look to be stuck in the rebuilding phase.
Roster turnover has hit everyone but Utah and Colorado pretty hard. Only six teams return three or more starters. Arizona, UCLA, Stanford, ASU, Oregon State, and Oregon were especially brutalized by offseason moves, and, while the Wildcats survive thanks to stellar recruiting, I could see each of the others struggling to regain traction this winter. The bottom-four of this conference, especially, should be very soft.
There are also three new coaches to consider this season, as, along with the retirement of the legendary Mike Montgomery, the likes of Ken Bone and Craig Robinson have left us. Quick reaction: Washington State should improve under Ernie Kent, but I'm not sold on Cuonzo Martin at Cal, and Oregon State is a dumpster fire, even if Wayne Tinkle is the goods.
This is why it's so important that teams like Colorado and Utah capitalize on their returning depth. With the rest of the league (sans Arizona) taking a year to re-form and reassess, there's an opportunity to stake an extended claim for territory at the top of the conference. There's no reason either of those teams shouldn't finish in the top-four; in fact, it'd be a minor shock if they didn't finish solidly in the top-three.
Rumblin's predicted order of finish:
1 - Arizona
2 - Utah
3 - Colorado
4 - Stanford
5 - UCLA
6 - Cal
7 - Washington
8 - ASU
9 - Washington State
10 - Oregon
11 - USC
12 - Oregon State
Rumblin's preseason All-Pac-12 Team:
G - Chasson Randle - Stanford
G - Delon Wright - Utah (Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year)
F - Stanley Johnson - Arizona (Newcomer of the Year)
F - Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - Arizona
F - Josh Scott - Colorado
- Arizona -
The Giant Death Robot ran out of juice in overtime of the Elite Eight last season, and then lost their two best players to the NBA Draft. Life in basketball-rich Tucson, however, doesn't leave much room for dwelling on could'a, should'a. They've re-tooled quickly for this season, and are once again an odds-on favorite for a league crown and a trip to the Final Four. Death, Taxes, and strong 'Zona hoops; Sean Miller has re-built this program into a perennial monster.
It's a testament to the recruiting job that Miller has been doing that, despite losing both an All-American and the number four player in the NBA Draft, they're still ridiculously deep and talented. There are four high school All-Americans on the roster, along with a one-time JuCo player of the year. There is no one on the West Coast who can match up with them in terms of raw talent. No one.
|Stanley Johnson will be a difference maker in the desert.|
The key to their success, both last year and this upcoming one, however, is point guard TJ McConnell. Coach Miller, himself once a gritty point from Pittsburgh, looked for a similar mold to lead his team, and found exactly what he was looking for in McConnell. TJ may not lead the nation in any statistical category - although his assist numbers are real spicy - but the importance of his ability to meter out the ball in this team of high-caliber talents cannot be measured. Every great team needs a great point guard, and the Wildcats have that in spades with the senior McConnell.
Winning the league for a third straight year should not be an issue for them. The Pac-12 tournament, something they haven't won since 2002, may be a different issue, however, as they've made a habit of choking in LA and Vegas. Just saying.
- Arizona State -
Why, OH WHY, did Jahii Carson decide to declare for the NBA draft? After not getting picked and failing to find a team after work in the NBA's summer league, he's now plying his trade with the Wollongong Hawks of the Australian NBL. I mean, sure, going to class sucks, and bills have to be paid, but, damn, that decision looks suspect in hindsight. No offense meant to Australian basketball, of course.
|With Jahii on the other side of the world, the Sun Devils will struggle.|
Coach Sendek has responded by bringing in a slew of JuCo talents, but it's anyone's guess as to how they'll meld to form a team by the time January rolls around.
- California -
The retirement of Mike Montgomery leaves a massive hole on the bench in Berkeley. Enter: Cuonzo Martin, who did a lot of good at the University of Tennessee, trying to pick up the pieces after Bruce Pearl was slapped with a show-cause penalty from the NCAA for a number of recruiting violations. He won 63 games in three seasons in Knoxville, culminating with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen last March, which is pretty damn good. But the fanbase in Knoxville never took to him - even starting an online petition to have him removed last February - and he, rightly, bolted after his successful run in the Dance. Certainly he has the credentials, but winning in the SEC isn't exactly difficult, and I have a lot of questions about how the Midwestern lifer will transition to coaching on the West Coast.
|Martin is an interesting choice for Cal|
- Oregon -
The 2014-15 Ducks will be defined by the choices of players that won't be with the team this fall. It's bad enough that the team will be trying to make up for the fact that they lost Richard Amardi, Waverly Austin, Jason Calliste, Jonathan Loyd, and Mike Moser to graduation, but they've also been hamstrung by a number of departures for other reasons.
First, there are the transfers - outbound ones, this time; Ben Carter and A.J. Lapray have gone in search of greener pastures. There's also one big time recruit, JaQuan Lyle, who won't be joinging the program this fall, and another, Ray Kasongo, who was denied admission. Then, there's the case of Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis, and Brandon Austin; a core that was expected to keep them rolling after a Sweet Sixteen appearance, but who were caught up in a rape investigation, and dismissed from the program. Two more players, Elgin Cook and Jalil Abdul-Bassit, were arrested for shoplifting this summer, and also may miss some time this fall.
|Funny what happens when you never get around to actually building your program.|
The Ducks will struggle this year, as a result. Young is a fantastic two-guard, probably All-Conference capable, but he can only do so much. If they finish at or above .500, it'll be a win. I hope Coach Altman enjoys the bed he's made for himself.
- Oregon State -
Even more roster turnover here, as Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier graduated, Eric Moreland declared for the NBA draft, and Hallice Cooke transferred to Iowa State. Langston Morris-Walker is the only remaining start from last season, and what's in place around him ain't all that great. Expectations aren't much higher than the league basement, even for those Beaver diehards.
|It's the Wayne Tinkle era in Corvallis|
- Stanford -
Dawkins survives! The Anne and Tony Joseph Director of Men's Basketball saved his job by turning a boatload of veteran talent into an above average season and a miracle trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Now, with a new lease on life in Palo Alto - and a new contract extension in his back pocket - he's looking to get back to the Dance at the head of one of the few teams in the league capable of dealing with all the offseason roster turnover.
The Cardinal, much like everyone else, lost some big pieces from last years team, as personal favorite Josh Huestis and All-Pac-12 performer Dwight Powell both graduated into the NBA, while Aaron Bright and John Gage just graduated. But they return one of the league's best, Chasson Randle, and the inside-outside duo of Stefan Nastic and Anthony Brown. If they get even a little out of McDonald's All-American Reid Travis, they should be just fine.
|Chasson is one of the league's best.|
- UCLA -
Only Norman Powell remains from last year's top six performers. The ever consistent Wear twins graduated, and three flashy underclassmen - Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Zach LaVine - were drafted into the NBA. That's already a prodigious amount of talent to lose, particularly Anderson, who was the most unique collegiate talent I've ever seen. Throw in the ineligibility of top-50 recruit Jonah Bolden, and the inability to get CSU transfer Jon Octeus through admissions, and the Bruins are a little undermanned this year. Not Oregon undermanned, but still far from their peak.
|Most of these guys are gone|
If I had to put in a guess, I'll say they'll find a way to make it work, probably even claiming a bunch of big wins both in conference and out along the way. But, they'll also lose a few games that leave you scratching your head (I envision Joe Young going off for 40 in Pauley). They're young, inexperienced, and capable of pretty much anything. I said 5th, more as a shrug of the shoulders, but they could finish either much higher or much lower.
- USC -
It's another rebuilding year in University Park. The frustrating JT Terrell, the inconsistent Pe'Shon Howard, and the underrated Omar Oraby all graduated. Oh, and the team's best player, Byron Wesley, transferred to Gonzaga. That doesn't leave much talent left for the still struggling program; in fact, they lost around 70% of their scoring from a season ago. Not good.
But the fight'n' DJ MAL-SKI's have a lot of youth at their disposal, and Andy Enfield finally got his point guard in the form of Jordan McLaughlin, interstingly, chose the Trojans over UCLA. Enfield is looking to build the program around the young point, and he'll certainly get his chance.
|McLaughlin could be key to a reversal of fortunes at USC|
- Utah -
It's hard not to get caught up in the Utah story. Three years ago, they were possibly the worst team in the history of power five basketball. Now, they enter the 2014-15 season as an odds on favorite to make the NCAA Tournament, and finish in the top-quarter of the Pac-12.
So, just where exactly did they Utes come from? How are they suddenly a relevant program again? It all comes down to the emergence of do-it-all Delon Wright as one of the best players in all of college basketball. Sure, they return a lot of production (essentially everyone is back from last season's squad), and the trio of Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor, and Dakarai Tucker are nice complimentary pieces, but Wright is the end-all-be-all focus of this roster, and with good reason. He averaged 16/7/5/3 last season, featuring in the top-100 nationally in minute rate, true shooting percentage, assist rate, and steal rate. He's a prolific finisher at the rim, and is deadly at almost every phase of the game (expect three point shooting, where he only hit 22% of his attempts last year). If it's to be believed, he's supposed to have an even better season this winter, possibly even posting a historically high value added rating. If he figures out his outside jumper, then it becomes absolutely unfair.
|Wright is on another level|
- Washington -
I continue to not care about Washington in the slightest. I just don't find this program interesting. Maybe it's the inability to secure home-grown talent that goes on to succeed elsewhere, or maybe it's that Coach Lorenzo Romar has been there too long to make them sexy. Maybe it's just that I've caught them at a bad time over the last two years, and a deeper appreciation of their decade-long trends would fill me with fire. Either way, I just can't get my blood up about these guys, one way or the other.
|Williams-Goss leads the way in Seattle|
- Washington State -
Out in Pullman, there's DaVonte Lacy and Que Johnson... and not much else. Talent issues aside, however, they return almost everyone (D.J. Shelton, a fantastic rebounder graduated), and Lacy and Johnson are damn good scoring options off the wing. The problem is, I don't know who gets those two the ball. Last season, that job belonged to Royce Woolridge, but he pulled a Jeremy Adams, and transferred to Grand Canyon University in Arizona. The answer seems to be sophomore Ike Iroegbu, but I wonder if he's up to the task.
|Coach Kent is back on the sidelines|
Last year, the team only hit two and a half of my seven goals. They beat Kansas (spectacularly, I might add), and earned a top-eight seed in the Tournament. Beyond that, however, they failed to beat Baylor, go undefeated at home (lost twice), earn a first round bye in the Pac-12 tournament, or earn their way into the Sweet Sixteen. Oh, and Spencer Dinwiddie slipped to the second round of the NBA Draft.
It's misses on benchmark goals like these that made last season so frustrating. Those seven were aggressive, but, with the talent on hand, CU should've hit more of them. You don't start looking backwards, however, just because the returns came in a little short of your expectations. As such, my goals for this season are just as aggressive. It's what I would expect from a team with this much returning talent. There are some givens that I won't mention: a fifth-consecutive 20-win season and postseason appearance, but the following seven items are the juice that could take this year from being just another solid season into truly special territory.
#1 - Run the table in non-conference play
I said aggressive, and it doesn't get much more aggressive than this. CU has finished with two non-conference losses in each of their last two seasons; it's time to knock that two down to a zero. The schedule won't make it easy. While there aren't many big names on the slate, it is deep with mid-table teams who can win tough ballgames, and the few road trips are far from gimmies. The biggest impediments to this goal are the start, particularly the trip to an underrated Wyoming, and the non-conference tournament. Should the Buffs claim this, however, we're already looking at a special season.
#2 - Win the Diamondhead Classic
Related, it'd be nice for the team to earn a non-conference tournament trophy again. Even if they trip up somewhere else along the way through the non-con schedule, I'd like to see the team come back from the Islands with some hardware. They should be able to at least make the final, beating the DePaul Blue Demons and the winner of George Washington/Ohio battle (most likely GW).
The most difficult part of this goal will be beating the winner of Nebraska and Wichita State. It's an assumption that those are the teams that will be advancing, but it's a safe one. Both will be fielding strong squads this winter, signified by the fact that they're both in the AP top-25 to start the year. Earning the 'W' over either will be a tough challenge, but it'd set a strong tone headed into conference play.
#3 - A perfect home record
Again, very aggressive. Not only are there a few tricky home non-conference games (Drexel, Auburn, CSU), but the conference slate poses a number of potential losses. Particularly, games against UCLA (before the students are back from break), Utah, and Arizona, are road blocks. But, CU has built the reputation of being strong at the Coors Events Center, and it's high time that the team proves it by pitching a shutout at home.
#4 - Above .500 on the road in conference play
Colorado Basketball hasn't finished at or over .500 on the road in conference play since the Chauncey Billups-fueled '96-'97 season. With the veteran depth at their disposal this winter, and a down Pac-12, that streak could be coming to an end.
By my estimation, the best pickup opportunities away from home are at Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona State, and USC. You could also make the case that the game at Washington is winnable, but those are the most likely, in terms of caliber of the opponent. Wins against that group would go a long way to covering up any schedule blemishes produced along the way, and set a new standard for the program.
#5 - Make the final of the Pac-12 tournament
The Buffs haven't done this since the magical run to the title in 2012. It hasn't helped their cause that they keep falling below the top-4 bye cutoff. That's where meeting this goal starts: they have to finish in the top four, both for program development reasons, and to make their route to the championship game as short as possible.
The other aspect is that just sneaking above that cut-line isn't all that much better; Colorado needs to clear it easily. The reason is, you don't want to play Arizona until you absolutely have to. Assuming the 'Cats don't implode, and do go on to win the league title, they'd be the semi-final mathcup for whoever finishes in fourth. If the Buffs are going to play the UofA in Vegas, I want it to be with a championship on the line. Therefore, CU needs to finish either second or third in the Pac-12. As strong as the Utes or the Cardinal are, I'd much rather play them on semi-final Friday than the Wildcats.
#6 - Win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament
Recent Tournament losses to Illinois and Pittsburgh stick in my craw. Colorado had a pretty good shot to beat the Illini in 2013, and the famous loss to the Panthers last March was just embarrassing. The talent level in this program is just too high to keep dropping chances like these. Now, with some veteran leadership at their disposal, Coach Boyle and crew should have a much better chance of getting over the first day hump. March was made for upperclassmen, after all.
The trick here is not only making the Dance, but doing so in a position that will allow you to play a beatable team in the second round. Staying off the 8/9 lines is imperative. I'd much rather seethe Buffs earn a 6- or 7-seed (or even a 10 or 11-seed) than play in that game again. Not only are the 8/9 games crapshoots, but the winner's reward is a date with a 1-seed. No, thank you.
#7 - Askia Booker finishes with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists and 100 steals for his career
Friend of the blog @CUGoose brought this up on AllBuffs a while back, but, with a strong senior season, Ski could join a club that only counts three members - Donnie Boyce, Cory Higgins, and Richard Roby. In addition to, more than likely, finishing as the school's all-time leader in wins (not to mention Tournament appearances), Booker has the opportunity to stake his claim as one of the best players to ever don the Black and Gold. It'll take some work, particularly in the rebounding category, but I won't put anything past this kid.
At the end of the day, you have to earn everything you get at this level. No teams are going to feel sorry for you when difficulty arises. That's the real lesson that the team learned last season. At some point this winter, something will go wrong. Someone will get hurt, a call won't go their way, or a deflating mistake will get made. In response, Colorado has to take their experience from last year, and turn it into a fire that burns away the distractions and the negative thoughts, so that they can fight through the bad times. The talent is there, the coaching is there, the will is there - now it's all about executing for a full season.
I know the Buffs are far from a sure thing in 2014-15. There are numerous question marks in terms of the offense, I'm not 100% positive that the point guard situation will be solved in convincing fashion, and it'd be nice to be headed into the season knowing who your best defender is. But the year just sets up too nicely for Colorado for me to predict a step backwards. Essentially the entire team returns, the non-conference schedule, while certainly difficult, doesn't pose the individual challenges that last year's did, and many teams in the Pac-12 will be markedly worse than they were in '13-'14. That's a recipe for success, even on a basic level.
The question then becomes, just how good of a season are we talking? Well, a lot of that depends on the big three - Askia Booker, Josh Scott, and Xavier Johnson. If those three all have special seasons, then CU should hit all of the above goals, and everything is sunshine and roses. If they all slump, then the team will disappoint; it's that simple. This particularly hinges on Booker - if he struggles with his role and his leadership, then the team will be in trouble; if he has a thunderous final tour in Boulder, we're all in for a treat. As Ski goes, the team goes.
So, the word this all boils down to is 'potential.' CU has it in spades, but can they capitalize on it? I'm going to say yes. The team leverages their advantages, smooths out the bumps, and cobbles together enough of an offensive identity to make their defense stick. Oh, and the Buffs get just enough of 'good Ski' to make his senior season a happy one. Give me the over on 22 wins, and strong yes on the Tournament question.
Either way, I can't wait for Friday. It's been too long since I've been in that gym, feeling the electricity of a Ball Night. Strike up the band, peel back the curtain, and let the games begin.
In summation, Tad Boyle is awesome.
- Fin -