Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Massive Basketball Preview 2015-16: On Leadership and Responsibility - OR - "I Want to Fight Somebody"

"I'm looking at last year from A to Z in terms of why did it happen? How can we prepare to not let that kind of season happen again. ... We're not happy at all about the season we had and, in fact, are a little pissed off.  So it's our watch right now, from the players in the program to the coaches in the program.  We have to take responsibility for what happened. ... We're all in it together."
- Tad Boyle, 15-16 Blue-Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook

University of Colorado Men's Basketball in 2014-15 was not a joyful experience.  A sour feeling permeated the program throughout their 16-18 slog of a season; a season of disappointment and frustration.  From presentation to product, everything was just a little... off.  It's was not Pac-12 caliber.  I was not Tad Boyle caliber.  It was not what this program should be capable of.

All that frustration seemed to come to a head in the disastrous final week of the campaign. Finishing regular season play with a sub-.500 record, 8th in the Pac-12, the team was ineligible for the NIT.  But, instead of letting the year end there, Coach Boyle took the unusual step of agreeing to play in the third-tier CBI tournament, hoping to capitalize on extra practice and playing time with an eye towards the future. It only proceeded, however, to extend the pain, as the sour feeling upended the program's apple cart.

First, the team's only scholarship senior, a bruised and battered Askia Booker, chose to quit the team, rather than play in the tournament (a decision which, in and of itself, I could spend a few thousand words discussing).  Following quickly on his heels out the door was reserve forward (and fan favorite) Dustin Thomas, who decided to transfer to Arkansas, and who also sat out the CBI run.  Then, there was the tournament itself, a run which quickly developed into a nightmare, culminating in a second round loss at the forgettable Seattle U Redhawks.  That game became a quirky little metaphor for the whole season, featuring camerawork akin to that of a dad at a pee-wee football game, a gym roughly the size of my living room, and a perfunctory second-half collapse from our heroes. The whole experience seemed to blossom into a black eye for the program, while the players the experience was supposedly meant for - freshmen Dom Collier and Tory Miller - barely played minutes above their season averages against substandard competition.  The whole thing reminded me of a poker table where a guy takes a bad beat, and just keeps throwing money at the table in hopes of getting it back. The CBI experience was Tad Boyle on tilt.

These are painful memories and uncomfortable conversations, but I've always found the clearest path to moving on to be confrontation. The simple truth: last season sucked.  From November through March, the whole thing was awful.  It was the return of the old BasketBuffs, and a very unwelcome one, at that. So, the question becomes, how did everything come to jump the tracks so quickly?  And, more importantly, how can the program respond and regain their forward momentum?

Well, the answer to the first is easier than the answer to the second.  CU lost 18 games last year, finishing 8th in the Pac-12, primarily because their defense was sub-standard.  Overall defensive efficiency had been the hallmark of the back-to-back-to-back Tournament appearances at the start of this decade, and seemed to be the foundation of a winning formula that had the Buffs, if nothing else, a shoe-in for competitive basketball for the foreseeable future.  But it slipped last season, with the team allowing an adjusted one point per possession for the first time since the NIT team of 2010-11 -- a raw Drtg of 102.3, good for 200th nationally.  You'd see it time and time again, the Buffs just couldn't get a stop when needed, with opponents taking advantage of weak perimeter defense (36%, 9th in Pac-12 play) and numerous second chances. With the supposedly improved offense turning in a performance that was, more or less, the same as we've seen before, the drop in defensive efficiency was a disaster. Beyond just the poor defense, though, team chemistry was all over the place, turnovers remained an issue as the point guard spot remained in flux (20% turnover rate for the season), and injuries chipped away at the playing time of the best players (a combination of five Buffs missed a collective total of 20 games). Everything seemed to dovetail and lead to one miss-step after another.

As to how the ship gets turned around... well, that's the first of a number of hard questions this program will have to answer. In this virtual tome, I will attempt to come up with those answers, and dissect the coming season for the 2015-16 University of Colorado Men's Basketball Team; previewing them from a variety of aspects, while predicting whether they will be able to right the ship and return to respectability. I'll look at the roster, profiling the players, and discussing how the coaching staff will look to leverage a very strong front court in a year of new rules and ticky-tack fouls. I'll look at the schedule, touching on both the non-conference and conference slates, and announce my baseline win projection for the campaign.  I'll look at the Pac-12, noting how our rivals spent the off-season, and talk about the league as a whole. Finally, I'll close with a look at the upcoming recruiting class, discussing how the program will retool headed into next season.

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 sixth iteration of the Massive Basketball Preview.  Previous installments can be found herehereherehere, and here.

THE TEAM

'The road to to hell is paved with good intentions,' the old proverb would tell us, and there were plenty of good intentions put down as pavement ahead of CU's disastrous 2014-15 campaign.  The fans, including myself, had been clamoring for improved offense, so the team brought in George Karl, and tried to re-invent their offensive structure. Askia Booker, the little spark plug of a guard who had worked his ass off for three years, was given the reins to the team, and pressed into a role - point guard - that would give him a lion's share of the offensive focus.  And, when times got tough, Coach Boyle tried to put his trust in the players who had been through the wars, letting them, to a large extent, 'figure it out' themselves.

Unfortunately, on every count, the decisions backfired.  Offensive efficiency, instead of improving, was essentially the same as the previous year, and possibly even more stagnant to the naked eye (dips in percentages of shots taken in transition and in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock from the previous year). Ski, who was always ill-suited for the roll of point guard, never took to the position (although he finished Second Team All-Pac-12), and proved to be an inconsistent facilitator. Coach Boyle's policy of letting the team 'figure it out' turned into a discordant and rudderless mess, with cliques and egos over-riding any sense of leadership or cohesion. Following up on that, changes needed to be made, or the once promising Colorado Basketball program would find itself slipping back into old, losing habits.

First and foremost, that meant offseason work as a team. Coach Boyle kept his charges in Boulder in the spring and throughout the summer, turning them over to strength and conditioning coach James Hardy to help get their minds and bodies back into shape, as well as build team chemistry.  Bruce Pascoe, in his writeup on the team in the Blue Ribbon yearbook, termed the eight additional weeks of conditioning a 'boot camp of sorts.' They worked in four-player teams with rotating captains as a way to 'increase both production and accountability,' and break through the cliques that had developed.  "It's probably more intense than what we did in the past," Coach said, as he reached into his bag of tricks to change a culture falling apart at the seams.

Secondly, the team is preaching a revival of the old ways of true #TadBall. By all accounts, instruction in fall practices have been geared towards the old chestnuts of shot percentage defense and rebounding margin. It's a response to CU slipping to 119th nationally in defensive efficiency (allowing just over an adjusted point per possession), allowing opponents to shoot 42% from the floor and 35% from three, and falling from 6th nationally in defensive rebounding rate in '13-'14 to 42nd in '14-'15. Given those numbers, any return to the respected ways of grinding out possessions and making opponents sweat out each and every shot attempt would be welcome - it's winning basketball, after all. (Or, as Adam Butler said in his recent preview of the team, "Defense = happiness.")

Finally, the roster has undergone some attrition and turnover.  Gone from the heavy rotation from last season are Askia Booker (graduation), Jaron Hopkins (transfer), and Dustin Thomas (transfer).  As a result, the Buffs will start the year without four of their top eight from a year ago, meaning change has naturally come to the product on the court.  Role players will be asked to step up, and younger talents to find their sea legs. If last year was so frustrating, then what better way to hit the reset button than by swapping in new blood?

But, while there have been many changes within the program, much still remains.  The team is still built around a talismanic forward with a local pedigree and professional-level skills.  He's supported by a complimentary defensive dynamo from a rival Colorado Springs high school who continues to take strides offensively.  A further local product - this one a sophomore point guard - looks to improve on a disappointing freshman campaign, and get full value of this burgeoning front court.  They'll all be supported in the backcourt by an incoming transfer guard who projects to be an perimeter assassin, and the return of a enigmatic wing from redshirt exile who could be a difference maker. If they all come together, and all the 'ifs' are answered in the affirm, then the painful memories of a year spent on the outside looking in at the happy world of the NCAA Tournament will be but a distant memory.

Forwards/Centers

- Josh Scott - 6-10, 245 lbs, Sr from Monument, CO - #40
From: the Post
Legacy shopping.  In the world of presidential politics, it's a phrase you begin to hear towards the end of the sixth and seventh years of a two-term president's stay in the White House.  It's all about the president desperately trying to leave his mark on the world's most important office, and shape the tone of the written histories to come.  It's also a phrase that has sprung to my mind, repeatedly, when considering the final year of Josh Scott in a Colorado uniform. There's a desperation in Josh's phrasing these last few months.  He knows he's running out of time. Time to put a fitting stamp on the history of Colorado Basketball.  Time to live up to the promise of his lofty recruiting rankings, and bring not just points and numbers, but wins back to Boulder.

Known alternatively as 'Jelly,' 'J-40,' or 'the Young Fundamental' in these parts, Scott came to CU at the head of the most heralded recruiting class in program history.  It was a momentous occasion - not just that he was a good player from a state that has often been talent-starved, but that he was a promising local product who stayed.  That Josh Scott, a top-40 player in some rankings, decided to stay home and attend his in-state flagship, one that has been so often overlooked by local talent, was supposed to be the turning point. The Buffs at the time were coming off of a Pac-12 title, a win in the NCAA Tournament, and seemed poised for great things. To have this talisman of a center commit to the Black and Gold seemed like the guarantee of a great future.

Individually, at least, that has been the case.  Few posts in the country can claim to have the all-around game that Josh possess.  His offensive rating has climbed every year, peaking at 127 last season (good for 15th in the country), and he exhibits a multi-faceted, professional-level tool-kit with his back to the basket. Josh is also a strong passer, a developing shooter (lead the team in 2pt jumper FG% last year), often CU's only reliable free throw artist (usually over 75% from the line), and grabs offensive boards like few others in the West. On defense, the Monument product has done nothing but develop, becoming a dynamic force in the paint over the last few seasons. Scott anticipates opponent moves well, upped his block rate dramatically a year ago (6.6%), and is constantly in good position to defend without fouling (only 2.2 fouls called per 40 minutes played in '14-'15).  Essentially, he's everything BasketBuffs dreamed of in the lead up to the fall of 2012 - a legitimate, year-in-year-out, All-Conference-level talent.  No problems there.

Unfortunately, the overall success of the team these past three years hasn't (yet) lived up to the promise of his arrival.  As Josh has continued to shine individually - grabbing rebounds, protecting the rim, and playing some of the most efficient offensive basketball in the country - the Buffs have begun to slip further and further off the pace of their main conference rivals.  What was supposed to be a continuing climb upwards into the realm of regional basketball powers has instead stagnated and reversed.  Plainly: at this point, Colorado Basketball is not in as good of shape as when Josh first arrived. That's not a knock solely against him, and most of the general frustration surrounding the last year and a half is not about him at all, but he has to share a certain portion of the burden for CU's lack of true success over his career.  He's a great basketball player and an even better person; he can do it all on the court, and routinely shown himself to be capable of putting up fantastic numbers.  It's just that, right now, the Josh Scott era will not be looked back upon as one that lived up to the hype.

This is where the legacy shopping really comes in - he still has 31 games plus post-season play to stamp his mark on Colorado Basketball history.  As important as he was to the fortunes of the Buffs over his first three years in the program, he was never the designated leader of the team.  It was either 'Dre's team,' or 'Spencer's team,' or 'Ski's team,' but never 'Josh's team.'  Well it sure as hell is now.  There is no doubt, there is no argument; the 2015-16 Colorado Buffaloes are all about Josh Scott, first and foremost.  And the goal of that team, as Josh himself stated on KVCU last month, is to get back to the NCAA Tournament and challenge for a Pac-12 title. The kind of season he has, both on the stat sheet and behind the scenes, will define how CU approaches that goal.

Part of that will come down to simply staying healthy.  The big fella sat out eight games in '14-'15, and was limited in many more, due to a back injury.  As a fellow sufferer of back pain, I can empathize; not only is back pain crippling, it's also lingering.  If you believe, as I do, that his struggles with his back started prior to the CSU game (watch that tape and try to argue that he's healthy), and he only finally got back to full health sometime around the first of March, then the injury cost him near three months of play at the peak of the season. Given this, and CU's struggles throughout that period (the team went 7-13), it's easy to point to Josh Scott's back as one of the main reasons that last season was such a slog.  A repeat this winter would only spell further disaster.

Luckily, there's good news on that front.  By the time March rolled around, Scott seemed to be back (no pun intended) to his old ways.  If not fully healthy, he was at least healthier.  Over the final seven games of the season - a stretch that coincided with the entirety of the post-season - Josh averaged a 20/11 double-double and over 34 minutes per game.  He seemed freer and back to playing All-Pac-12 basketball again. What's more, Josh took time over the off-season to really heal and recuperate, and swears he's well beyond his problems.  While I know from experience that back issues can pop up at the weirdest moments, it's very encouraging to hear Scott say that he is currently pain free.
From: the AP
Most importantly, however, CU needs Josh Scott to grab the leadership reins, and make the team truly 'his.' The Buffs were a leadership disaster a year ago, something that the team has been very up front about. Now that it is truly 'Josh's team,' expect the superlative center to be the unquestioned leader in practice just as much as he is on game days.  Expect the Buffs to take on a shade of his personality, too, becoming more 'even keel,' and less prone to fits of positive and negative energy.  Essentially, expect CU to be less hyperbolic, and more consistent as a result of Josh's leadership.

Really, that means the game must flow through him.  Despite his obvious talents on the offensive end, he's never posted a usage rate over 22% for a season (third on the team last year), which is absurd.  Let's get real: a possession that doesn't feature a paint touch from Josh Scott is a wasted possession.  Get Josh the damn ball!  Extending off of that, the Buffs need to use the eventual double-teams that will be thrown at him to open up the offense.  Use some motion to give Josh some threats to pass to.  Give him both strong side and weak side help.  Pair him up with some shooters to help space the floor.  You know, basketball things.

As opposed to so many other players on this roster, when healthy, Josh is a proven, consistent commodity. And if everything falls into place - the offense opens up while Josh plays up to his All-Pac-12 caliber; he averages a double-double, stays healthy for the entire season, and truly fills the leadership void that existed a year ago - then there's no doubt in my mind that CU will be back in the thick of the Pac-12 race, and eyeing a good post-season spot. It all comes back to Josh Scott, and his search for a fitting cap to an already stellar career in Black and Gold.  He's got a legacy to shop for, and time's-a-wastin'.


- Xavier Johnson - 6-7, 230 lbs, Sr from Los Angeles, CA - #2
From: USA Today
The loss of star players for extended periods of time was one of the biggest, most frustrating threads running throughout the narrative of Colorado's 2014-15 basketball season.  Everyone seemed to be banged up and missing action, especially once the team got to conference play. Unfortunately, that narrative is guaranteed to continue into '15-'16, as CU's bubbly small froward from LA, Xavier Johnson, tore his left Achilles' tendon in late June, putting his availability for the entirety of this season, and, indeed, his future as a Colorado Buffalo, in doubt.

The rub of that is that, according to a number of observers, XJ was having the summer of his life up to the point of his injury, and seemed to be on a path towards a stellar senior year...  and a stellar year from Xavier Johnson would certainly have made for one of the best individual performances in all of the Pac-12. Capable of 15/7 a night, the 6-7 forward can be a nightmare matchup for opposing coaches to game-plan against. He can work the perimeter, play as a slasher, or post-up down low.  On defense, he's capable of defending a number of different styles (when engaged), and is a much better rebounder than people give him credit for being (best DR% on the team last winter).  Attitude and focus can be an issue (along with general consistency), but when the switch is flipped on, there are few I'd rather see with the ball in their hands. There's no doubt about it, the Buffs will dearly miss him for as long as he is out, especially on the glass.

However long that injury keeps him on the bench, it's a huge loss for Colorado. From the flopping dreds to the Hollywood smile, XJ cut a singular personality on the court, as easy to follow as appreciate. The question then becomes, exactly how long will he be out?  Early indications are that he will be on the sidelines until at least conference play, and possibly longer.  If he is healthy enough to return once January rolls around, I would still wonder how quickly he'd be in a position to make a full impact.  Missing the minutes and the practices will hurt his rhythm, general chemistry with his teammates will be off, and it may take an extended period to really get him back into the flow of things. At that point, if it takes him til, let's say, February to regain his old ways, would it really be worth it to press himself back into action this season? That choice is his, and it's a difficult one. For me, I'd probably sit the full year and either return for the '16-'17 season or join the professional ranks, but it's neither my body nor my career. Regardless, it's a process that's worth following as the season progresses.

In the interim, it's still on Xavier to be a good teammate and senior leader for his fellow Buffs.  As Coach Boyle said on media day, it's a tough position to find yourself in, being physically unable to help your teammates prepare for the season, but it's good to note that XJ has stayed vocal in practices, and is still helping the younger players learn the system.  For now, he'll have to resign himself to being another bench coach, and making his recovery as thorough and revitalizing as possible.  I wish him luck.


- Wes Gordon - 6-9, 240 lbs, Jr from Colorado Springs, CO - #1
From: CBS Denver
Wesley has become a very explosive defensive performer for Colorado since coming off a redshirt two years ago. Just last season he was #1 on the team in blocks and rebounds, second in overall minutes, and worth nearly an extra five points per game on the defensive end alone (4.7 defensive box plus/minus). Isolating his performance in Pac-12 play, he was top-5 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates, while posting a 7.4% block rate. He may not be anywhere near the level of former Buff, and current Oklahoma City Thunder, Andre Roberson, but Gordon plays impact-level defense in the paint, having proven capable of defending many different types of players and a number of different positions.  He's as strong off ball as on, and can be counted on to make life hell for opposing forwards.

But defense isn't the only area when he can be a big contributor. It's a given to say that Josh Scott has consistently posted CU's best offensive rating over the last few years, but, without looking, can you come up with the player who was 2nd on the team in this important category in 2014-15? Even if you don't know, just by virtue of this question appearing in this section, you should be able to surmise that the answer is Wes Gordon, and you'd be correct.  The other power forward from Colorado Springs has, very quietly, been putting up some efficient offensive numbers the last two years, complimenting his defensive abilities. 'The Beast' posted an offensive rating above 115 last season, oftentimes playing as CU's lone reliable weapon for whole stretches.  His jumper is still rounding into shape, but his touch around the rim is second only to Josh on the roster, and he has otherwise proven to be a willing passer (40 assists) and chance creator (FT rate of over 61% in conference play). When the Buffs got him the ball in a position to score, good things generally followed - a trend I would expect to continue into this year.

Game-to-game consistency, then, becomes a problem.  He has shown a tendency to flat disappear for entire shifts (sometimes games), and I don't get the feeling that he's ever really looking to score.  If he's in a good spot, and his shot is there, he'll take it.  If not, then he's very happy, almost too happy, to pass it back out and reset. This makes Wes Gordon the great untapped offensive resource on the roster.  Part of that may be due to CU's seeming inability to focus part of the offense through him; he was used on less than 15% of possessions last year, even with the injuries to Josh and Xavier Johnson.  If he's shown an ability to shine when in a position to score, then why not run some plays for him, and force him to open his game up a little more?  Force that aggression he usually shows on defense to translate to the other side of the court.

Part of me wishes he wasn't paired with Josh so often.  I see a lot of deferential play from Wes when the two are on the court at the same time, but, in a year dedicated to the return of #TadBall, the pair needs to play big minutes together for defensive reasons. Really, it comes down to a combination of the team looking for Wes, and Wes, in turn, looking to force the issue. Now in his fourth year on campus, it's time for the talented forward to do just that.


- Tre'Shaun Fletcher - 6-7, 210 lbs, Jr from Tacoma, WA - #10
From: CUBuffs.com
When the XJ injury news broke this summer, combined with the transfer of Dustin Thomas from the forward corps, my first thoughts were of Tre'Shaun.  I immediately pushed the lanky forward from Washington up a rung on my mental depth chart, and I would imagine many in BuffNation did exactly the same.  It's relatively simple, right?  Similar size, role, and versatility... just plug Tre' in for Xavier and be done with it. Just set it and forget it!

Well, as in all things, the answers in basketball life are rarely so linear.  I would strongly caution against putting that kind of pressure on 'the Condor.'  You don't simply 'replace' a player the caliber of Xavier Johnson with a pen stroke (the team certainly can't just replace that level of experience, as XJ is a three-year starter in the Pac-12). In the same vein that, 1.5 years later, CU is still struggling to replace Spencer Dinwiddie, it's going to take a concerted team effort to supplant Johnson's oversized importance; a combination of production from Tre' and other players like George King, Kenan Guzonjic, etc.

That's not to say that Tre'Shaun is not a very capable basketball player, however. He can play a number of positions - including occasional spurts at point forward, if needed - at a very high level, and has been a key sub since stepping onto campus.  With his long wingspan and strong athleticism, he can defend, rebound, and play an active defense.  On offense he can shoot, drive, finish at the rim (or above it), and pass effectively. Consistency has been an issue, but he's proven through two years of play to be a jack of all trades, and a competent wing.

So, caution acknowledged, there is no doubt that Fletcher stands to gain the most from the extended absence of Xavier Johnson.  I would anticipate that he begins the season in the starting five, in fact, and get the lion's share of XJ's vacated minutes, probably boosting him well north of 20 per game.  This is exactly what we saw this past January when Johnson sat with an ankle injury -- Fletcher got the starts, averaging over 24.75 minutes per game while positing a 9/3 stat line.  Nothing eye-popping, but numbers good enough to earn him the starting job through the end of the month while XJ played himself back into health.  It was a dress rehearsal that should serve him well this season

Overall, Tre'Shaun's '14-'15 performance, beyond just that small sample size, certainly bears out an increase in role and responsibility, even if the whole roster were still intact.  While offensive efficiency dipped a bit below 100 once he got to conference play, Fletcher still showed increases in his rebounding and free throw rates in the later months of the season, in addition to hitting over 50% of his three-point attempts against Pac-12 opponents.  If he can lean on that kind of outside shooting, he becomes a very dangerous piece in the offense, and a key cog in the Buffs plan to return to the real post season.


- Tory Miller - 6-9, 255 lbs, So from Kansas City, KS - #14
From: the BDC
I said on 1190AM last month that I am most excited to see Tory Miller this winter, and I meant it. There's something about the big, burly power forward from Kansas City that entices.  He's got the bull-in-a-china-shop game, to be sure, capable of physically overpowering smaller opponents and throwing his weight around in the paint.  But, the big man has also displayed a deft touch and dancer's agility at times, leaning on a versatile game that transcends strict pigeonholing.  In limited minutes, the big man posted strong rebounding numbers (19.9% defensive rate) and a surprisingly good free throw rate (75%), all while showing a jumper that (with refinement) could stretch the defense and a willingness to get dirty down low.  Essentially, everything you look for from a young college center.

His best single-game effort last year was, undoubtedly, his performance against USC in the triple overtime, Ski-43 game.  Pressed into extended service due to foul trouble amongst his peers, the big fella chipped in 11/13 in 29 minutes, hitting all three of his two point attempts and making five of six free throws.  While Booker going off was the number one reason CU won that game, Miller's first career double-double came at a very opportune time, and hinted at the type of player he could become for the Buffs.

Ostensibly, the CBI experience last spring was meant for younger players like Tory.  At the time, that rationale made sense, as he had only played sparingly after Josh Scott returned from injury (just three appearances of double-digit minutes over the final 11 conference games).  However, while he did see a bit more of the court in those efforts against Gardner-Webb and Seattle, and the extra practices couldn't have hurt, it still only added up to only 27 extra minutes of ball against sub-par competition for Miller. Realistically, I would've expected the coaching staff to press him a little more in those games.

Tory will still be a backup this year, standing behind the Colorado Springs duo of Scott and Gordon, but, with Dustin Thomas out of the picture, that role looms even larger.  Take heart, then, that Coach Boyle said Miller has been the most improved player in practices. The Buffs will need that development to translate, both physically and mentally, to the court on game days, with the big man showing that he can consistently perform at this level. Collegiate posts usually take a little extra time to develop, so it's good that Tory has been afforded the time to get his mind an body right before being expect to contribute major minutes.  A couple of steps forward this winter, and he'll be in position for a much large role in '16-'17.


- Kenan Guzonjic - 6-8, 240 lbs, So from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina - #13
From: jucorecruiting.com
One of two foreign-born players new to the roster this year, Kenan Guzonjic comes to Boulder to shore-up weakened depth at the swing-forward position, a hole left open by the departed Dustin Thomas. Not a traditional import like guard Thomas Akyazili, however, the Bosnian had been going the JuCo route in America, starting at an American high school before playing for Midland Junior College in Texas.  Kenan only played one year for the Chaparrals, though, and sat out all last season while recovering from knee surgery.  That leaves him with three years of eligibility remaining, which Coach Boyle is more than happy to take advantage of.

What film I've seen on Guzonjic shows a guy who can finish through contact, hit a face-up jumper, and grab some boards. He's not going to out-leap anyone, but has some crafty, Euro-style moves that can earn him his shot.  It's the toughness in the paint that really stands out, though, something CU has sorely lacked in recent years. Forwards who can get post-level contact and still score points are worth their weight in gold; throw in his stretch-four capabilities, and it makes him an interesting prospect.

Much like Akyazili, it's going to take him some time to adjust to life in the Pac-12, but for slightly different reasons.  He's got the leg up on Yaz, having already played the American game for a few years, but it's the transition to a higher level of talent that's going to hold Kenan back at the start.  Once he learns the ropes, however, I expect him to earn a nice chunk of minutes as a 5th forward -- maybe somewhere around 8-11 per game, with some spates of extended appearances.


Guards

- Xavier Talton - 6-2, 185 lbs, Sr from Sterling, CO - #3
From: USA Today
2014-15 was not kind to Xavier Talton.  In what was supposed to be a year of prominence in a backcourt desperate for someone to step up at the point, his performance dropped off the face of the earth.  Overall shooting slipped a full tenth of a point (down to 30.2%), his Ortg fell into the low-80s, playing time was reduced as the year went on, and the team suffered as a result. If it wasn't for a dearth of substitute options, his role might have reduced completely, so poor were his results. Plain and simple, he regressed.

Based on that, you may be inclined to throw the baby out with the bath water, and dismiss Talton as a project gone bad. Don't forget, however, that Xavier was an important cog in the system as recently as two seasons ago.  His sophomore year, while the team was reeling in the wake of the Spencer Dinwiddie injury, Talton was indispensable, almost single-handedly winning games and knocking down 41% of his three point attempts in conference games (good for 7th in the league).  Remember, I wasn't the only one with high hopes for the Sterling product headed into last year.  The kid was good, and projecting upwards; the junior-year swoon, especially the degree with which it hit, was a major disappointment.

Maybe that version of 'little X' is gone for good, and he had his career year in the final months of 2013-14, but that doesn't mean his days of important, quality basketball in Black and Gold are completely finished. His numbers may have, frankly, sucked last season, but he has the talent to knock down those shots, the ability to slip a nice pass, and the tenacity to man up an opposing guard.  I say that because I've seen it before. More importantly, CU needs him to be a productive member of program.  Colorado cannot hope to be successful with their best senior guard playing as poorly as he did last winter.  Whether you like it or not, Talton will at least be the 1st or 2nd man off the bench, if not an outright starter, and the team cannot see those minutes go to waste. For the Buffs to get back on track, part of it starts with XT returning to his role as a valuable knock-down shooter and contributor.  There are no other options.

To my mind, then, it all comes down to him pressing and putting too much pressure on himself. You could see it plain as day last winter: one mistake leading to another, the head down, the frustrated glance to the bench, the weight of missed expectations weighing on him more and more as the year went on. Simplification, then, seems to be key -- come into the game, play the role of a spot shooter, eat up some minutes, and get back out. Each successful minute leading to the next, rather than the reverse. He's still going to get his 15-20 per night, but maybe in shorter stretches, his usage more strategic. Use that to build his confidence back up, and the improved performances should follow... improved performances like his in a recent scrimmage against Boise State, where he reportedly out-played point guard peer Dom Collier.
Looking for even more reason to hope for a revival from #3?  Think back to Levi Knutson, and all the missed shots from his first three years in the program.  Those were all forgotten by the time his senior year rolled around, and he became one of the deadliest three point shooters in America (47%, 10th in the country). Friend of the blog Adam Butler is fond of calling out the impact a senior shooter can have, and XT could fill that role nicely. I'm not saying that Xavier is destined for Knutson's glory, but would anyone really complain if he was able to approach what he contributed as a sophomore?  I didn't think so.


- Eli Stalzer - 6-3, 195 lbs, Sr from Brea, CA - #5
From: CUBuffs.com
'The Piano Man' was all but marginalized last season, seeing his share of minutes shrink to only 8% of what was available.  This was nothing new for Eli, who first saw his minutes slashed as a sophomore, but he saw his role reduced to such an extreme that he was essentially the 11th man on team with 11 eligible players on scholarship.  Really, if not for stacking injuries to Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson, and Jaron Hopkins in the middle of conference play he may never have seen any meaningful minutes a year ago.  Happily, he was able to get into a few, cracking double-digit minutes in three of four dates at the end of January.

Barring another series of injuries, however, I would expect similar minutes this season.  I'll just be honest here, it's simply a fact that fellow backup point guards Xavier Talton and Thomas Akyazili are better all-around basketball players. That's not to say his career is completely over, however. As a senior, he holds a strong leadership position on a team looking to rebound from a destructive season. Outside of the occasional spurts on the court, expect him to run the scout team, and to push his teammates day-in, day-out to improve, holding them accountable when they're slipping up. Given that, come senior day, don't be surprised to see him get some run against Utah.


- Derrick White - 6-5, 180 lbs, Sr from Parker, CO - #21
From: @sportsdenver
New to the program is Derrick White, a lanky slasher originally from Parker.  White was a bona fide star while at Division II CU-Colorado Springs, setting a number of program records, and averaging 26/7/5 in an All-American 2014-15 season.  Think of him as the stereotypical diamond-in-the-rough: overlooked out of high school, largely due to concerns over his size, he came of age at a smaller school, and now looks to swim in a larger pool against bigger fish. He's very athletic, excels at a number of difference facets, and projects to fill an important role in Coach Boyle's system.

Derrick is an attacker, with a ferocious nose for the rim; he put up double the free throw attempts of any Buff a season ago, and a FTrate above 65%.  In the parlance of the times, he's a bucket-getter, the kind of player CU has rarely had in spades, and doesn't have at all elsewhere on the current roster. Those who have seen him play, like the Colorado Springs Gazette's David Ramsey, speak glowingly of his talents.  For his part, Ramsey all but guarantees that he'll average 15 points per game at the D-I level, which would make him a welcome addition to any team in the country.  A lot of that may be homeristic bluster, and concerns over the transition to D-1 ball are warranted, but enough people in the know are saying enough positive things for me to remain optimistic.

My only real knock on him is that we'll have to wait a season to see how that prognostication plays out, as Derrick will have sit out the entirety of '15-'16, due to transfer rules.  (Boyle: "God, I wish we had him this year.")  CU really could've used his talents immediately, as they lost two high profile guards and are still looking for scoring stability in the backcourt. Usually, I would've expected a player and program in this situation to petition for an immediate eligibility waiver. While those have become harder to get, as of late, I don't get the feeling that CU tried particularly hard. Regardless, he's transferring into the program with one year of eligibility left to use; hopefully, he'll make that year a good one.


- Brett Brady - 6-1, 160 lbs, Sr from Highlands Ranch, CO - #22
From: CUBuffs.com
Following in the footsteps of Preston Slaughter, Billy Boidock, Chase Perkowski, and Beau Gamble, BuffNation has a new favorite walkon, and his name is Brett Brady.  The fans ask about him on writer chats, they ask about him on twitter.  The C-Unit chants his name if the score ever gets out of hand.  Some even go so far as to wonder aloud if he should be playing over some of the scholarship players.  This legend of BRETT FRICKIN' BRADY has taken on a life of its own as it enters the final year of his career, with the man himself just going about his business, hopping for those fleeting touches of the hardwood on gameday.

He is the beloved victory cigar; his appearances the happy end to 40 minutes of hoops. Honestly, if we're lucky, we'll get to see him a lot this year.  No, not getting high-leverage minutes as a phantom shooting threat, but as the cap to a number of CU wins.  Yes, the more he plays, the better this season will be from a win-loss standpoint, but, no, not because of any shots he's knocking down.  Beyond that, expect his contributions to be limited to those behind the scenes: busting his ass in practice, and helping his teammates get better. The daunting, often thankless life of the walkon.


- Josh Fortune - 6-5, 205 lbs, Jr from Hampton, VA - #44
From: Zimbio
If you've been joining your voice to mine, bemoaning the Buffs' lack of a true 'knock-down' shooter over the last few years, then take heart as your prayers may be answered in the form of Josh Fortune. The junior transfer from Providence is finally eligible to suit up in Black and Gold, and the talk is glowing about his ability to hit three pointers.  Playing for the Friars in the post-realignment Big East, he was a dedicated long range bomber, taking 160 threes as a sophomore, making 35% of them.  Add a year off refining his craft - a year importantly spent in the program - and the hope is that his rate will only go up, adding dimension and shape to an offense that had so often been flat and lifeless in the post-Dinwiddie period.

Checking video from his Providence days, including this one from the 2014 Big East Tournament, you can see that Fortune has a high release and a soft shot, and can get hot in a hurry.  It's an enticing skillset to add to the roster. The Buffs haven't had a player take over 100 threes in a year and make over 37% of them since Levi Knutson in '10-'11, and were 207th nationally in three point percentage a year ago. They need a guy like Fortune to be that threat on the outside, and knife teams who collapse down hard on Josh Scott and Wes Gordon in the paint.

Don't think of him as a slasher - his highest free throw rate at PC was still under 20 - and, while he can occasionally take you off dribble, I worry if he can still manage to create his own shot when the Colorado offense stagnates (which it will).  Still, he's not a one-dimensional player, by any means.  He put up really nice steal and assist rates in his final year at PC (both in the top-25 of league play), and should contribute on both ends.

It's his role as a shooter that is paramount, however, which makes me wonder how exactly Coach Boyle will use him.  Think back to that Levi year; while the senior was 4th on the team in minutes, he rarely started, more often coming off the bench to provide an offensive spark after a few minutes.  The abounding assumption around BuffNation has been that Fortune is a locked-in starter, but I wonder if Boyle wouldn't want to use him in a similar way to Knutson - giving him a massive role and big minutes, but starting him on the bench to throw in when the first wave begins to flag.  It may be a tough pill for Josh to swallow, who left PC for 'professional reasons,' but it may be best for the team.

As an extension, consistency could be a concern (seems to be a recurring theme with this team, doesn't it?), as Josh struggled for stretches in both his freshman and sophomore seasons at Providence, even losing his starting spot for a bit during his first year there.  But he's capable of playing big minutes (33 per game as a sophomore), and can be deadly when hot.  Expect to see him on the court a lot, regardless of whether he comes off the bench or starts the game on the court.  If he can open up the offense even just a little bit, giving the talented front court more options with which to do damage, then the year spent waiting for Fortune to become eligible will be worth its weight in gold.


- Dominique Collier - 6-2, 180 lbs, So from Denver, CO - #15
From: the Post
If a quarterback necessarily needs to be the leader of a football team, then a point guard necessarily needs to be the leader of a basketball team.  The Buffs simply haven't had a true point guard running the show since the Dinwiddie injury, with stop gaps like Askia Booker (not a point), Xavier Talton (poor play), and Jaron Hopkins (inconsistent play) failing to really grab the reigns with authority.  Unsurprisingly, that lack of a true point guard has coincided with a lack of leadership in the program as a whole, and play has suffered. Colorado needs a true point guard to step up, or they're going nowhere - which is why so much emphasis is being placed on Dom Collier this year.

A lot was expected of the local high school star in year one, but we only got to see infrequent flashes of what's to come throughout a very frustrating season.  Maybe a product of too much pressure being placed on his shoulders too early, Collier struggled to find his place and just play basketball.  His offensive rating was in the 80s all season as he turned the ball over too often. He also struggled to find his shot (TS% under 45), and barely had a positive win share overall. His saving grace was a strong defensive presence in conference play, where he was 19th in the league in steal rate -- but, even there the eye test would say that he was still a step behind defensively.  Really, just not a good year for the heralded Denver East product.

So, why did the talented freshman struggle?  Well, let me start off by saying that college basketball is not easy (duh), especially as a freshman point guard. It also didn't help matters that he started the season injured and on suspension, freezing his learning process just as it was beginning. Given that, I don't think this was a case of the step-up in competition getting to him - he got to play against some tough competition in high school, after all - I think it was just a case of a player trying to catch up to his peers by drinking from a fire hose (to steal one of Tad's favorite phrases).   Into year two, however, the program expects him to take a big step forward, and what we all see on the court from him will go a long way to determining the overall trajectory of Colorado Basketball.

Believe me, better days are ahead for Dom Collier.  A full year in the system and the healthy reality-check of a rough freshman year looks to have steeled him to the fact that he's going to have to earn his place.  In response, he spent the summer adding upper body strength, allowing him to better stand up to the big heavies in the Pac-12, and hopefully finish better at the rim. Add to that a year of better understanding the importance of defense in Tad's system and his already strong ability in the open floor, and many pundits are projecting good returns in year two.

I won't go so far as @CUGoose and say that this season rests on Dom's shoulders - it's still Josh Scott's team, after all - but he needs to make his voice heard.  He needs to be the unquestioned manager of the offense, needs to take on a fearless attitude, and he needs to step into the role of a team leader.  He needs to become the QB and take that big step forward. Otherwise, the team will be in big trouble, and struggle to do much of everything.  If Scott's production is litmus test #1, then Collier's is a very close second.  Let's hope it comes up positive.


- George King - 6-6, 220 lbs, So from San Antonio, TX - #24
From: CUBuffs.com
Is it just me, or has George King suddenly become one of the most talked about players in the program? The tweener wing from Texas, who took the unusual step of taking a healthy redshirt year after playing as a true freshman, has been all over the media's rolls the last few weeks, and became a frequent mention on media day.  Suddenly, a lot is being expected of the versatile athlete as he enters his third overall year in the program.

I will admit to a little confusion on this end.  I didn't like a lot of what I saw from George as a freshman - an offensive rating under 80, a hyperbolic 20% of shots when he was on the court, a shocking 23% turnover rate, and fewer minutes than any scholarship player other than Ben Mills. All of that is why the redshirt year came as no big shock to me entering the fall of 2014. His play simply produced far more questions than answers (usually expressed as 'what the hell...'). While King may have thought he had a shot of getting 25 minutes a game as a sophomore, the reality of the situation was that he just wasn't there yet, and needed some serious maturation time. With that in mind, I still raise a discerning eyebrow at any mention of George as a heavy rotation guy.  This tweet from CBS's Jon Rothstein, seemingly implying that King had already been anointed the starter at small forward (something that Tad has since dismissed), struck me as particularly out of left field.  What was going on behind the scenes?  Who is this new Geroge King that everyone keeps talking about? And how is he suddenly starting?

Well, it's interesting on that front.  King always had good athleticism, good size, good versatility, and the ability to do a lot of good things on a basketball court (Tad compared him to Marcus Relphorde, which is very high praise, indeed).  The knock on him, and the thing that so limited his performance as a freshman, was his decision making.  Play was simply progressing too fast for King, which resulted in a lot of panicked shots, over-aggressive defense, and skittish activity. If he could calm down and play focused ball - make better decisions - he does have the talent to be a solid contributor at this level.  That's where the redshirt year comes in.  It was an opportunity for him to sit on the bench and really let a longer view of the action sink in. He suddenly had the time to focus on really learning the game, rather than just reacting to it.  In essence, he was allowed to mature mentally. What's more, he has matured physically, as well, coming into this year at a solid 6-6, 220 lbs.

And so, maybe it's not so 'out of left field' to expect big things from the San Antonio product.  At the end of the day, King is a big, strong player out on the perimeter who can work smaller guards, or challenge bigger forwards; slash inside, attack the rim and shoot a little bit; post up and play the block.  I like that he doesn't lack for confidence, either (King: “I think that’s going to be a surprise this season, especially in Pac-12 play when I’m taking these guards on the block.”), and he has never struck me as a player who would let one bad performance get him down. The simple fact is, with players like Jaron Hopkins and Dustin Thomas no longer in the program, that the Buffs need King to be part of the solution to the 'Xavier Johnson Problem,' and so it only makes sense to talk him up. Like XJ, he's a weapon and a matchup issue for opposing teams; a hybrid wing, if you will.  He can even make a claim at being able to replace Johsnon's rebounding skill (King posted a 28% defensive rebounding rate as a frosh).  It's a very interesting package, and one that could be highly beneficial; no doubt about it.

To me, however, his play is still a mystery.  His is the hope of hype -- evidence of things not seen, making him a rather fitting exemplar for the team as a whole.  The only thing that's for sure is that George will stand as a mysterious X-factor entering the season; the kind of player who, with a good season, could mean the difference between middle-of-the-pack and a first-round bye in Las Vegas, but who otherwise isn't a consistent team leader.  Part of the equation, but not necessarily the answer.


- Josh Repine - 6-3, 180 lbs, So from Englewood, CO - #33

The 'Ginger Assassin!'  A long-time CU fan, Repine enters his sophomore year having gotten into four games in '14-'15 -- not too bad for a freshman walkon. It's a tough role for someone like Repine to accept, a player who could easily have gone on to earn starter's minutes at a DII or DIII school, but he seems to have taken to it with aplomb. The prep school teammate of big man Tory Miller may still behind Brett Brady on the walkon rolls, but expect him to be the next man up as the victory cigar once Brett graduates.


- Thomas Akyazili - 6-2, 180 lbs, Fr from Antwerp, Belgium - #0

A European import from Belgium, Akyazili comes to the program with plenty of international experience. He's played at various levels for the Belgian National Program since he was 16, leading his team in scoring at both the 2013 U-16 and 2014 U-18 European Championships. More recently, he played with a professional outfit, the Port of Antwerp Giants, earlier in 2015, picking up a whole other set of skills and habits. Not your typical freshman by any measure, he will bring a different style and mindset to the court from what we usually see, and he strikes an enigmatic figure in the plans for 2015-16.

The forging of that experience allowed him to be the lone exception to Coach Boyle's 'Summer in Boulder' rule, as he participated in the U-20 Euro Championships this July, only arriving in Colorado the following month. On the trip to Italy, he averaged 7/3/1 over 10 games, including a 19/3/1 exclamation against Serbia in group play.  The overall averages were nothing explosive, but still stand as solid numbers against near senior-level competition.

Word is that the coaching staff are looking to use him at both the point and shooting guard spots.  While I trust their judgement, I look at him as probably a little undersized for a true two-guard role, so my guess is that distribution will lean more towards the point.  That said, I really have no idea what to expect from this kid.  I've seen some video that is encouraging, but scattered YouTube clips are not much of a baseline with which to translate to domestic hoops. I'll grant that his offer list was impressive - Creighton, St John's, and Utah - but, until I see him in uniform against determined opposition, my personal jury is still out.

Luckily, I don't think a lot is expected of him in year one.  He'll be a 3rd or 4th option at either guard spot to start, giving him plenty of time and cushion to grow and develop into the American game. Beyond that, the speed at which he begins to pickup meaningful minutes on domestic hardwood is anyone's guess.  To that end, coaches have already been praising his dedication and work ethic in practices, and he appears to have the talent to play Pac-12 basketball. However, the added time away from the program this summer, at least as compared to his new peers, probably sets the overall timetable back a bit.

It's going to be weird to see anyone other than Askia Booker wearing the number '0' in Black and Gold, but the import has the opportunity to only continue that number's tradition of contribution in Boulder. Hopefully, Akyazili will come to produce just as many moments of joy as his predecessor.


- Mitch Lombard - 6-0, 180 lbs, Fr from Castle Pines, CO - #12
From: the CU Independent
Rounding out the list of player profiles is the former Rock Canyon standout Mitch Lombard.  He reportedly chose a walkon offer from CU over a scholarship offer from DU, saying he's just always wanted to play for Colorado.  One of the few walkons I've ever seen that warranted a recruiting profile at ESPN (with scouting report!), he was ranked in the top-15 players in the state last year, and finished a successful high school career as a second-team all-state performer.  Mitch may not be an explosive athlete, and he's a little undersized, but the kid knows the game, and could become a decent role player either here or at another D-1 school after a few years of collegiate instruction.  Not your typical walkon, by any means.


Head Coach

- Tad Boyle - 52 years old, from Greeley, CO, graduated from Kansas -

It's year six for Tad and staff (Jean Prioleau, Mike Rohn, and Rodney Billups are all back, BTW), and, for the first time in Boulder, His Royal Tadness is facing some serious questions. I don't think I'm spilling any state secrets when I say this, but, under his tenure, the Buffs have, so far, been unable to take the 'next step.' Maybe a little harsh, but any thorough examination of Coach Boyle's legacy must acknowledge the following points, just as we acknowledge his standing in the modern history of this program:
  • The Buffs, despite their general post-season success in the Boyle era, have never earned a first-round bye in a conference tournament.  Since the 2012 championship run, Boyle's teams have routinely slipped on pre-season expectations.
  • Coach Boyle is still stuck on one NCAA Tournament victory, and has only lightly flirted with a second.
  • Recruiting peaked with the 2012 recruiting class, and has taken several steps back in the interim.  Of the four-member 2013 recruiting class, only half remains - Tre'Shaun Fletcher and George King - and that class as a whole has yet to make a large impact on the program's fortunes.
  • Since the 2011 run to the NIT, when Coach Boyle parlayed Jeff Bzdelik's offense-heavy returnees into one of the best offenses in the country, CU has yet to crack the nation's top-100 offensive clubs, based on efficiency.
  • The Buffs are only 3-2 against CSU in his five years, including a home loss last season.  Additionally, they have beaten just two non-conference Power 5 foes away from Boulder: Indiana in the 2010 Las Vegas Classic, and Baylor at the 2013 Charleston Classic.
This is not my way of turning my back on Tad, just my way of pointing out the raised expectations, and his program's inability, as of yet, to meet them.  He certainly suffered a rotten bit of bad luck in '13-'14, a season which, had it played out differently, could've cured a lot of these wounds, but it is what it is.  As Bill Parcells would say, you are what your record says you are.

After a few seasons of slipped expectations, and combined with the reality of the first losing season in the life of #RollTad, I think it's human nature to start to wonder. To question the process.  Boyle himself talks about the poor job he did as a coach last year, letting the team and the season get away from him before realizing it was too late to turn it around. He was particularly blunt after CU's 82-54 home loss to Arizona last February, letting loose a broadside of hellfire into the frustration of last season, one that I could never hope to equal:
It’s February 26th and we’re not executing offensively. We’re not doing the things we’re supposed to do, we’re not making plays and we haven’t gotten any better. If you look at the teams that I’ve had here as a head coach, I feel that each team, outside of my first year, had progress and got better throughout the year. I don’t feel like that with this team. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten any better. We’re still making the same mistakes that we did in November and we’re not any better, offensively or defensively.
The fact is that we didn’t execute.  [...] But what’s frustrating is that I see us execute in practice against ourselves. When the lights come on for some reason, we don’t. I don’t think that there is one guy that I can look at and say that he played well tonight. Not one. Not one guy. We don’t have guys making each other better, our team just hasn’t improved. That’s on me, that’s the responsibility of the head coach and I haven’t done a very good job. 
There has to be some fight in the locker room and right now there isn’t. It’s like a submissive, beat us now while you can kind of mentality. That’s embarrassing. These guys are young men and they haven’t been through what they’re going through before. They’re finding out a cruel life lesson: life isn’t going to give you anything. Division one athletics teaches you that it’s a very humbling and unforgiving arena. If you want to step into that arena you had better be willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win and we aren’t willing to do that.” 
I’m tired of this, I am. I want our players to know it, our fans to know it and our officials to know it. I want to fight somebody, I really do, but I know you can’t do that and I won’t do that in the locker room. I’m sick of the way we’re playing. The world doesn’t owe us anything, we have to go out and get what we earn. Right now we’re not earning the scholarships we’re on or the paychecks we get. We have to go out. It’s our pride, intensity, will to win, will to prepare to win and the will to do whatever it takes to get it done. If we play well, play hard, execute and get beat I’ll be the first one to shake our opponents hand and say, ‘You beat us tonight.’ I don’t like teams that beat themselves and we beat ourselves tonight.”
I feel badly for the players that have come before this team - and some of the members of this team were a part of those groups. It's disrespecting what they've done over the last four years, and that's disappointing, I would think that there would be more pride amongst our team, and I don't see that. That's disappointing. That's something that needs to be addressed.
That's about as real and honest as I've ever seen a coach anywhere get.  It's a window into the world of a season imploding in real time.  Is there really any other way to put it than his team quit on him?  A shocking development, and one that I didn't think was really possible headed into '14-'15.

Given that, it certainly seems reasonable to re-examine the way we view this coach and the program he's built.  He's obviously a great coach, but the flaws are what they are, and there's only so much lipstick you can throw on a pig.  Doubt is really what I'm getting at here.  For the first time, I actually doubt whether Colorado Basketball is headed in the right direction, whether the wheel has slipped from Boyle's grip, and the whole thing is about to careen into an iceberg. In moments of contemplation, I start to fear if we've all missed the chance to turn this into something great, and if a busy week in Los Angeles and a buzzer-beater against Kansas are all the highs we're really going to get from this run.

But, at the end of the day, being a fan is all about faith.  If there was anyone, as a CU Basketball fan, to put your faith in, it's Tad Boyle.  He has brought the program 108 wins and a 61.7% winning record over five seasons, after all, not to mention back-to-back-to-back Tournament appearances and a berth in the Final Four of the NIT.  He is the embodiment of modern coaching success for this program, and, if anyone's going to be able to turn this thing around, there's no reason to look anywhere else.
From: todaysu.com
Accordingly, I eagerly note the changes he's made within the program since the end of that ugly game at Seattle.  I love the early conditioning work the team put in over the summer (a first during the #RollTad era), and note with no small bit of irony how similar the accountability groups Coach Boyle instituted during the workouts sound to the way Dana Altman managed the culture change in Oregon last off-season. Boyle is also more dialed in and focused on picking apart the details in practice, all while vowing not to repeat the mistakes of '14-'15. More practically, he's instituting a soft press, and looking at other ways of putting the new rules in college basketball to his advantage. There's the talk of returning to the old focus on defense and rebounding, all while going back to scoring early in the shot clock, rather than looking for second and third attacks deep into possessions.  He's not taking last season, he's attacking the problem head on. All good, good things.

It's a new chapter, both for the team and Coach Boyle. They recognize last season was a failure, and they're dedicated to turning it around.  The buzz words repeatedly brought up are responsibility, accountability, chemistry, and leadership; all traits that were absent a year ago. All that's left: putting it into practice.  This is the true test of the Boyle era, and his biggest challenge.  Turning NBA talent like Alec Burks, Andre Roberson, and Spencer Dinwiddie into wins was the easy part.  The hard part will be securing a future for the program, which starts with righting the ship in 2015-16.  Bet against him if you dare.


OVERALL


You may have noticed that, for the first time in the history of this preview series, I've listed the forwards ahead of the guards.  The reason behind that shift is simple - they are the unabashed strength of this team.  The best players on the roster are all up front, headlined by Josh Scott, who is one of the most criminally underrated players in America.  Teamed with Wes Gordon (if he's engaged), the duo forms one of the better front court pairings in all of the Pac-12.  Behind them, Tory Miller may have made the biggest single leap of anyone in uniform, while Tre'Shaun Fletcher and Kenan Guzonjic provide versatile depth.  If/when Xavier Johnson comes back, the corps only gets stronger, and the Buffs better.  Few teams will be able to match CU straight-up down low, and it's a strength the team can lean on.

Unfortunately, while the forwards are awesome, the guard corps just ain't what it used to be. Once the foundational bedrock of this program, what exists in the backcourt is now far from a given.  At the point, Xavier Talton, ostensibly the veteran leader of the bunch, regressed as much as anyone in basketball last winter. The backups aren't proven commodities, either, as Dom Collier struggled throughout a frustrating freshman campaign, and newbie import Thomas Akyazili is a complete question mark.  On the wing, Josh Fortune is presumably ready to shine, but he hasn't played a game in the calendar year, and I'm more suspicious of the sudden surge to prominence of George King than anything else in the program.  What could be the group's saving grace - Derrick White - also stands as a mystery as he makes the transition from Division-II basketball, and won't be able to contribute this year as he waits out the transfer process. In a game, college basketball, that is dominated by guard play, this group is a glaring weakness, and one that could really limit the team's ceiling.

This imbalance is a result three years in the making.  As the program has sent a number of wings to the professional ranks (in addition to the odd defection here or there), they've, so far, proven unable to adequately replace them with new blood. Recruiting has stayed, mostly, profitable in the front court, but the rotating melange of project guards continues to perplex in the back.  It's why we're seeing the roster so bottom-heavy today, and it's an institutional problem that needs to be solved going forward.

In the immediacy, however, a lot of my concern comes down to potential and consistency.  I know, to an extent, what I'm going to see from each of the forwards. Josh will approach 20/10; Wes could also creep towards also averaging a double-double if his head is screwed on right; Tory should exhibit good gains with an increased role; Tre'Shaun can be relied upon to put up his 9/4 while playing a wide range of positions; XJ, if he returns, will be a nice offensive and rebounding spark late in the season; and anything provided by Kenan is a bonus. But, while the forwards are projectable, I challenge anyone, Tad Boyle included, to bet their life on what we're going to see from the guards this year.  Sure, Talton, Collier, and King could all take big steps forward, and Fortune could be the missing piece of the puzzle, but there's nothing on paper that would lead me to lean on it. Worse, there's almost no depth to speak of if injuries or other absences pile up.

That's why it's all the more bewildering that Coach Boyle teased the prospect of playing three-guard lineups this season, and going small for whole stretches.  I understand the reasoning -- with the new rules putting more emphasis on whistles for ticky-tack contact, particularly in the paint, the typical focus on guard-play is only gong to be more pronounced in '15-'16.  The problem is, I just don't think this team has the horses to run three guards at a time, let alone the versatility to mix and match with positioning (unless you count Fletcher/Johnson as the guards in this scenario, which would be cheating).  This is probably where the hype surrounding George King comes in.  He's got the size, and has proven, if nothing else, to be an attacking dynamo.  If he can get anything perimeter on in, and get some whistles while doing it, the Buffs would benefit greatly.

Reality is, however, that the team will be leaning heavily on their forwards throughout this season, potential foul trouble and all. Thankfully, there is some good news on that front.  Most of the forwards have shown a proven ability to defend without fouling - Josh is one of the best in the game, only getting called for 2.2 per 40 minutes played (and seems to be adapting well to the changes); Tre'Shaun and Wes were right behind him last year at 3.0/40. Even with the tighter attention paid, I trust them to stay clean. Others... well defensive liability is a term thrown around by Coach Boyle, but I think a lot of issues could be solved by the return of true #TadBall in Boulder. Remember, the teams of this era were never K-State, they were not a band of thugs - this staff knows how to coach good, clean, fundamental defensive basketball. TadBall should be able to transcend officiating adjustments.

And so, as always with Coach Boyle's teams, it all starts with a re-commitment to defense and rebounding. CU was elite at neither in '14-'15, which is the real reason they slid home under .500. The shorter shot clock will help make up for some of last year's deficiencies - as the team will need to defend for five fewer seconds - and a soft press intrigues, but I'm most eager to see how the bunch responds to calls for help on the perimeter, and rebounds without Xavier Johnson -- two huge questions.  For the team to enjoy a #TadBall renaissance, they'd have to come with positive answers to both.  Again, the emergence of the versatile King would help here, but it's probably going to be a season-long issue. It's a real shame XJ is out, as his length would help out on close-out defense, and would allow the Buffs to run out three really good rebounders at any one time.  What might have been...

Offensively, this team is still limited, but what's new?  Colorado has struggled so much with the rock in recent years that the clang of a missed jumper is the most ubiquitous noise on campus. Simply, this is where the forwards have to shine. Josh and Wes need to see the ball - a lot - and the offense needs to generate off their skills.  I'm not just talking about paint touches leading to their own shots, either.  Getting the ball down low to those two should open up passing/cutting lanes for teammates (assuming off-ball movement ever returns), and feed a deceptively strong group of outside shooters.  Between Fortune, Talton (if he's back to being sophomore year XT) and Fletcher (maybe even King), the Buffs will prove to have a better, more consistent source of three point shooting than in years past.  What I still don't see here, however, outside of Scott, is an ability to score consistently away from home.  Unless King comes around to be a guy who can attack the basket late in the shot clock, with success, the team will really struggle to convert road games into wins.

I keep bringing up King, which is not a product of the recent hype machine, per se, but more to do with the reason behind it's founding.  Thanks to a low-impact recruiting class, the team is desperate for a source of new talent on both sides of the ball, and the Texan is one of the few players who fits the bill.  He can rebound, he can attack the rim, and word is he can even shoot the three.  Essentially, the Buffs need him to be worth the press clippings if they hope to get back to the Tournament.  I can see it, and I've heard people I trust talk him up, but I'm still in a wait-and-see mode.  If he comes through, King fixes a lot of problems right away.  If he doesn't, and we see a lot of what we saw when he was a freshman, the roster's house of cards starts to wobble a bit. Your guess here is as good as mine.

Which brings me to the question of starters.  I scoffed initially at Jon Rothstein's report/assumption that King would be a starter, but, given more time to analyze, it makes a little sense, whether that was really Coach Boyle's intention/phrasing or not.  Slot King in as the third guard in a three-guard starting lineup, and suddenly Boyle has his wish of more guards on the court, while staying strong defensively and on the boards. Slot him in as the two, and the strong forwards have a high-activity guy drawing attention outside, while allowing Fortune to come off the bench, which is my ideal role for him. Either way, it's an interesting proposition.

To start, however, I would hope to see something more akin to the following:
  • Talton and/or Collier
  • Fortune
  • Fletcher
  • Gordon
  • Scott
Scott and Gordon are locked in stone; nothing short of injury or discipline should keep them from starting together.  The question at the point is far more interesting.  I think the coaching staff would love to just hand Collier the job, but the reports from camp of a back-in-form Talton make me think seniority might have something to say at the start of the year (the team begins on a big road trip, after all).  Fortune probably gets the early nod at the two-guard, in the hope that he can get his inside-outside rhythm going early.  Fletcher should get the start at small forward, mostly due to experience and versatility.  This leaves King to start the season off-the-bench, almost to test the waters, with the second point guard and Miller the next in line at the scorer's table.  It's not a perfect solution, but I think it's a good compromise until the staff can really get a sense for what they will get from players like King and Talton.

This is not the quality roster of years past, as there are far more questions than answers at this point, but it's not a group entirely devoid of talent, either.  Thankfully, we should get a quick sense of the answers as the team starts out the year with some of their toughest games of the entire season.  By the time December rolls around, BuffNation will know pretty much exactly what kind of season we're dealing with.  With a few 'ifs' coming back in the positive, this could prove to be a very fun, interesting team to watch.

--

THE SCHEDULE

Non-conference

Speaking of that quick start to the schedule, it is real, and it is dangerous.  Coach Boyle has frequently talked about feeling a sense of urgency, and he ain't kidding. While the rest of the non-conference slate is a large helping of milquetoast, the Buffs start out the season on the road for the entirety of opening weekend, putting a lot of the hopes and dreams for the year at risk before anyone really finds their in-game rhythm.  Hope you don't mind some mid-November stress, because it's coming down like fury from the mountain.

11/13 - Iowa State - Sioux Falls, SD
11/17 - Auburn - Auburn, AL (Part of ESPN's Tip-off Marathon)
11/20 - Portland - Boulder, CO
11/22 - Nebraska-Omaha - Boulder, CO
11/25 - Air Force - Boulder, CO
11/29 - Northern Colorado - Boulder, CO
12/2 - Ft Lewis - Boulder, CO
12/6 - Colorado State - Ft Collins, CO
12/12 - BYU - Boulder, CO
12/18 - Nicholls State - Boulder, CO (part of the Las Vegas Classic)
12/19 - Hampton - Boulder, CO (part of the Las Vegas Classic)
12/22 - Penn State - Las Vegas, NV (the Las Vegas Classic)
12/23 - Kent State/SMU - Las Vegas, NV (the Las Vegas Classic)

That Iowa State game... wow.  It was scheduled out of the blue in mid-March while everyone was otherwise occupied, and stands as an overpowerd call-back to the 2013-14 opener in Dallas against Baylor (and we all know hot that turned out...). Taking place at a 'neutral' facility - the 3,250 seat Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, SD - and in the middle of the day, the game will essentially be a home stand for the #7 Cyclones, whose fans quickly grabbed up the vast majority of tickets available (Ames is only a four hour drive from Sioux Falls, after all).  Further, the size of the gym is an eerie allusion to that tiny-ass arena in Seattle where the '14-'15 season ended. (You can argue that it's not the size of the arena that counts... but I digress.)  If there's any advantage to be gained from the setting, I guess you can say the Buffs are happy to be avoiding ISU's Hilton Coliseum - the program is 5-39 all time against Hilton Magic - but that's only a small consideration. This is a brutal way to start out the year, against a preseason top-10 team, no less, and a proposition that is probably doomed to failure.

It doesn't get immediately easier after that, either.  Following the visit to the Mount Rushmore State, CU will stay on the road, trekking all the way down to the "Loveliest Village on the Plains" in eastern Alabama to take on Auburn.  The Tigers, in and of themselves, would not normally pose such a awkward challenge (CU beat them by 31 in Boulder last year, and they finished 132nd in the final RPI rankings), but, coming off the oddity of that South Dakota trip, another off-start time (1pm MT) 1,500 miles from home scares the willies out of me.

Remember when I mentioned that Coach Boyle's Colorado teams have only two wins over Power-5 competition away from Boulder?  Yeah, now tell me how you expect the season to start. That's right, 0-2. With this team still searching for a new identity and without a proven point guard, I highly doubt they are ready to go on the road and do the dirty work necessary to avoid the winless start. I fully expect a goose egg in the win column for the home opener, and you should too.

Luckily, after that rough start, the schedule opens up a bit. Outside of the BYU game and the biennial visit from the Air Force Falcons, the rest of the home slate is a cake-walk; there is no sugar-coating that fact, it's all schedule filler.  The off-year stay-cation up in Fort Collins (*sigh*) is a pratfall waiting to happen, but the Buffs have a decent chance (60%, only due to BYU) of running at least the home table heading into the away portion of the Las Vegas Classic.

Now, some of you may be inclined to complain about the lack of 'name-brand' opponents coming to Boulder this year. As a paying consumer myself, I'm sympathetic to these gripes, but there's not much Coach Boyle can really do to fix the problem.  As he said last year, "You think people lie in recruiting, they lie in scheduling more," and ain't no one lining up to play Colorado in Boulder when they have other options.  As long as CU is a viable entity (and the bottom hasn't fallen out of this band-wagon yet), it's going to be very hard to get fellow P-5 conference schools to agree to hike all the way up to 5,345 feet, at least without making a painfully imbalanced agreement beforehand.  Believe me, Kansas is never coming back, and it would take a Brink's truck and a one-for-two deal to get anyone higher than mid table in, say, the ACC or Big 10 to sign up for a roadie up here.  For the time being, it's the reality of the situation.

That's why the Las Vegas Classic is so disappointing. While the trip to Sin City is an easy one for Buff faithful (I've heard rumors of $54 flights and $40 rooms), the thing simply has a garbage field.  It's bad enough that it starts with two home filler dates (although the program probably needed those for financial reasons), but, once actually in Vegas, teams like Penn State and Kent State don't project to do the strength of schedule any favors (109 and 85, respectively, in last year's RPI, with KSU vulnerable to the RPI poison pill of the MAC).  The potential of SMU in the title game once served as an alluring feature, facing Boyle off with mentor Larry Brown (and promised to be a nice RPI boost - 18th last year), but even that possibility has lost a lot of its luster as the Mustangs went under the NCAA's investigatory knife over the summer.  If you're trying to build a RPI-forward schedule, the Iowa State game is nice, the visit from BYU is quietly just as important, and CSU should help, but the LVC is a ratings anchor, and caps the slate with a thud. Combined with the cream-puff home portion, it might be just enough to put the team behind the eight-ball, profile-wise.

If the goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament, and everyone assures me it is, then I worry that the pursuit may be over before it begins with this schedule.  Where is Colorado supposed to pick up top-50 and top-100 RPI wins?  I just don't see the tilt with ISU going well, that trip up north could get ugly, too, and it's anyone's guess how SMU will do this year.  Assuming CU strikes out on all three fronts (possibly missing the Mustangs entirely), then it's up to the BYU game in early December.  That could be it.  Woof.

I guess this is to be expected.  The program has regressed a bit over the last 18 months, so a brutally difficult non-conference schedule - like what we saw in back-to-back years during the Dinwiddie era - would be uncalled for.  The team needs to bank some wins, and get back over the .500 mark, hell or high water, this winter. So, if you're looking for a prediction, I'm going to say losses in all three road games (ISU, Auburn, CSU), a sweep in Boulder, and a 50/50 split in Bill Walton's 'peaceful oasis at the heart of the Mojave.' That would put the Buffs at 9-4 entering Pac-12 play, and, unfortunately, all but eliminate them from Tournament consideration before any meaningful games in 2016 tip-off. It puts a lot of pressure on the results against league competition, but that's nothing relevatory.

Conference 

1/1 - California - Berkeley, CA
1/3 - Stanford - Palo Alto, CA
1/8 - Utah - Boulder, CO
1/13 - Oregon State - Boulder, CO
1/17 - Oregon - Boulder, CO
1/20 - Washington - Seattle, WA
1/23 - Washington State - Pullman, WA
1/27 - Stanford - Boulder, CO
1/31 - California - Boulder, CO
2/4 - Oregon - Eugene, OR
2/6 - Oregon State - Corvallis, OR
2/11 - Washington State - Boulder, CO
2/13 - Washington - Boulder, CO
2/17 - USC - Los Angeles, CA
2/20 - UCLA - Los Angeles, CA
2/24 - Arizona - Boulder, CO
2/28 - Arizona State - Boulder, CO
3/5 - Utah - Salt Lake City, UT

The headlines are simple.  CU both starts out and finishes Pac-12 play on the road, only hosts the Arizona schools, only visits the LA schools, and doesn't have to play three-straight on the road for the first time since moving west.  It's an interesting mixed bag of good and bad, with CU only having to face two of the top teams in the league twice, and could set the Buffs up for a quietly strong conference campaign. If Xavier Johnson indeed returns in January, it could be even nicer.  The trick, however, will be finding some joy away from home. What else is new?

The usual suspects - USC, the Oregons, the Washigtons and the NorCals - are all in play.  CU can win any of these (we can argue the Oregon, Oregon State, and Berkeley trips, but the team has enjoyed recent success against these teams).  Wins over these schools on the road may not get anyone's attention nationally, but they could be the difference between a winning and losing season in league play.  They're pivot games, and ones the team needs to put in the win column.  I'm not talking about a sweep; a handful of victories from this set will do nicely. If the Buffs can get two or three on these road, then a return to historical norms in home play could keep them at .500 or better.

See, Fortress Coors Events Center was not all it is cracked up to be last season.  The Buffs lost a surprising four conference games at the Foot of the Flatirons in '14-'15, their 5-4 mark the worst of the Boyle era. It ran against everything I thought I knew about this program.  "At least," I would think, "they'll get their home wins."  It was supposed to be the bulwark against a bad season. Well, that wall cracked and fell over last winter, as the team again and again threw away both the typical collegiate home court advantage and the additional 'altitude factor.'  I could spend some time waxing about the way BuffNation let the team down with spotty attendance, but a little over nine thousand Black and Gold faithful still poured into the arena each night, good for top-50 nationally.  It may not have been the rabid gatherings of recent vintages, but the seats were still (mostly) filled.  Certainly, the gen-pop fans and the students could do a better job re-creating the hostile atmospheres of 2012 and 2013, but it's on the team to get back defending Sox Walseth's court with ferocity.

It won't be easy.  The Utah visit on the second weekend of the New Year comes with the students still on break, and I wouldn't exactly bet the house on CU beating Arizona for the first time in three years (yes, it's been that long; 0-6 since the 2013 Valentine's Day Massacre).  The even nature of both series has faded for the foreseeable future, though, at least the lone game with the 'Cats is in Boulder (I quiver at the thought of this guard corps having to go down to McKale). That leaves Colorado with seven potential wins to claim on home hardwood.  Bowing to reality, let's say the team will drop one more random home date, leaving them with a 6-3 run at home in Pac-12 play.  About 9-9 overall.

If you've been paying attention, that means my final baseline prediction for the year is somewhere around 18-13, give or take a game, headed into the Pac-12 Tournament.  Probably good enough for an NIT call, but not anything more.  It's not the sexiest prediction, but I think it's what's actually achievable by this team, and it's a whole hell of a lot better than last season. Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to see them prove me wrong, win 22, and make it back to the Dance.  But, for the team to achieve that something greater, to reach their publicly stated goals, they would either need a repeat of their 2012 LA Miracle, or a surprising series of upsets both home and away.  I just don't see it.

--

THE PAC-12

It was another offseason of heavy roster turnover in the Pac-12. 11 of the 15 players who featured on the 2014-15 All-Pac-12 First and Second Teams are no longer playing in the conference, including eight of the 10 members of the First Team and both the Player of the Year (Joe Young) and Freshman of the Year (Stanley Johnson).  That's an identical carryover total to the year prior, and a potential sign that, once again, compounding talent drain is going to hit the Conference of Champions in a bad way.

See, that was the issue in 2012, when Colorado arrived to find the conference 9th in league RPI, and with only two entrants in the NCAA Tournament.  Years of talent drain had left the Pac-12 with next to nothing to offer the nation, and the committee reacted accordingly. While the past few years have been significantly kinder (an average of five bids the last three Tournaments), the fact remains that year after year of heavy talent losses is not healthy.  The league was 5th in overall RPI last season; as a conscientious Pac-12 fan, I do not want to see that ranking slip much lower than that. I do not want to see the conference, as a whole, go back to the days of 2012.

But, while a lot of that top-line talent is gone, eight teams return at least three starters, leading me to hope that all is not lost conference-wide. Further, after an off-season in 2014 that saw a quarter of the head coaching positions shuffled, there was only one change this summer.  Yep, Arizona State stands alone with hiring a new coach (but stay on guard, because there's potential at at least one school for a midseason firing - looking at you, UW).  Combined with the lower-level returners, that means the league still retains an air of continuity, which makes me think we'll all avoid worst-case scenarios like 2012.

Entering '15-'16, three teams - #12 Arizona, #14 Cal, and #16 Utah - appeared in the preseason AP Poll, a good sign that national perception hasn't completely cratered, and that the league is still being taken seriously. Adding one team to that mix, and I would expect at least four Pac-12 teams to hear their names called on Selection Sunday; nothing great, but nothing disastrous, either.  You could argue for as many as five or six, but I just feel that would take something weird in Vegas and/or a surprise jump from one of the lower echelon teams to happen. So, if you want to make the Dance this year from the Pac-12, you probably want to be above the top-four cut-line come the first weekend of March.

--

Rumblin's predicted order of finish:

1 - Cal
2 - Arizona
3 - Oregon
4 - UCLA
5 - Utah
6 - Oregon State
7 - Colorado
8 - ASU
9 - Stanford
10 - Washington State
11 - USC
12 - Washington

NCAA Teams - Cal, Arizona, Oregon, Utah
NIT eligible teams - UCLA, OSU, Colorado

Rumblin's preseason All-Pac-12 Team:

G - Ty Wallace - Cal (Player of the Year)
G - Gary Payton II - Oregon State (Defensive Player of the Year)
F - Jaylen Brown - Cal (Newcomer of the Year)
F/C - Josh Scott - Colorado
C - Jakob Poeltl - Utah

--

- Arizona -

The two-time defending league champions finally claimed what had so long eluded them when they swept through Las Vegas last spring en route to their first league double in 25 years (caveat: the Pac-12 tournament went on a hiatus between 1991 and 2002).  Unfortunately for them, that success out West failed to translate into the real Tournament, as the Giant Death Robot crashed out in the Elite Eight for the second year running.  It was Wisconsin's Tank that did them in again - Frank Kaminsky standing as the perfect balance of talent, size, and versatility to frustrate the GDR - going for 29/6 in the seven-point victory, and forestalling what appeared to be a destined march to the Final Four.
From: NBC Sports
That nemesis Kaminsky has since graduated, now playing for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, but the struggle of returning for a third bite at the Elite Eight apple appears to be daunting, especially when you consider that the UofA has lost five starters in two seasons to be early entrants in the NBA Draft (including Brandon Ashley, who left early after last season for... the Development League).  Throw in the graduation of outstanding point guard TJ McConnell, who was the straw that stirred the drink in each of the prior two seasons, and it's reasonable to question whether Sean Miller and crew can really keep up the momentum.

Don't take that to mean I think they'll fall back into the pack, however.  Arizona will start four seniors this winter, including incoming transfers Mark Tollefsen and Ryan Anderson, and hauled in what Rivals considered the #3 recruiting class in the country.  It's an interesting blend of experience and youthful talent that should have the 'Cats back where they always are: in the hunt for the league title.  Without a practiced hand at the point, however, I think their ultimate ceiling is a step or two below the Elite Eight. You can't just replace a guy like McConnell overnight, after all.

- Arizona State -

The narrative in Tempe surrounds the league's only off-season coaching change.  Out: Herb Sendek, who was fired after a mostly inconclusive nine-year run on the ASU bench.  In: Duke legend Bobby Hurley, and a relative coaching neophyte. Despite his inexperience, however, Hurley seems like a good hire; the first sentence of the Devils' Blue Ribbon profile helpfully notes that he "has never failed in college basketball." Indeed, the two-time NCAA champion as a player was successful through two seasons at the helm of the University of Buffalo Bulls (his only two years as a head coach), winning the MAC's East Division twice, and the league as a whole last spring.  When he took the Bulls to the 2015 NCAA Tournament, it was the program's first ever Dance, and, though they lost in the First Round to West Virginia, stood as a major accomplishment.
From: Rant Sports
The question, then, is how he will transition into life as the head coach of a Power-5 program.  At least he comes into a decent situation in the desert, as the Devils return four starters from a year ago, including Savon Goodman and Gerry Blakes.  A new coach brings transition, however, and the issue of how Hurley will use players that fit Sendek's measured, Princeton-style of play in his high-tempo, aggressive free-for-all is a glaring question mark. Probably better off in the long run without old Herb, the Sun Devils may still struggle to get full value in year one of the Hurley experiment.

- California -

Oh, hi Cal.  I guess you really are serious about this whole basketball thing.  Stunning many in the hoops world, the Golden Bears hauled in a top-10 recruiting class with the signings of Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown; two bona fide five-star freshman talents.  Rabb at least makes geographic sense, coming across from the East Bay, but Brown?  Hailing from Georgia, the Bears convinced the lengthy wing to pay his own way on an unofficial visit before ultimately earning his signature. I don't know what head coach Cuonzo Martin had to do to get them both to spurn traditional powers and wind up in Berkeley (I'm sure all of it perfectly legal), but the end result is that Cal, yes fucking Cal, is considered by many to be a dark horse contender for the Final Four.
From: Draftexpress.com
But it's not the freshmen who have me nodding along to that sentiment, and it's not Coach Martin (who I'm still not 100% sold on), either. No, I'm most intrigued by Tyrone Wallace, that one-time CU recruiting target, and the 'one that got away.' Veteran point guards with great size (6-5, 200 lbs), a nose for the scoreboard (17 ppg last season), and the defensive rebounding rebounding rates of a power forward (20.4%, 7 total boards per game), like Wallace, are rare finds indeed. That Ty chose to stay for his senior season, and work on the deficiencies in his game (three point and free throw shooting), only makes him a rarer breed, the kind of player who can take a talented group of teammates from 'just good' to 'frickin' great' status. Trust me, try not to think too hard about what the current Colorado roster would look like with Wallace at the helm, because it may induce sudden outbreaks of dustiness around your eyes.

With Wallace running the show, the two high profile freshman adding front-line dimension, and a number of other veteran returners adding depth, I'm ready to jump on the Cal bandwagon.  They're my pick to not only win the league, but carry the Pac-12's banner deep into March.  There will be some awkwardness along the way, and Haas Pavilion is far from a fortress, but I believe the Bears have the pieces in place to supplant the Wildcats at the top of the Conference of Champions this season.

- Oregon -

For what feels like the first time in the entirety of the Dana Altman era in Eugene, the Ducks have the tantalizing prospect of returning minutes.  Yes, take a second and let that sink in.  That same program that turned over 14 scholarship players in two seasons thanks to transfers, injuries, discipline, and general criminality suddenly boasts of four principle returners: Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Jordan Bell, and Dwayne Benjamin.  While they will be taking some emergency steps to replace graduated Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young, at least part of the equation will be of in-house solutions.  It's almost startling to see familiar faces on their roster page, given the realities of the recent past, and it makes we want to expect great things from them this year.
From: the Daily Emerald
Oh, sure, even with all the returners Transfer-U will still be relying on fresh blood.  Senior transfer Dylan Ennis will take over the point guard duties, while five-star recruit KEYSER SOZE, er... Tyler Dorsey, will start on the wing.  But don't hold that against them.  This is a new step forward for the Ducks on the path to institutional respectability, and one that should pay dividends.  I may still hope that Altman gets his karmic comeuppance for letting his charges run amok in previous years, but that doesn't mean I won't be able to appreciate his players' gains this season.

- Oregon State -

The Fight'n' Wayne Tinkles!  Coach Tinkle hit Corvallis like a breath of fresh air last winter, replacing the stale wonkery of Craig Robinson with something different.  They played brutally slow (327th in adjusted tempo). They defended (16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency). And, above all else, they won games (started out the season 16-7, 7-4 in league play).  While OSU would go on to lose seven of eight down the stretch - including bowing out of the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at the hands of our Buffs, before not making any version of the post-season - it was a positive first step for the new coach.
From: USA Today
For a follow-up act, the Beavers even get to boast of returning all five starters, including defensive dynamo Gary Payton II.  More importantly, they also bring in a quintet of highly regarded freshman recruits, many of whom could help out the beleaguered offense right away.  Add it all up, and, while maybe not yet ready to crack into the upper echelon of the league, I wouldn't be surprised by a top-half finish from this bunch. Definitely a post-season entrant this go-around.

- Stanford -

I'm just not high on the Cardinal this year.  Not only did they lose most of their starring talent from last season's NIT championship squad - including All-Pac-12 first teamer Chasson Randle - but they've already lost starting point guard Robert Cartwright for the year with a broken arm.
From: LA Times
Roscoe Allen and Reid Travis are nice pieces, but nothing special.  In the end, this should a brutal crash back to earth for Johnny Dawkins after back-to-back years of post-season over-achievement.  The hot seat in Palo Alto will be set back to medium-high by year's end.

- UCLA -

Count me as one of those wierdos who believes in the job Steve Alford is doing in Westwood. 50-23 through two years, including two Sweet Sixteen bids and a conference tournament championship, have me in his corner.  They were in scramble mode last season, having to replace three NBA draftees and two high-profile senior starters, yet still found a way to succeed. If, after understanding all of that, you can still bring yourself to complain about that level of success, you are either stuck in the fantasy world of 1970s UCLA basketball, or just basically ignorant about the modern landscape of college hoops.
From: Pac-12.com
I'm still on board, even after the graduation of Norm Powell and the one-and-done professional leap by Kevon Looney. There are some truly solid pieces in place at Pauley Pavilion, not the least of whom is Bryce Alford, their woefully under appreciated flirtation with the promise and pratfalls of nepotism.  They've also got a pair of good centers in Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, and newly qualified international forward Jonah Bolden should soften the blow of life after Looney. A brutally tough schedule will throw rocks at their ability to make the Dance as an at-large, but I like their prospects of sneaking back into the league's top four when all is said and done.

- USC -

Conversely, while I like what Steve Alford is putting down on paper, I am completely unsold on what his counterpart across town, Andy Enfield, is doing.  The benefit of one fitful fortnight at tiny Florida-Gulf Coast, Enfield came to town with a lot of bluster and promise, but, as of yet, has only produced five conference wins in 36 tries.
From: LA Times
There were issues of talent, to be sure, but back-to-back basement finishes are damning evidence; you are what your record says you are, after all.  Under the influence of five returning starters, including budding point guard Jordan McLaughlin, I've moved them up off the bottom line in my predicted order of finish, but I still stand dismissive of their ability to get out of the bottom third.

- Utah -

The Utes continue to shine as one of the brightest turnaround stories in the basketball universe. In just three seasons they went from a six-win campaign, not to mention a near-300+ ranking on KenPom, to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.  The work done by head coach Larry Krystkowiak is semi-miraculous in nature, especially as it was mostly done the wholesome, organic way (i.e., not with a surprise top-10 recruiting class that sprung up out of thin air).  In retrospect, how the other Coach K didn't win last year's Pac-12 Coach of the Year award is beyond me (it went to Altman for cleaning up the mess he made for himself in Eugene).
From: Rant Sports
The fifth year for Larry in Salt Lake City brings with it some trappings, however.  Gone is the other-worldly talent of graduated point guard Delon Wright, the most do-it-all of any do-it-all player I've ever seen at the collegiate level, and I worry about how the Utah program will absorb the blow. Wright's impact on the team the last few years (15.7 combined win shares) is so out-sized as to be obscene.  While the Utes were not what I would consider a true one-man enterprise, they at least bordered on the notion.

Luckily, Coach Krystkowiak only has to worry about replacing Wright, as the other four starters return. Headlined by sure-fire NBA talent Jakob Poeltl and lights-out shooter Brandon Taylor, the Utes are still a strong, dangerous entity.  I only slipped them out of the top-four in my prediction out of respect for the abilities of Wright to make his teammates better, and the impact that dropping from a player of his talent to an unknown like sophomore Isaiah Wright (no relation) at the point guard position can have.

- Washington -

You may want to say some prayers for the coaching life of Lorenzo Romar, because the growing sense is that he's on a short leash in Seattle.  The dean of the Pac-12 coaching fraternity has run into a wall of declining fortunes since his 2012 team became one of the first ever Power-5 schools to win the league, yet fail to make the NCAA Tournament.  Three consecutive years of sliding conference finishes (along with attendance figures), culminating in an 11th-place burnout last spring, have the purple-clad natives restless, and Romar solidly on the hot seat.
From: Seattle Times
The upheaval at UW was so severe that, between graduations, defections, and expulsions, the Huskies lost all but three of their scholarship players from a year ago.  The biggest loss: Nigel Williams-Goss, who transferred to instate rival Gonzaga.  Woof.  I'm passing on them again this season, and you should too.

- Washington State -

I'll give Cougar head coach Ernie Kent this: his teams are entertaining.  The hardwood equivalent of Mike Leach's air raid offense, Kent had his charges running up and down the court last year to the tune of 67.5 possessions per game, providing hoops junkies (like myself) with enough reason to stay up late for the night-cap affairs in Pullman.
From: NBC.com
He turned forward Josh Hawkinson into a star, and made basketball in the Palouse interesting again.  I'm dropping them a bit for dealing with the graduation of DaVonte Lacy, but I would expect more of the same in year two of Kent's return from announcing exile.

--

RECRUITING


Such was the state of recruiting last year that I didn't have this section in the preview.  At the time, Colorado had a grand total of zero commitments for the Class of 2015, and only later fell into the group of one transfer (Derrick White), one JuCo (Kenan Guzonjic), and one true freshman (Thomas Akyazili) that it eventually ended up signing.  While each of those players has some nice qualities, and all should grow into valuable members of the rotation, none of them projects to have a major impact in 2015-16, making their class a short-term bust.

Struggles on the recruiting trail have become the norm around here, with CU repeatedly striking out on targets since the heady days of that 2012 class.  I've heard a number of people opine on the subject, and their answers are as varied and sporadic as the recruiting returns themselves:
  • Former assistant Tom Abatemarco was the only reason CU found and secured the talent it had; without him, they can't lock down quality players.
  • The Buffs just aren't willing to play dirty, and/or pay recruits (you may see this as a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective).
  • Colorado being a Nike school is holding it back in the pursuit of players who are linked to Adidas.
  • Top-level recruits just aren't interested in playing defense like Coach Boyle demands.
  • CU reaches too high for big name targets, and then, by the time they come back to talent that would really consider coming to Boulder, the players have since decided to move on.
Regardless of the real answer (and it's probably a mixture of all five points), the fact remains is that CU wasted the momentum generated in 2012 and 2013, culminating in an all but vacated 2015 recruiting cycle. That's going to bite the program in the ass in a few years.

To change his fortunes in the 2016 recruiting cycle, Coach Boyle tried an interesting strategy: get commitments early, under the faith in his talent evaluation that the players secured would eventually blossom into elite-level recruits.  That's how the Buffs ended up earning the early commitments of two guards in the class of 2016 - Deleon Brown and Cameron Satterwhite.  One worked out, the other didn't.
Brown was the first recruit in a new strategy to target talent early.
Brown, a 6-4 combo guard from Grand Rapids, was the first to commit all the way back in October of 2014. Normally, he would have been a part of the '15 class, having graduated high school last spring, but he wasn't going to turn 17 until December of 2014, and so ultimately decided on a year of prep school to continue his development. He eventually chose New Hampton Prep, the same school that produced current Buffs Tory Miller and Josh Repine. The result: reclassification to a '16 recruit; if you've ever wondered how you get a greyshirt in basketball, you now have your answer. While it took an extra year, it all sounds like he's still solidly a Buff, and the expectation is that he will sign when the first signing period opens up in a few days.

High school notes and film indicate that Deleon is a long, athletic lefty with a good outside touch and an ability to create off the dribble.  In true Tad Boyle mode, Brown was also his high school team's best defender. Apparently, the staff had been interested in Brown as far back as April ($) 2014, when they saw him at the Jayhawk Invitational. The only real surprise with Deleon was that CU's pursuit didn't get leaked earlier.

Compared to Deleon Brown, the story of Cameron Satterwhite was much stranger.  He announced his commitment a few months after Brown in a move that seemed to come out of thin air.  The lanky 6-3 wing from Gilbert, AZ was a largely under-the-radar recruit as a true junior (no other Power-5 offers), and didn't climb up many rankings lists despite averaging 18/5/3 at one point as a senior.  Really, the only thing that made him sound like the kind of recruit Coach Boyle typically targets was his freakish length -- "I have a 7-foot-6 wingspan. It is just a blessing, it really is."  The expectation was that he was still growing, and that his 6-3 frame would shoot up, making him a diamond-in-the-rough kind of find.
Satterwhite never got to see his commitment through.
Unfortunately, BuffNation will never get to see how that project would have developed.  Things started to go south when Satterwhite went down with a knee injury at a summer AAU tournament, coming down awkwardly off of a dunk.  While CU stuck with him after the injury, they did ask him to re-classify for 2017, giving his body more time to heal and adapt, while still giving them the room to secure a full class in 2016. Satterwhite decided against that tack, instead choosing to decommit from Colorado. From the linked Josh Gershon article:
"Tad (Boyle) made it very clear that he made a commitment to them so they're making a commitment to him. Tad was very honest and up front and I respect Colorado; it's not like they pulled the carpet from him. They put it in Cam's hands, he just decided to go in another direction."
Really, it's probably the best decision for both parties.  I won't say CU had buyer's remorse, but Cameron was always going to be a long-term project, even before the injury.  Colorado needs guard help immediately next year, and the re-opened scholarship will help get them closer to that end.  For Satterwhite, the decommitment, and ultimate switch to a smaller school (Loyola Chicago), probably helps him see the court sooner, which is what every recruit wants, anyways.
Peters enters the fold.  From: AllBuffs
The Buffs didn't take the recruiting reversal laying down, however.  Just about 72 hours after hearing about Cameron, they moved to re-apply the available scholarship, offering it to California point guard prospect Bryce Peters.  The 6-4 guard out of Los Angeles was all too eager to pledge for the Black and Gold over offers from Wyoming and UNLV.  A three-star prospect according to most services, he projects as a point guard in Boulder, and seems to be the prototypical Tad Boyle recruit - lanky and tall with deceptive speed and a potentially defensive mind-set ($).


Bryce, a much more conventional recruit, should be earning minutes as early as next fall, which is exactly what the program needs.  The ESPN recruiting reports are especially effusive, talking up his ability to score in all three phases and his fluidity in attack and distribution, making him sound like a latter-day Spencer Dinwiddie (... but can he grow a mustache?).  Sounds like the Buffs, in a pinch, were able to pull out a rising sleeper.  Solid turn from Coach Boyle, putting the recruiting storyline on its head before anyone had an opportunity to complain.

With Peters and Brown in the fold, that leaves at least one scholarship (possibly two, pending the resolution of the Xavier Johnson saga) to spend on this class.  The early indication was that CU would use it on a big, potentially one visiting in a busy September evaluation period.  So far, however, that has yet to work out, with highly-coveted targets like Trevor Stanback (Stanford), Jayce Johnson (Utah), and Dontay Bassett (Florida) committing elsewhere.

At this point, I would doubt that Colorado can fill that third scholarship in the first signing period, so expect more news by the time the April signing period rolls around. Striking out on those three forwards stings, but the duo of Brown and Peters seems to be a solid step forward in replanting withered seeds in the backcourt. Recruiting remains a puzzle that Coach Boyle and staff have yet to solve, but at least 2016 will not be as shaky as 2015 on the trail.

--

CONCLUSION

I'm with Coach Boyle, I wanted to fight somebody after many of the losses last year.  This was not the program I had come to know and love, they were some impostor Buffs.  By the end of the season, I wasn't mourning the end of another year of basketball as I normally would, I was eagerly looking for the end of the tunnel.  Looking for an escape.  That's not how this deal is supposed to go.

Much of the frustration of that impostor season has been blamed on a single concept -- the failure leadership and responsibility, a cloud that continues to hang over the program.  For much of the fanbase, those implied charges land solely at the feet of those three that are no longer with CU -- Askia Booker, Jaron Hopkins, and Dustin Thomas. It's too easy to scapegoat the departed, however, and it covers up the important fact that those players and coaches we now expect so much from were just as culpable in last year's train wreck. Waving a magic wand and making it 'Josh's team,' doesn't suddenly fix everything. No, it's going to take hard work to regain what was lost.

As Adam Butler noted in his Colorado preview, "The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem." OK, fair enough; let's step into the confessional. The roster is still flawed, maybe fatally so, and devoid of projectable backcourt performers.  The schedule isn't really built to get the team back into Tournament contention. Recruiting has been a unmitigated disaster the last year or so, and the well of talent is drying up. The fan base is beginning to stare despondently off in the distance.  Rick George has his head so far up football's ass that I wonder if he really knows he has a basketball program.  If this is to be a State of the Program Address, which is what I've heard some people refer to my Massive Preview as, well then let me pronounce that the State of Colorado Basketball is... troubled.

That is not to say, however, that this once proud bastion of success is doomed to a slide back into irrelevancy.  There is a way out of this mess.  And so, for this Massive Preview, I have no big list of goals. No six or seven-pack of high points that I'm expecting them to hit.  Instead, I only have one goal for Colorado Basketball in 2015-16: be better than last year. I don't really care what it looks like, or what happens along the way. Just be better than .500. Get back to winning basketball. Get back to #TadBall as we've come to know it.  Bring the happiness back to the Coors Events Center.

For the team to hit this one and only goal, they'll need to cast aside the issues that dogged them throughout 2014-15.  It begins this Friday; it begins with the little things.  The ascension of George King as a viable entity. The development of Dom Collier into the point guard of promise. The revival of Xavier Talton as a senior specialist.  The eventual return of Xavier Johnson.  The dominance of a healthy Josh Scott. The renewed passion of Coach Boyle. The redevelopment of leadership and responsibility. Every piece leading to the next laid in the completion of a puzzle, all with one common theme: getting better. A new chapter, a fresh breath.

So, will this year be as bad as last?  God no. No, no-no-no. Absolutely not, no. I ah... no.  Take heart, Buff fans, a rebound is on the way.


In summation, Tad Boyle is awesome.

Fin -

3 comments:

buffnik said...

First read only took a little over 2 hours.

Fantastic work, as always.

My biggest point of contention is that the forecast is very conservative and skeptical for this season.

Clearly, the upside is much larger than the downside versus the projected record.

I believe we'll see the Buffs Dancing in the spring.

Matt Allen said...

Incredible work. Long but informative and I loved it all. Amazing work!

Aaron Jordan said...

I look forward to this post all year long.