Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My Massive Basketball Preview 2016-17: The Next Step

"Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing."
- Ron Swanson

"Put some alcohol in your mouth to block the words from coming out."

- Also, Ron Swanson

I interrupt the exciting #Rise in Folsom to bring you: basketball season. There will be no apology.

In the closing throes of my Massive Preview last fall, I stated, emphatically, that the 2015-16 season would be better than the sour experience of 2014-15. 'A rebound is on the way,' I concluded. It was a declaration that was prefaced by over 20,000 words spent describing the ways that I knew the Buffs would just be better than they had been in that disastrous, CBI-concluded campaign. At the time, I'll admit, the statement, and the article as a whole, was written more as a soul-searching dive into literary comfort food than anything else. Hours spent assuaging my own fears that the product on the court wouldn't match my hopes. I could've saved myself the empty calories, however -- it was a declaration that was proved 100% right.

Over the course of 22 wins, including a run of 11-straight that finished just shy of the program mark, the Buffs showed that there would be no return to the painful days of the program's past. They would not fall back into old habits, they would not fade away into the miasma of countless mediocre basketball teams that plague this country. No, they would stay on track, and continue the drumbeat of success that the program has enjoyed since the arrival of Tad Boyle. Above all else, it was fun to watch basketball at the Foot of the Flatirons again.

The '15-'16 Buffs exceeded even my expectations, finishing 5th in the Pac-12 before winding up back in the NCAA Tournament for the 4th time in six years. The team reverted to form, doubling down on defense and rebounding, the old pillars of the Boyle coaching philosophy, while adding some spice in the form of outside shooting. It was a formula that paid off immediately, erasing any lingering doubt left over from the previous winter. While still a flawed team in many aspects, they came together as a group and claimed a number of great victories, including that over eventual Pac-12 champion and Elite Eight entrant Oregon at the Coors Events Center. It was, in isolation, a special season, and one well worth the price of admission.

That's not to say, however, that I feel full having consumed it. That team left some meat on the bone, allowing numerable wins - program-defining, profile-raising wins - to slip through their fingers. The losses toll like the mournful chimes of a funeral procession: Iowa St, SMU, Utah (twice), at USC, at Oregon St, and UConn in the Dance. In each, Colorado had the chance to win, to take the next step toward true relevance on the national stage. In each, they also were their own worse enemy, coughing up leads and settling into defeat. In essence, they failed to grab the brass ring, to claim what could've been theirs.

Such is the casus belli this season: take that next step. Win those games that mean something. Hold on to leads. Stroll into the upper tier of the Pac-12 and the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Become the program, on paper, that BasketBuffs everywhere have longed for.

In this virtual tome, I will try to explain why, exactly, I think the 2016-17 University of Colorado Men's Basketball Team will be able to achieve what last year's could not. I will preview them from a variety of aspects, while predicting just how all the pieces will fit together. I'll look at the roster, profiling the players and discussing how the coaching staff will look to make the great shift from focusing on the paint to the perimeter. I'll look at the schedule, touching on both the non-conference and conference slates, and announce my baseline win prediction for the campaign. I'll also 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 what should be the best recruiting class since 2012, discussing how the program will retool for a year after the departure of a very strong senior class.

But first, a warning.  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, and the product after the jump is far from brief. 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 seventh iteration of the Massive Basketball Preview. Previous installments can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

THE TEAM

Year-over-year, the discussion of any college basketball team starts with who is no longer with the program. It's the nature of college sports, the great and terrible passage of four or five years that eventually leads to graduation, and it defines the overall narrative. For the Buffs, that means we start the discussion of 2016-17 with the end of Josh Scott's collegiate career.

The Young Fundamental was, simply, one of the best players in Colorado Basketball history. Over four years of excellence, the center joined the late Cliff Meely as one of just two players to record 1,700 points, 900 rebounds, and 100 blocked shots while wearing Black and Gold. He finished in the program's top ten all-time in points, rebounds, games both started and played, overall minutes, double-doubles, free throws, and blocked shots. Josh also lead CU to three NCAA tournament appearances, and left the team's undisputed vocal leader in the huddle. I talked last year of legacy shopping for the young center, and his is fully secure now.

He could do it all, from his polished offensive skills (including the ability to score with either hand around the rim), to his almost supernatural ability to read and react on defense. His was the complete package, one probably never to be duplicated in these parts. Essentially everything you could ever want in a player, let alone a teammate, could be found with Josh. He was the bedrock upon which the foundation of basketball in Boulder was laid, and his presence will be sorely missed both this season and beyond. Accordingly, how the team this year goes about trying to replace his numbers will go a long way to determining the course of the season.

As Coach Boyle has often alluded to this summer, however, you can find a number of ways to replace his numerical production - points, rebounds, etc - but the more intangible aspects of his profile could haunt the team this winter. How do replace his leadership in the huddle? How do you replace his undisputed command of moments and situations that kept the team headed on the right track through adversity? The entire roster looked to him, both as a key to the offense and an anchor to the defense, and now he's gone, off playing basketball in Macedonia -- a literal world away from the goings on in Boulder. Someone will have to step up to take the reins in his absence, which leaves a nasty, open-ended question unanswered heading into opening week.

Of course, J40 wasn't the only casualty of graduation. Xavier Talton and Eli Stalzer each also expired their eligibility last winter, with the former finishing as a key member of the rotation, valued both for his leadership and skill. While not the best player on the roster, Talton was always an indispensable component to the team's overall success. See, Xavier could never be kept down for long, and Little X routinely found ways to force the coaching staff into putting him on the court. It was no wonder that, by the time conference play rolled around last January, his minutes spiked as Coach Boyle looked to the senior to back up the point guard position. He was a steady presence at a key position for years, and I'll remember him well. Stalzer, unfortunately, saw his role severely limited last year, falling under the heel of a music student's demanding scholastic schedule, along with some injury concerns. Not to say he wasn't still an intrinsic component to the team's overall chemistry, bringing important leadership to the table, just that his production all but disappeared in his final run as a Buffalo. In each case, though, their exits are overshadowed by that of Josh Scott, with arguments over replacing their presence getting done away with much more freely.

Beyond the graduates, the roster also experienced another round of defections. Following up on the transfers of Jaron Hopkins (Fresno State) and Dustin Thomas (Arkansas) in 2015 (now eligible to play for their new teams), Kenan Guzonjic (Barry Universtiy), Tre'Shaun Fletcher (Toledo) and walk-on hero Brett Brady (Colorado Christian; can play right away) left the program this summer with eligibility remaining. Fletcher's is the biggest loss; the jack-of-all-trades lefty wing who could guard and play pretty much every position. In all honesty, however, none of this group was going to be relied upon this season, so none of the transfers were all that crippling to the outlook of this team. Again, the attention naturally returns to the departure of J40. Just one of six departures, his is, by far, the most damning.

If that's what Colorado lost, then what do they return? Quite a lot, in fact. Compared to the national average (recouping 55% of last season's minutes), the Buffs returning nearly 65% of last season's participation is a bonanza. That doesn't even take into account a senior guard coming off a transfer redshirt who is expected to play heavy minutes, or the exuberant senior forward returning from injury after featuring as a regular starter over his first three seasons on campus. Colorado's roster, with all eight of their projected top performers boasting significant college basketball experience, is actually one of the most experienced strings in the nation, one that won't be relying on freshmen for anything other than added spice. It's a very enviable position for the program to be in, one that has similarly served the football team well this fall. In college sports, heavy experience pays off, often even more than raw talent, which is exactly why plenty is expected of CU this winter.

That's not to say it will be easy, and it all comes back to replacing Josh Scott. Without him, while the team is returning so much talent, they're also staring a tectonic shift in the focus of play in the face. Without the talismanic Scott in the paint, this is now a perimeter-oriented team -- you'll be seeing a lot more guards on the court at one time then you've ever seen before under Tad Boyle. For better or worse, everything this team does well will start from the outside.

In a way, however, that plays to the strengths that emerged a season ago. While Scott was heavily relied upon, the big improvement, at least offensively, over the disastrous 2014-15 campaign was three point shooting and overall perimeter production. The Colorado guards were consistently effusive a year ago, setting a program record for both three-pointers made (252) and hit rate (39%). All those record-setting shooters are back, and, while they won't have Josh in the middle demanding double-teams to help space the floor, they should remain an effective crux of the offense.

And so, the attention naturally turns in full to this year's roster, one which shows plenty of promise. It's centered upon the talents of four redshirt seniors, each carrying four important years of collegiate basketball experience into the season. Two of them are original CU recruits (the exuberant wing from before, along with one of the best defensive forwards in the conference), with another a versatile transfer wing with a year of Colorado playing time under his belt. The final of the seniors, though, may end up emerging as the best lead guard in Black and Gold since Spencer Dinwiddie. Coming from a lower division of play, with All-American honors in tow, he is both an exciting and enigmatic presence at the top of the roster, one which looks to catch the league, and the country as a whole, off-guard.

Even past the headlining seniors, however, the team is still dotted with explosive, returning talent. There's the fourth-year junior wing with an insane shooting touch, the local product point guard on the verge of a breakout in his third year, a banzai European combo guard with a knack for the exclamatory, and a mammoth power forward who has shown steady improvement since arriving on campus. And, while they may not be filling critical roles this winter, it should also be noted that the newbies show tons of promise, as well. The freshmen class consists of a pair guards who have shown early signs of flair and defensive willingness, and a pair of forwards who are more than capable of stepping out an hitting a jumper.

Put it all together, and it's a roster that has the potential to bring Colorado to heights of basketball prowess not yet seen in the Tad Boyle era.


Guards

- Derrick White - 6-5, 193 lbs, Sr from Parker, CO - #21
From: the BDC
I think it most fitting, in discussion of the 2016-17 roster, to start here, with Derrick White; or 'the Chosen One,' as teammate Namon Wright has taken to calling him. The 6-5, 200 lbs redshirt senior may not be a familiar name to many in BuffNation, but I'm betting that he'll end up being the most important piece of this year's roster puzzle, and a player that we'll never forget.

He comes to CU from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, one of four campuses in the flagship system. There, he was a bona fide star for the Division II Mountain Lions. Over three seasons in the Springs, the Parker product tore up the competition, setting a number of program records; he left their all-time leader in points, assists, points per game, points in a single season, free throws made in a season, and free throws made in a career, among others. His crowning achievement down south came as a junior, earning All-America honors with a 26/7/5 campaign that lead the Mountain Lions to a program-best 27-6 record and the NCAA Tournament. His credentials are impeccable, with the noted caveat that they came against Division II competition.

Having sat a year due to transfer rules, White is now ready to take a run out onto the floor of the CEC for what will be his only taste of top-flight collegiate basketball. The book on him is that he is a good athlete and complete basketball player, capable of attacking off the dribble, hitting outside jump shots, distributing to facilitate his teammates, playing solid defense on the other end, and grabbing rebounds wherever they are available. The coaching staff loves his decision making on-ball, along with his ability to wreak havoc off the ball. Simply: a bucket-getter and a play-maker. The Ralphie Report went a little purple after the first open scrimmage, saying that Derrick "bends space and time to find open shots, and once he’s there, he scores effortlessly," but the sentiment speaks plainly. Maybe that's why Coach Boyle was open in his despair last year over having to sit him, and just as happy to finally be able to add the versatile weapon to his rotation this winter:
"Let's put it this way — he's a special player. He is going to be able to affect the game in a lot of different ways. He can score, he can shoot, he can distribute the ball, he can rebound the ball, he can block shots for a guy that's 6'5", he is a terrific defender. Derrick White is going to have a great year, there is no question in my mind."
I particularly like the possibilities created by his ability to attack off the dribble-drive, get to the line, and make some free throws. It's the one dynamic piece that was missing last winter - a lead guard with a nose for the rim and the whistle - and one that will serve CU well in this campaign. Even with his voluminous shooting numbers in the Springs, Derrick still posted a FT rate above 65% in his final season of D-II ball, collecting over 300 attempts in both his sophomore and junior seasons. No Colorado guard since Spencer Dinwidde has approached those numbers in a single season, let alone multiple. It's the kind of specialization which plays well late in games. White, much like the Mayor and Alec Burks before him, has the skill set to get to the rim in the final minutes, earn a whistle, and turn empty possessions into something, forestalling opponent runs and outright collapses.

You may be asking yourself, however, 'If he's so good, then how come no other Division-I schools saw this potential coming out of high school?' Well, it certainly is an interesting conundrum. Somehow, out of a state that produces very few true D-I talents, White slipped through the cracks. While still in high school, coaches could see that his game had few on-court weaknesses, but they could also see his physical stature during evaluation. In the brutal cruelty of trying to sift through the thousands of hopeful youths playing for coaches around the country, a player of Derrick's size, then about 6-1, 165 lbs, simply didn't fit the mold, and almost everyone took a pass. "I probably wouldn't have recruited me either in high school," said White. Even earning D-II attention was a struggle. “He didn’t pass the eye test,” said former DU assistant coach Marcus Mason, “So he got snubbed a little bit.”


Once in the UCCS program, however, White took off, both on the court and physically. He would shoot up another four inches after graduating high school, and add about 30 lbs to his frame. Suddenly, the slight, wiry guard was an imposing athletic presence, and his already solid game was taken to new heights. Success would follow, as would overtures from D-I schools, like Colorado. It was time for a call up from the minors.

Now attempting his dream, playing Power 5, D-I basketball, Derrick will be facing a whole new set of pressures. He has just one year to prove his credentials, a weight of performance that his teammates, most of whom have already gone through the growing pains of their first season at this level, simply don't share. Lucky then that, by all reports, he was one of the, if not the outright, best players on the court for many of the practice sessions last winter. 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. He should be able to hit the ground running and explode onto the scene.

What can we in BuffNation realistically expect? 15/3/3 while averaging high-20s in minutes seems like it could be low-balling Derrick's ceiling at this point, but loftier expectations would be putting the cart before the horse. Regardless, I think we'd all take anything in that range in a heartbeat -- those were the lines the Mayor used to put up, after all. While I do worry a little about his transition period, particularly on the defensive end, he's had a year of D-I practice to work on his game (something Derrick said was huge for him, "both as a person and a player."), and White is, by every evaluation I could find, 'a baller.' Said Boyle, "Derrick White is worth the price of admission." Guys like that don't stay quiet for long. By the second week of the season, he should be rolling, and the Buffs should be relying heavily on him.


- Josh Fortune - 6-5, 200 lbs, Sr from Hampton, VA - #44
From: the Press Democrat
Josh is the second of four redshirt seniors on the roster, and, like Derrick White, started his career elsewhere. Originally a Providence College Friar, the versatile wing from the Virginia coast chose to finish his career at Colorado for 'professional reasons,' and shot his way onto the court last fall.

Unfortunately for Josh, his first season in Black and Gold didn't go as well as hoped, and he was beset by a rough transitionary period. Stuck in a three-way rotation with George King and Tre'Shaun Fletcher for two starting wing slots, Fortune struggled with some untimely turnovers, inconsistency, and the occasional awkward decision-making gaffe. The home game against Utah, particularly, sticks in my mind, where a last-minute errant pass helped turn what could've been a big CU win into a loss (the only home loss of the season, in fact). No game really comes down to just one play, and Josh wasn't the only culprit that night, but it's the kind of moment that sours my perception.

My guess is that the stress of the rotation, constantly having to prove himself deserving of playing time, was a primary factor behind the errant inconsistency. He was pressing to stand out, which will usually get yourself and your teammates into trouble. Said Coach Boyle:
"The biggest thing with Josh Fortune is to simplify the game. Don't try to make plays you can't make. Just make simple plays. When he makes simple plays, he's a great player. When he makes difficult plays or plays he's unable to make, that's when the turnovers start." -link
Regardless, that's not the final word on his career in Boulder. Josh recognizes the problem, and has been eager to address it behind the scenes, headed into his senior season. "I've gotten better at [decision-making] through the summer. That's what I focused on. Knowing that and knowing what I did wrong, I can only get better from that."

It's important to note, though, that Josh had an otherwise strong year for Colorado last winter. He finished 3rd on the team in scoring and minutes, proved to be an excellent three point shooter (37% over nearly 140 attempts), and stood as an important cog in the machine that pushed the team to the NCAA Tournament. What's more, his rebounding skills and defensive activity were far better than had been advertised (highest non-forward rate on the team, 15.5 DR%; 2nd on the team in steals), and he was a willing distributor (2nd on the team in assist rate). Entering his second year, frustrating moments aside, he should be viewed as a fundamental jack-of-all-trades for a team looking to lead from the backcourt.

One of my favorite baseball blogs, South Side Sox, coined the term 'fulcrum' to use when discussing players who could drastically swing the team one way or the other by where their actual performance lands on their projected spectrum. I can't help but think back to that analogy when considering Josh's final season in Boulder. It's a term that doesn't designate the 'best' player on the team (for example, if either King or White don't live up to expectations, the Buffs are screwed anyway), but the one who could be the difference maker between a special season and an average one. I think Fortune could be just that kind of player for Colorado this year.

With George King and Derrick White projected to earn the starting wing spots, that leaves the 6th man role for Josh. Overall, I think that's a good fit for him; shooting is always welcome in the second unit, and his size, versatility, and nose for rebounds makes him a tough matchup to throw into the action mid-game. With an impact player coming off the bench, the Buffs just become more dangerous and harder to keep pace with over the course of 40 minutes. A fulcrum, if ever I've heard of one.

The only problem is that he fought that exact role last winter. While Josh enjoyed more minutes per game when coming off the bench, his shooting suffered a bit, particularly from outside (46% from three-point rage in starts, 32% as a substitute). It's a performance he can't repeat in 2016-17, which is where Boyle's prescribed simplification comes in. Just come in off the bench and make good basketball plays. If he can do that, those shooting numbers get flipped on their head, and those odd turnovers disappear. He'll still get his 25 minutes per game, excel across the score sheet (while limiting turnovers), and it will just accentuate what the rest of the team is doing. Ultimately, it helps Colorado win basketball games.


- George King - 6-6, 220 lbs, Jr from Fayetteville, NC - #24
From: the AP
I stand here today, and happily state that I was wrong; I was wrong to doubt the summer 2015 hype surrounding George King. He not only lived up to that hype, he surpassed it in almost every way possible. As a result, King enters the 2016-17 season as the incumbent leading scorer on a team dependent on scoring talent out of the backcourt, and one of the most critical players on the roster.

The redshirt junior from North Carolina (by way of San Antonio) is the final remaining piece from the 2013 recruiting class, having since watched fellow recruits Jaron Hopkins, Dustin Thomas and Tre'Shaun Fletcher transfer out. It's ironic, in a way, that King is the last man standing from that class. He was a late addition in the 2nd signing period, and one that most in BuffNation, myself included, thought was a reach. Instead, he alone remains, and has blossomed into one of the more dangerous scoring threats in the Pac-12. Coach Boyle may not always hit on his recruiting gambles, but his success rate isn't as scatter-shot as you might assume. GK is proof of that.

His was an electric 2015-16 campaign. George exploded onto the scene, and opposing scouting reports, by finishing in double figures scoring for each of the team's first seven contests, and 10 of 11. He ripped off his redshirt in an early-season run that included massive games against Auburn and BYU, scoring a combined 50 points. Where we fans had originally entered the season wondering where the points would be coming from out of the backcourt, here, finally, was the tenacious, efficient shooter that the team was looking for to flesh out their offense. While George would cool off a bit in conference play, posting some inconsistent scoring lines down the stretch, he still finished 2nd on the team in scoring, and really powered the Colorado attack from the backcourt as he settled into a deserved starting role. It was a completely different look from his freshman season, where he rarely saw any playing time at all. Given the extra year to develop, George made himself better, the sign of a good player, and proved Coach Boyle and staff right for redshirting him for his true sophomore season.

We all knew that George had the athleticism for this level, that much was clear from his freshman year; the challenge was always going to be how he filled out the rest of his resume. Beyond just basic improvement in his understanding of the game and patience on the ball, the answer, it emerged, was a tremendous jump shot that answered every question I ever had about the kid offensively. Stunningly, it turned him into a dynamic outside weapon that the team had been lacking just a year prior. For the year, he would shoot 67-146 from deep, a 46% rate that landed him in the top-20 nationally. His shooting touch was a transformative element to his game, helping him earn the Pac-12's Most Improved Player of the Year award. Clutch, too. King rarely shied away from the moment, and fired when needed. Who can forget, after all, his game-tying, season-saving three pointer in overtime against Washington State? It's a shot that staved off an RPI-disaster and kept the season from falling off the rails.

Really, the only setback for King over the last calendar year was his offseason foot surgery, necessitated by a bone spur in his right foot. It cost him a little bit of summer practice, but he has since recovered, and will head into the season fully healthy.

Looking forward, I do hope that King can improve a little beyond the 'pure shooter' role. There's nothing wrong with putting up seasons like Levi Knutson, knocking down big shots when the team needs them the most, but he's capable of so much more. His rebounding numbers, particularly, weren't what I expected for a player with such obvious athletic gifts (12.4% defensive), and he struggled a bit with the balance between his turnovers and assists (worst assist rate of any guard on the roster, 1:2.7 A-T). I get it, he's meant to be a scorer (2nd highest offensive win shares on the team, behind Josh Scott), not necessarily a facilitator. But, while other players on the roster can work to fill the need, an A-T disparity that extreme from anyone on the court is unacceptable. Further, he had a tendency to get a little lost on defense at times (OK, sometimes a lot lost), and could use some improvement in that area. With as many minutes as he will receive this season, King can't be a sieve on the defensive perimeter.

Essentially, my point is this: if regression-to-the-mean strikes, and those shooting numbers dip (which they probably will), King has to have something else up his sleeve to keep the team on the right track. It's a pressing need, too, as a lack of Josh Scott in the paint may leave opponents more adventuresome in perimeter defense. Scoring-only players are nice, but they can be a double-edged sword if the scoring dries up. Rounding out his profile could turn George into an All-Conference kind of performer, even as the shots get tougher. Overall, he made himself a good player with the extra year of practice, now he needs to show that he can make his teammates and the team as a whole better, as well.

Maybe it's with all that in mind that Coach Boyle has teased the prospect of playing George at the '4.' Exhibiting him down there would limit his exposure to quicker wings defensively, lessen the passing burden expected from perimeter positions, and allow him to take advantage of larger, slower defenders on the other end. It's an interesting concept, and one to watch as the season develops. Regardless, George King is an exciting offensive talent, and one the Buffs are lucky to have.


- Dominique Collier - 6-2, 190 lbs, Jr from Denver, CO - #15
From: SI.com
On a team with a number of diverse scoring options, particularly in the backcourt, someone has to be the facilitator. Someone has to be the player creating, rather than just taking shots. The one setting up the trigger-happy shooters on the perimeter and finding the forwards in good position on the block; running plays and dictating tempo. For the Buffaloes, that man is Dom Collier.

The former Denver East star came to CU with about as much fan fare as could be generated - the coaching staff essentially 'chose' him over current Gonzaga talent Josh Perkins - which, in retrospect, might have done the young point guard a disservice. While he was solid and improving as the team's primary ball-handler over the last two seasons, the fans wanted to see something more in the Spencer Dinwiddie mold, which is just not who Dom is. His is a more subtle game, inside-basketball style. The deft pass, the changing of pace coming up the court, the dual principles of spacing and position. Sure, he won't lead the team in scoring, but he will always help put them in a position to win by making the smart basketball plays.

That's not to say his contributions don't show on the score sheet, however. In fact, Collier had what I would consider a pretty solid sophomore campaign. He was 4th in scoring while leading the team in both assists and steals. Dom also developed a quietly effective three point shot (44% on 88 attempts) that complimented what shooting stars like Fortune and King were doing beyond the arc. He wasn't a primary shooter, just really good at picking his spots. Simply, Colorado does not make the NCAA Tournament without his cool, collected hand on the wheel.

There is room for improvement, though:
  • The turnovers were a little high (26% TO rate), particularly during conference play where his assist-to-turnover ratio dropped to essentially equality. Not what you want to see from your primary ball handler.
  • Cheap fouls were also a big concern. Dom committed 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes played last season, the product of hasty reaches on the perimeter. He was only saved from the team lead in that dubious category thanks to freshmen Thomas Akyazili and Kenan Guzonjic, one of whom is no longer with the team. With Coach Boyle sticking with the 'two fouls and sit' theory of first half management, it cost Collier a lot of minutes, and really hurt the team. 
  • Dom only hit 34% of all two point attempts, including a woeful 29% on mid-range jumpers. It's a weakness of his game that opponents can isolate, running him off the perimeter, and forcing him inside.
That may seem like a serious list, and it is, but it's not a set of insurmountable issues. Take the last item, for example. Probably what could help him most here is being a little stronger on the ball once he starts to drive, which would produce better shots at the rim and help get his fouls drawn up from just 3.5/40. There were times last year where Collier would get hammered on the drive, yet still not get the call, leading to a free throw rate under 35%. Tick that up a bit, and he becomes deadly efficient weapon across the spectrum.

Overall, I think he's really close to a breakout year. The biggest trick will just be owning the natural leadership responsibility of being the point guard. This will be, in many ways, his team, especially with the monolithic presence of Josh Scott gone from the roster. Teammates will be looking to him for leadership and guidance, particularly among the guard corps, and he will be responsible for keeping the numerous offensive sparkplugs on the roster happy. Maybe not the most comfortable position for a person who is naturally reserved, but he'll need to be a little more vocal, telling guys where they need to be; exerting his will and being a little 'nastier.'

To that end, he's been busy this summer:
"I worked on being more of a leader, communicating — even outside of basketball, just communicating more effectively. On the court, I worked on shooting, ball handling, making smarter decisions and the pick-and-roll offense."
-and-
"I've been focused on being a better floor leader, a floor general. I have to get our scorers and then guys that looked disengaged, I have to get them into the game. And then I have to do the little things, like not turning the ball over and just making smarter decisions. It's about slowing down and just letting the game come to me and not try to force plays. Let the opportunities that I see come to me. [...] I've come in and watched a lot of film, trying to slow down and let the game come to me and not force plays,"
I think, in many ways, those quotes show that Collier now 'gets it.' Like a QB on a football team, he's taking the mantle of leadership seriously, and accepting the natural responsibility that comes with the position. More importantly, he's also limiting his scope to only what he can control. At times in the past, he has tried to be all things to all people; not so anymore. As Nate Tomlinson before him, wrangling the herd, scoring when needed, and playing lockdown defense is all that is required. In his words, he no longer has to "worry about what anyone else thinks," and just go out and do his job. If Dom does that, then Colorado will be back in the Dance, once again.


- Thomas Akyazili - 6-2, 180 lbs, So from Antwerp, Belgium - #0
From: the BDC
Outside of the emergence of George King, the most pleasant surprise on the team last winter was the play of Thomas Akyazili. The international product surpassed almost every expectation out there, and emerged as a key rotational figure down the stretch. Nicknamed the '#1 Cop on the Force' for reasons beyond my perception, he became a fan-favorite almost immediately, and enters the 2016-17 season as the presumptive back-up point guard.

The easy comparison for outside observers is to equate Akyakili to the great Nate Tomlinson, but it's an analogy that falls short under any examination that goes past the pasty skin tone, overseas background, and sleeve of tattoos. Their games are wildly divergent, and, to be honest, Akyazili hasn't done enough to be put in Nate's company.

His total numbers from last year are nothing eye-popping, but the Belgian easily passes the qualitative test with his ability to both create for himself and others. Defensively, he's still developing, but I'm not yet ready to pass judgement on his abilities, overall. He just needs more time, and simply more American basketball, to become a lead component of the rotation, but expect Thomas to put in some big minutes for the team this year as a reserve.

His biggest assets are his speed and his balls-to-the-wall willingness to use it. Last year, Akyazili was able to catch a number of teams off-guard who were looking for the more measured tempo of Boyle's half-court system, and dice them up with drives to the basket. So quick, in fact, that, when not shooting three pointers, his attempts were almost all at the rim. He posted the lowest rate of two-point jumpers on the entire team (12% of attempts), even lower than walk-on shooting specialist Brett Brady.

Thomas, once again, spent the summer playing in Europe as part of the Belgian National Team's U-20 squad in the European Championships, his 4th international tournament appearance at any level. While the team as a whole struggled, finishing 14th out of 16 participants, Yaz performed pretty well. He averaged 13/4/3 over seven games, including a 23/7 night against Israel. In the tournament, he displayed his ability to cash in from the free throw line, hitting 29 of 34 attempts from the stripe to pace his team. Overall, a very positive spate of experience for the young guard. If he can bring that level of play back with him to the States, the Buffs will be in good hands.
From: @Matt_Sisneros
Now returned to Colorado, look for him to feature at both the '1' and the '2' spots this season, kind of like what we saw last year. In fact, there will be times when both he and Collier are on the floor, countervailing popular perception of the rotation. Thomas can play either spot effectively, and may actually be more of a shooting guard, all things considered; the dearth of 'true' point guard options in the system, however, nods him in that direction. Unfortunately, with the large number of playable guards on the team, I still expect him to still feature in a 8th or 9th man role most nights -- he probably will deserve more, it's simply a product of the glut of backcourt talents this year. In future seasons, however, it'll be his time to shine.


- Deleon Brown - 6-4, 175 lbs, Fr from Grand Rapids, MI - #5
From: the BDC
It's been a long road to Boulder for Deleon Brown. The first of the four freshmen in the 2016 recruiting class to commit, he actually pledged to the Black and Gold two years ago, back when he was classified for 2015. Instead of the linear path, however, he decided to reclassify as a 2016 recruit, and undergo a year of prep school before starting his collegiate career. Think of it as the basketball equivalent of a grey shirt.

From what I've seen of his film, Brown is an exceptional athlete with good versatility. In the Colorado tradition, he's a left-handed wing, and can play a number of positions in the backcourt. His jump shot (which the Daily Camera compared to that of former NBA star Sam Perkins) should fit in well with the recent uptick in three point shooting, and he can also take guys off-dribble. Maybe not flashy, but a good basketball player.

His high school career in Michigan was impeccable, featuring three times as an all-state player, and finishing up as a Mr. Basketball candidate his senior season. At Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Brown averaged 13 ppg for at team that eventually wound its way tot he national quarterfinals. The extra year of experience was invaluable in getting him ready for the rigors of Pac-12 basketball, and could give him a step-up on the other freshman guard, Bryce Peters, in terms of earning early playing time. Still, it will be hard for Brown to find the court often this winter, as there are a number of veterans ahead of him in the pecking order. Barring a injury or a massive upturn of expectations, Deleon will be a deep reserve come conference play.

That said, an interesting note from fall camp was Coach Boyle calling him out for his defensive intensity in a post-practice press availability. What's more, I've even heard some refer to him as one of the best defenders in camp. If that's true, suddenly a path to the rotation opens up. As I've always said, in this program, those who play defense get the minutes, meaning we may end up seeing more of Brown in the early going than originally anticipated. Time will tell...


- Bryce Peters - 6-4, 190 lbs, Fr from La Puente, CA - #23
From: the Post Independent
Of all the incoming freshmen, I like the potential of Bryce Peters the most. With an 'outgoing' personality, and the talent to match, the skateboarding 'free spirit' ($) should earn favor from BuffNation quickly as we see more and more of him. He's an explosive combo guard from Los Angeles (Coach Boyle called him 'an old fashioned baller,'); his film shows good bounce, a sharp first step, strong ball handling, and the general ability to create for both himself and others. Overall, good size, good speed, and a pleasing style to watch. I love his court vision and on-ball activity, and look at him more as an attacking point guard than a '2,' when all is said and done.

Universally considered a three-star prospect by the major services, Bryce enjoyed a nice career at Damien High School in the LA area, and chose CU over competing offers from UNLV and Wyoming. Throughout his high school years, he showed off a great pull-up jumper ($), and was known for a good motor and attacking mentality; attributes that will serve him well in the Colorado system. He also was called out by Boyle after an early fall practice for his defensive energy, which could earn him more early minutes than his offensive potential. A very promising package, indeed.

Much like Deleon Brown, however, I fear he may be stuck behind a number of veterans when it comes time to dole out the minutes this winter. Since I like him more as a point guard than Brown, Bryce should fit into the 3rd spot on-ball, behind Collier and Akyazili, but that may not mean as many minutes this year as it meant to the '#1 Cop' in 2015-16. Just a simple drawback of the way Coach Boyle builds his program -- talented players may be forced to wait their turn while the vets matriculate towards graduation. Not a knock on either of the two young guards, though. They can both play, and will be stars for CU in the future.


- Namon Wright - 6-5, 200 lbs, Jr (TR) from Los Angeles, CA
From: the BDC
It took a while, but Coach Boyle finally found a target to tempt with the last open scholarship for 2016-17. Formerly a top-75 recruit out of high school, Namon Wright comes to Boulder from old Big XII rival Missouri where he was a key wing for the Tigers. He'll be forced to ride the pine this season, thanks to the NCAA's dogmatic transfer rules (Coach Boyle looks at this differently -- transfers 'get' to sit out), but, once released from the mandatory redshirt, will help soften the landing from losing high-profile scorers like Derrick White, George King, and Xavier Johnson.

The Buffs had actually pursued Wright when he was coming out of LA's Pacific Hills High School before watching him choose the SEC school. He had signed with Frank Haith, however, who was quickly shown the door by the school, and the Tigers slumped into an APR morass. It just wasn't the same program he signed with. Finally, after struggling to find a comfortable fit in the new system, Namon started looking for other options, eventually choosing the Buffs over entreaties from Oregon and UNLV. He was developing well at Missouri, and seemed to be on the verge of becoming a complete player; his choice to transfer was purely, as Josh Fortune would put it, 'professional.'

As a sophomore in Columbia, he averaged 10/5/1, emerging as a regular starter under coach Kim Anderson. He showed good versatility to play a number of positions, great athleticism overall, and an ability to get to the line (FT rate near 47%). The most impressive portions of his profile, however, come on the rebounding lines, where he posted a team-leading 18% DR rate, and hauled in 138 total defensive boards. Throw in a developing outside jump shot, and you can view him as a commensurate replacement for Johnson and Fortune in the wing corps. Once they graduate and Wright can take the court, he'll have two years of eligibility remaining.

His primary role this season, however, will be as a practice player. In the mold of Carlon Brown, Josh Fortune, George King and Derrick White before him, he'll be behind the scenes for a solid season, helping his teammates improve, and taking the opportunity to just focus on his game. As an unfortunate note, a foot injury suffered in fall practices, will sideline him for "a while." Still, if the history of those players shows anything, it'll be a boon for Colorado once he's back to being healthy and eligible.


- Josh Repine - 6-3, 180 lbs, Jr from Englewood, CO - #33
From: @Repine13
Walk-ons, of course, are the unheralded stars of the roster. Putting in the minutes behind the scenes, they push the other players in practice, and take on difficult assignments on the scout team to help prepare the rotation for the next opponent. While they rarely see the court, the product on it wouldn't be the same without them.

The walk-on corps this season is a little smaller than in years past, with the great Brett Brady having transferred to D-II Colorado Christian for his final year of eligibility, and one of the remaining three already targeted for a redshirt. The eligible group, though, is lead by Repine, a redhead from Kent Denver, and the oldest of the walk-on trio. He was able to get in six games last season, making his lone basket from deep against Northern Colorado back in November. It was the first shot of his career, and a pretty cool moment to see.

Like most of the walk-on predecessors before him, he's undersized, and otherwise relies on his jump shot when getting into the action. While we won't see much of him beyond garbage time this year, when we do see Josh on the court, it'll probably mean victory for the Buffs.


- Mitch Lombard - 6-0, 183 lbs, So from Castle Pines, CO - #12
From: the Castle Pines Connection
The other walk-on looking to get mop-up minutes this year, Mitch Lombard is an interesting talent. He had multiple scholarship opportunities coming out of Rock Canyon High School, but decided to take a walk-on spot in Boulder, instead, having always dreamed of being a Buff. It's with that in mind that I look at him as slightly more capable than your average non-scholarship player, even if he fills that traditional role in the program.

Mitch, unfortunately, didn't score last year, missing his only attempt in the blowout win over Stanford in late-January. With Brady and Eli Stalzer out of the program, however, someone in the 'Larry Bird Squad' will have to get the leftover attempts in garbage time, meaning Lombard should have some chances to feature on the scoreboard this winter.


Forwards/Centers

- Wesley Gordon - 6-9, 220 lbs, Sr from Colorado Springs, CO - # 1
From: @RyanKoenigsberg
It's a little weird to see Wes Gordon's name on the roster, but not that of Josh Scott. The duo from Colorado Springs played so well together over the last three seasons that I began to view them as a tandem. Now without Josh's 'Batman,' Wes as 'Robin' takes on a whole new role as the primary interior forward for CU, along with the requisite burden of leadership, in this, his final season at Colorado.

Wes has always been an interesting study for me. He has obvious talent, but seemed, at times, to defer to the great Scott underneath. Certainly, Josh was a very good basketball player, one of the elites in program history, but Gordon doesn't need to 'defer' to anyone. You could see that in the games where  Josh was absent over the past few years, including a pair last season where Wes averaged 16/13 with J40 on the sideline. Those two performances only improved on the small boost in production we saw during 2014-15 campaign when Josh was out with a bad back, and project well with an eye towards 2016-17. He has the broad spectrum talent to lead the team from the post, hence why former CU player Beau Gamble was so adamant prior to last season that he was the second best player on that roster. While a number of guards have emerged to usurp both that mantle and the top spot, Gordon's production is no less important to the overall success of the team.

The key with Gordon is his defense. One of the best defensive forwards in the modern history of the program, and a honorable mention on last season's Pac-12 All-Defensive Team, he was 4th in conference play in block rate (6.7) last winter, and is one of the great rim-protection artists in the Pac-12 today. In fact, he's a duplication of his junior year stats away from setting the all-time program record for blocks, once set by big David Harrison. Wes has an outstanding nose for flushing out opportunities to deflect shots, getting in great position to pickup the leavings from his teammates who let would-be scorers by. Adding to it, he is fantastic on the boards. He was getting near eight a game last year with solid rates (17.5 DR%), even as Josh was gobbling up his share. With Scott now graduated, those numbers should only improve.

As good as his defense has been, however, it's his offense that sets him apart from merely 'defensive specialist' status. Very quietly, Wes puts up some of the most efficient numbers in the conference, starting with a top-20 offensive rating in conference play (114.6). For him, it's all about taking shots he can make, leveraging high-percentage opportunities to put points on the board. It starts on the offensive glass, where he simply one of the best in the country. With the Buffs missing a lot of bunnies (329th nationally in FG% at the rim), he pulled down an OR rate about 11% -- in conference play alone, it was a best-in-the-league 13.4%. This allows him a number of easy put-backs to increase his numbers. What's more, he had the best free throw rate on the team, getting to the line more times than all but George King and Josh Scott. As his FT% has increased each season, to the point that it was begging to break the 70% barrier last spring, trips to stripe are a good production opportunity for Wes and the Buffs as a whole.

It's not all cheap put-backs and free throws, though. Wes' jump shot is improving, at least to the point where he keeps opposing defenders honest, and can be looked at as an option in pick-and-pop scenarios. Additionally, he can back down defenders, can make a good pass out of the post, and he has an improving repertoire of offensive moves. In fact, CU should be looking to get Wes more shots this season, putting him in position to really hurt opponents for focusing too much on the perimeter. He's never going to run the floor like his old teammate, work a defender with his off hand, or take those beautiful set shots from the elbow, but I trust him to take care of the ball and make a good decision on offense (lowest turnover rate of any returner, 14.8%).

More than his contributions on the scoreboard, however, the Buffs will need to see some leadership from the redshirt senior if they hope to achieve all that they are capable of. The problem is, as he long stood under the shadow of J40, I've never really thought of him as a 'team leader' from my outsider perspective. He is usually quiet and reserved on the court, leaving his play to do the talking. That won't work in 2016-17, though. He'll have to be more vocal this year as the leader of the forward corps in ways that he hasn't before. Hopefully, his experience in Australia with the Pac-12 All-Stars this summer will pay dividends, giving him an experience outside his comfort zone from which to build off of.

Look, no one player is ever going to replace Josh Scott in either the scorebook or the huddle, and having the reserved Gordon forced to expand his personality to fit a leadership role is a little scary. But I'm pretty sure that, when all is said and done, CU will still be in good hands this winter with Wes Gordon being the man in the middle.


- Xavier Johnson - 6-7, 225 lbs, Sr from Los Angeles, CA - #11
From: Today's U
In considering Xavier Johnson's potential for the 2016-17 season, it would be criminal to avoid any discussion of his 2015-16. It's more than simply bringing up the injury and his year-long absence, too. Part of the narrative last season was 'addition by subtraction.' That simply the departure of free radicals like Askia Booker, Jaron Hopkins, and Dustin Thomas helped put the Buffs back on a winning track, and allowed improved leadership and teamwork to drag them out of the dismal doldrums of 2014-15. But, of course, XJ was absent from that team last year, as well. Did the Buffs benefit in any way by the subtraction of the heady, vibrant SoCal personality from the lineup?

It's a complicated issue, just as it was when talking about Ski's impact on the failure/success pattern of the previous two seasons. Just like Booker, Johnson is obviously talented, capable of carrying the team on his back through stretches, and, at his heart, a winning basketball player. But there were also - and I'm only talking about pre-injury XJ here - a number of distractions. He was, through his first three seasons, a very emotional player, oftentimes allowing those emotions spill over into poor play on the court and heedless talk off of it. I won't say it wasn't entertaining, but it also wasn't always in the team's best interest.

That's why I paid close attention to how he handled the injury last season. Throughout, he was juggling his hopes of making the NBA, his desire to just play, and his want to help his teammates. I was worried that he would become a major distraction, moping on the sideline before upturning the apple cart in a late-season return. Instead, he handled the situation with poise and class. At multiple points last winter he could be seen leaping off the bench last season to congratulate, advise, correct his teammates during games, and was rumored to be a strong senior presence in practice. Further, he didn't rush back, choosing, in the end, to spend the entire year in rehab, returning for a full run this winter.

That decision alone, to wait out the full year when he was able to start full-speed practices in January, showed great maturity from the wing. Coach Boyle has said a number of times that there is a difference between just playing and playing effectively. I'm much more comfortable with XJ after a full year of rehab, then had he rushed back for a month or two of late season play in 2015-16. It was the smarter choice, even if it was the harder one (XJ: Man, I've been antsy since last year"), and a decision that I think will benefit both Johnson and CU.

In the end, I can't help but see Xavier's return from injury purgatory as anything but positive. He seems to have come to terms with his place as a team leader, and understands what it'll take to take the next step as a player:
"I'd like to be a leader out there and demonstrate in a way that people understand and just try to get better every day. [...] I feel like sitting out and watching from the sidelines helped to get a different perspective. It helps to get a different perspective from the coaches. It helps you be a better leader because you see maybe what other players don't see."
XJ with perspective? XJ with maturity? Playing with emotion, rather than getting emotional? Suddenly, we're talking about a player who can be a transformative piece for the team, both on the court and off of it. The vocal leader that the Buffs desperately need.

Because, of course, if he's able to put it all together, Johnson is an All-Pac-12 caliber talent. He has outstanding size and versatility, the ability to play both on the perimeter and with his back to the basket, rebound with anybody in the league (8th in the Pac-12 in conference play DR% in 2014-15), and shoot jumpers at the level of George King and Dom Collier (44% from deep as a freshman). With him on the court, options open up, as he becomes a matchup terror for opponents. He can take smaller defenders into the paint or pull bigger forwards out to the arc, opening lanes for attackers and creating space across the entire court for the offense. On defense, he can guard any number of positions, and leverage his excellent athleticism. Xavier simply has the potential to be the complete package.

I really hope it all comes together for Xavier. He's been dying to get back on the court, and has long been one of the most entertaining Buffs on the roster. There's a need to worry that he will press too hard to make an impression, play outside of himself early in trying to get his in-game form back. That's where leadership from Collier and the other three redshirt seniors comes in. If CU can get Johnson on the right track, they'll be in position to do something special this season.


- Tory Miller - 6-9, 246 lbs, Jr from Kansas City, KS - #14
From: the Times-Call
Year over year, the Big Man from Kansas, Tory Miller, has been improving more than just about anyone on the roster. When he first arrived as a freshman, you could see the raw talent, but not necessarily a clear avenue for it to be applied. Tory took things into his own hands, however, by developing his body and mind, shedding soft weight and focusing on the finer points of the game; a process he has only continued over the offseason. The result is a powerful forward emerging here in his junior year as a dangerous, capable, explosively athletic piece that Tad Boyle has to carve out minutes for.

Last season was a big one for Miller and his upward trajectory. He nearly doubled his minutes per game from his freshman year (now up to nearly 16 each night), posted an offensive rating over 100, and about halved his fouls called per 40 minutes (down to under four). Coach Boyle is fond of saying that the biggest leap a player takes is between his freshman and sophomore seasons; assuming that's true, then let it be known that Tory didn't waste his.

The good news is that the big fella has only continued to work in the offseason to improve. First, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by Athletes in Action, he traveled to Italy to broaden his horizons, improve his game, and learn a different style of play. It's a system that has served previous CU players like Levi Knutson, Austin Dufault, Chris Jenkins, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher well. Beyond just the fun of a summer in Europe, however, he's continued to develop both his body and mind to better compete in the Pac-12. Early reports from fall camp have him looking "quicker and better than he ever has," and even Coach Boyle notes ($) that he's bouncier and finishing around the rim better.

Really, the only glaring hole left in his offensive game is his jump shot. He showed it off a bit last season, increasing his share of shots taken from mid range up to 37% (3rd most on the team). His hit rate away from the basket, though, stayed well under the 30% mendoza line (2nd lowest of any returner), and he missed all four of his three pointers taken. The problem isn't his form, which seems to be fine, just consistency and repetition. On this team, with the glut of shooters ready and willing to attack from the perimeter, having a power forward unable to consistently make from 10-feet out is not that big of a deal, but if Tory is going to incorporate a jumper more and more, he also needs to start hitting.

Defensively, I love how he uses his size and explosion to battle the meatier forwards in the league for position, but I still feel that he can get a little overeager on defense. Rather than patiently playing his man in the paint, he can get into a habit of leaping at the whispers of a shot attempt to get a big block, which can leave him out of position and in trouble when the attacker stays on the floor. It's a large part of the reason why his defensive rating dipped a bit this past season (along with other nuts-and-bolts rates like rebounding and raw block percentage) as opponents began to take advantage.

Regardless, I'm expecting a nice season from Miller. For all his shrinking number of trouble spots, he has always showed a willingness to work and learn to improve, and I have no doubt that will translate onto the court (Boyle: "He's a joy to coach because he wants to get better; he listens, he learns"). Now, we're looking at a back-up '4' that has a better knowledge of the game, is setting better screens, and catching on the run like a tight end. More than just a dunker and a rim-wrecker, Miller can be a complete big man; a compliment to the abilities of Wes Gordon in the paint. With the lack of depth among the forward corps, that means we should see his minutes up over 20 per game, with production inching towards 8/8 territory. How nice would that be?


- Lucas Siewert - 6-10, 230 lbs, Fr from Joinville, Brazil - #25
From: AllBuffs.com
A Brazilian import, by way of Los Angeles, Siewert comes to Boulder with some heavy expectations of playing right away. A coveted swing forward prospect, he had originally committed to Arizona State before opening his recruitment back up after Herb Sendek was fired at the end of the 2014-15 season. There, Coach Boyle was waiting for him with a scholarship offer and a depth chart, showing just how thin Colorado could be in the paint. By April he was on board, and inked with the Buffs a few days into the late signing period.

The book on Lucas is that he is a strong outside shooter, capable of burning defenders less than eager to follow him out the perimeter. More of a non-traditional stretch-four than something UCLA-ish like Thomas Welsh or a Wear twin, he could form a scary combination with Tory Miller in future Colorado front courts. He's a solid step, athletically, behind Tory and Wes Gordon, but has a strong face-to-the-basket style with a good feel of when and how to get his shot off. It helped him put up impressive numbers in high school, dropping 23/8 for Cathedral High in LA, and earn a spot on both the roster for AAU giant Compton Magic and the top-150 list for Rivals.

I like that Siewert comes in with good size and some international experience (he plays in the Brazilian national system). It gives me reason to buy into the idea that he won't need an extra year of seasoning to earn minutes. My only hesitation is that he has only been playing the domestic game for four years, and that I'm a little bear-ish on his defensive capabilities. Bigger, veteran forwards and rebounders could eat him up for a bit as he gets used to this level of competition -- you gotta play defense to see the court in Boulder, after all. Still, someone needs to get minutes behind Wes and Tory, and Lucas appears to be in the best position to do just that.

At least so far, Coach Boyle is thrilled:
"Lucas Siewert is, at this point, probably the most pleasant surprise [in camp]. He is unbelievably coachable. He gets in here on his own and is in the gym shooting. He's going to be a terrific player. I couldn't be happier with where he is. He's definitely played his way into the rotation. He's a good player and a guy that has really progressed from the start of practice as well as any player in our program."
His only competition for playing time will be fellow freshman Dallas Walton, but the assumption has always been that Walton will redshirt. Come conference play, however, whomever wins the 3rd power forward role will be, assuming no injuries elsewhere, no better than a 9th or 10th option this season. That doesn't mean I don't like how he projects going forward, though. Lucas has a high ceiling, and should be a great option for Colorado in the future.


- Dallas Walton - 7-0, 225 lbs, Fr from Arvada, CO - #35
From: CUBuffs.com
A local product with a great story, Dallas Walton comes to CU with a love for the program and the height to stand tall in the paint. Indeed, “It’s not often a kid can play ball at his dream school,” but Walton is living that dream, proving wrong those who doubted he would ever even see the court again, let alone land a scholarship from a Power 5 program.

See, he suffered through back-to-back ACL tears during his high school career, the first during his sophomore year, then a second right before he was set to return. Given those dual setbacks, any normal student athlete would be forgiven for thinking their dreams may just be out of reach. Dallas, however, stayed committed to recovery, and kept his eyes on the goal of getting back onto the court. His persistence was eventually rewarded with a scholarship offer from Colorado, in recognition of a solid senior year for the Wildcats where he averaged 16/10/3.

The practical downside of those injuries, though, is that Walton simply needs more basketball before he can be expected to see extended playing time. He missed 18 months of development, and big men are already notoriously slow at blossoming into capable Division I performers. It's with that in mind that I expect him to redshirt this season, even with the Buffs thin up front (though his showing in practice has given Coach Boyle pause...). The extra year will give him an opportunity to bulk up and develop, but also continue to strengthen and evaluate his knee injuries.

Projecting forward, however, I like his potential. He may not have the explosion to be a dominant center in the Pac-12, but he's not Ben Mills, either (no offense to the 'slayer of Kansas' intended). Having a seven-footer anchor the interior of your roster is a luxury few programs can boast, and Walton has some obvious talent. He can even shoot a little bit, shocking many observers by showing up on campus and banging in threes. Give him some time to get healthy and learn the system, and that could be a dangerous weapon in future years.


- Alexander Strating - 6-7, 212 lbs, Fr (RS) from Wassenaar, Netherlands - #10
From: the BDC
I'll be honest, I don't know much about Alexander Strating, or how he will factor into the program in future seasons. His name showed up almost out of nowhere on the 2016-17 roster one morning, and only a short Daily Camera story confirmed his signing. There's some limited film available online, which does show a player comfortable with a jump shot. What comes after that - the ability to defend, the ability to score in traffic, the ability to play a number of positions - will be far more telling to his ultimate development, yet not discernible from the tape at hand.

Coach Boyle spotted him while visiting the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain, which seems like a long way to go for a small forward, but who's to doubt the man himself at this point? Whatever he saw, it's obvious that Tad liked it, with Strating becoming the beneficiary of an offer. From there, it was a simple matter of choosing Colorado over lesser programs like DU, UC-Irvine, and Loyola, which couldn't have been too difficult.

Boyle readily praises his toughness and versatility, saying, "he is the kind of guy we want in our program." Certainly, with a number of classic Tad wings leaving the program after this season, there will be playing time and opportunity available. While Alexander will serve as a redshirt walk-on this winter, the plan is to put him on scholarship for next year's roster, giving him free reign to chase just that opportunity. By that point we should know a lot more about the 'Flying Dutchman,' and how he fits into future plans.


Head Coach

- Tad Boyle - 53 years old, from Greeley, CO, graduated from Kansas -
From: @JennBerg
Has it really been six seasons? The record books will show that Coach Boyle was hired in April of 2010, but it feels like only yesterday. It was a completely different program back then, one that was still trying to shake the stigma of three-straight basement finishes in the old Big XII from 2007-09 (along with four decades of overall basketball irrelevance). Who could've guessed on that sunny April morning that what CU was signing up for was 130 wins, a conference title, and four trips to the Dance in just six seasons. We talk about the job Mike MacIntyre doing over at Folsom, but Coach Boyle has performed veritable miracles on the south side of campus. As friend of the blog @CUGoose said last month, 'Tad is a witch.'

At the time, I went in with trepidation. Steve McClain, then a hold-over assistant from Jeff Bzdelik's staff, was seen as the safer choice. The one that would keep Alec Burks in the program, and keep the mojo of a nearly-.500 2009-10 season in place. How naive we all were then, scared of shaking up such a mediocre apple cart. We in BuffNation needed Coach Boyle more than he needed us, and we didn't even realize it.

It's a problem that has turned over on itself six years on. Now, there is a sizable portion of the fanbase who take this magician from Greeley for granted. It's a pox on all our houses, the great shame of BuffNation. People too ignorant of what they are watching to appreciate what Coach Boyle has turned Colorado Basketball into: a nationally respectable name. I get it, in the grander scheme of things, just making it to the Tournament isn't that great of an accomplishment. At some schools, making the NCAA Tournament just twice every three years would even be seen as a disappointment. But, Colorado is not those schools. We are not a blue-blood, and have no claim to think like one. Appreciate this, damnit!

That said, I will admit to having my faith in the system shaken two years ago. The only losing season for Colorado Basketball under Coach Boyle's tutelage, that 2014-15 campaign was an ugly train-wreck of injuries, poor play, and bad chemistry across all fronts. It wasn't fun, it wasn't entertaining. More importantly, it was a deviation from the program cornerstones of defense and rebounding. That year scared the bejesus out of me, and made me acutely aware of how quickly the house of cards could come crashing down.

That's what makes the re-awakening last winter all the more impressive. Tad laughed off the idea that the program was slipping from their upward momentum, and got to work. He used a surprising amount of roster turnover, defections, and loads of uncertainty in the backcourt to re-form the team. He took the losing personally, and brought it upon himself to make the necessary changes, dialing back in on the details, and re-focusing everyone on defense and rebounding. He also swallowed some pride and scrapped the offensive tweaks instituted the year before. Gone were the complicated offensive concepts of second and third attacks, CU went back to scoring early in the shot clock. In the end, it all worked. Defensive efficiency rocketed back up to levels seen in the Andre Roberson era, they were a top-10 defensive rebounding club, and the early points flowed as needed thanks to some insane outside shooting numbers. Colorado Basketball was back to being fun and entertaining. Even better, the Buffs were back to being in the NCAA Tournament. Many have said it, but it should be repeated: last season was probably Boyle's best work in Boulder.

But, as the man himself said this summer:
“Your job is never done. That’s the one thing about coaching, when you’re done learning and done growing you’re through…if you don’t, you’re going to be passed by. There’s no time where you can exhale. [...] My philosophy is you work your tail off and let the chips fall where they may."
There's still a gap left between where the Buffs are now and where they want to be. You could see they were close last season, within a hair's breadth of massive, status-quo-altering wins away from home over Iowa State, SMU, Utah, Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, and UConn in the Dance. All that's left now is to take that next step: complete for the league crown, make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, end the season with a national ranking. Program-defining goals.

Of an interesting note, this offseason saw the first limb spring off the Boyle coaching tree. Former assistant coach Rodney Billups was hired by Denver University, making him the first of Tad's assistants to move on to bigger and brighter opportunities. That, of course, left a hole to be filled on the staff, which has been a rarity over the years. Other than Tom Abatemarco's abrupt departure in 2013 (and the subsequent hiring of Sean Kearney), things have remarkably stable on the Boulder sideline. With the open spot, Coach Boyle went in a pretty interesting direction, reaching out to defensive and recruiting specialist Bill Grier. He brings with him decades of west coast experience, most notably up at Gonzaga where he served as an assistant for 15 years, building that mid-major into a powerhouse. I take it as no small coincidence that Colorado's recruiting success has surged in the months after his hiring.

But, even with the change in the coaching staff, the overall message and direction of the program remains consistent; improve defense, rebounding, and taking care of the basketball ($). It's a style that is well known at this point -- the bedrock principles of #TadBall. It's not going anywhere. More importantly, he's not going anywhere. This is Colorado Basketball; this is Tad Boyle. They are one in the same.


OVERALL

I get the feeling that this, finally, is what the ideal Tad Boyle roster is supposed to look like. After years of tooling with redshirt seasons and long-term transfers, the squad is loaded with veterans, headlined by the four redshirt seniors. Of the top-eight players, all of whom have been in the program for at least a year, they've appeared in a combined total of 605 college basketball games. It's a rarity in successful Power-5 basketball to boast this battle-hardened luxury, but it's one that Boyle revels in. Said Tad, "Obviously we love redshirting. It's the way we can compete at Colorado at the highest level of college basketball."

The logic behind this strategy is that CU can't just walk onto the national stage and poach blue-chip recruits, or otherwise rely on a local pool of elite talent. No, they have to "recruit really talented guys that have a chip on their shoulder, have big upside, and we have to develop them into legitimate players." Hell, even the freshmen are taking time to get to campus, as in the greyshirt case of Deleon Brown. This is the necessary path to success in Boulder; no short-cuts. It's a long process requiring a lot of patience, but it seems to have finally paid off. There's a wellspring of seasoned depth this year, more than at any point in the program's recent history. Even Tad acknowledged, assuming everyone stays healthy, that this could be the deepest team of his tenure. While there is also a noticeable gap in the forward corps, it is more than made up with versatile athletes from elsewhere who can play multiple positions and fill-in at a number of different spots. This is a roster built for the wars, and one which will be comfortable with the grind and spotlight of conference play.

There is a conundrum here, however - excess depth, but a lack of true forwards - that necessitates a change in lineup philosophy. In previous seasons, thanks largely to the presence of the talismanic Josh Scott, Colorado has been a traditional three-out, two-in team, focused on getting the ball into the paint. Few were the possessions that went by without at least one touch from a forward, whether in the high post or the block. That will not, largely, be the case in 2016-17. Expect a lot of 'small ball' lineups with four perimeter players and one big on the court for whole stretches; I could even envision scenarios where the Buffs roll with five perimeter players and no one playing as an interior forward.

That leads me to a larger point, however: I wouldn't get too bogged down in the static dogma of positional names. The nature of the roster will lead to a number of wings playing different positions across multiple trips down the court, flexing between what would traditionally defined as the '2,' '3,' and '4' spots. Players like Xavier Johnson and George King are uniquely suited to these hybrid roles, with the size and athleticism to play essentially any position. I would particularly look for XJ to feature in what would otherwise be considered a power forward role. While he has tried to steer clear of that position in the past, it's easy to see situations where Wes Gordon and Tory Miller won't be enough up front, and Johnson's presence down on the block will be a necessity. He's got the size to do it, can defend and rebound well enough to fill the role, now it's all about selling him on it being his path to stardom. Playing XJ, and even George King, as a PF opens up so many scoring options it's scary, and may be the only way to get maximum talent onto the court across 40 minutes.

With all that in mind, let me present my projected starting lineup:

PG - Dom Collier
SG - Derrick White
SG - George King
SF - Xavier Johnson
PF - Wesley Gordon

They'll be supported by Josh Fortune, Tory Miller, and Thomas Akyazili in the heavy rotation, with freshmen like Deleon Brown, Bryce Peters, and Lucas Siewert getting minutes as needed. I wouldn't expect to see too much from the freshmen, however, especially as we get into January and Pac-12 play. At that point, the bench should get shorter, and the need for 9th and 10th options should diminish. The lone exception here would be defensively, where early reports have both Brown and Peters as having a good mentality for guarding at the perimeter. That alone could earn them minutes deep into the season if their more veteran teammates struggle to get into the spirit.

Expect to see quicker offensive looks, as well, with the team trying to stay on the front foot with the ball. Without the need to constantly look for Scott in the middle to run a set off of, the Buffs should only improve on their pace numbers from last year, which were already faster than anything since the Burks/Higgins year of 2011. It'll emphasize, offensively, what this roster does well (outside jump shots, quick possessions), while de-emphasizing what they don't (back-down offense, interior entry passes). Admittedly, the Buffs will be playing a lot smaller then they have been in previous seasons, but they're also capable of running teams out of the gym, a la the Golden State Warriors and their infamous 'Death Lineup.' (Not that I'm comparing them to the 73-win team that blew that 3-1 lead in the Finals, mind you.) Small ball is all the rage these days, after all, and the Buffs have the horses to pull it off.

It's why I find the true backcourt situation so interesting. A cohesive interplay between Collier and White is essential, if only because they need to clean up the two areas that cost the Buffs the most last winter: turnovers and killing off games. As Coach Boyle would quickly tell you, play at the point has been a weak spot since the start of last season. We saw it time and time again in those gut-wrenching losses. In each, CU had put themselves in position to win a crucial ballgame, only to watch a hard-earned lead melt away in the closing minutes. If even half those finals had been flipped last season, I'm scared to think of how high Colorado would've climbed. The root cause was heedless turnovers from the backcourt and an inability to create of the dribble-drive and earn a whistle. Collier and White, if healthy and living up to expectations, promise to clean up those issues and avoid repeat scenarios.

For Collier, it all comes down to staying out of foul trouble so he can stay in the game. While it's true he struggled with his turnovers last season, I'd be shocked if his ratios don't improve, year-over-year; it's the nature of development. Those heedless reaches, however, cost him minutes, and threw a wrench into the optimal rotation at the point. CU needs him in the game, so he has to stop gambling 25 feet from the basket. If he can do that, overall team efficiency will pickup immediately.

As for White, as talented as he assuredly is, the kid from Parker isn't going to solve every issue, and there will certainly be holes in his game that D-1 competition can exploit. However, style translates across difficulty level, and White's style is one that pushes him to get to the rim, which brings contact and, usually, whistles. His final season in the Springs, he attempted 327 free throws with an FTrate above 65% (FTrate is a simple equation of FT attempts divided by field goal attempts; shows the number of free throws you're taking per attempt from the field). He was a monster in getting to the line, scoring over 32% of his school record 851 points from the stripe. The names in recent CU history who have approached those numbers should be familiar: Alec Burks in 2011 (302 attempts, 56% FTrate) and Spencer Dinwiddie in 2013 (240, 77%). They were each killers at the end of games, getting the needed calls to squeeze points out of empty possessions late in the final frame, turning losses into wins. It's the kind of X-factor the team has missed in each of the last two and a half seasons, and which White projects to provide.

Further, with the game on the line, you want the ball in the hands of your best player, which may mean that, when push-comes-to-shove, the point guard in late game situations may actually end up being Derrick White. Boyle loves White's decision-making with the ball, and, should Collier struggle to take up the mantle required, could end up sliding over to lead the point. White also stands to solve the lingering issue of finishing at the rim.  While the Buffs were pretty good at getting there (top-100 nationally in percentage of attempts at the basket), they were atrocious at converting these looks (329th nationally in FG% at the rim, shooting under 53%). Look for him, in conjunction with Collier, to really power the guard-heavy lineup.

But, with Colorado, it always comes down to defense and rebounding, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I was a little concerned. With the Buffs shuffling things up front around Wes Gordon, I think a huge question will arise in the form of interior defense. While Wes is certainly capable defensively, possibly the best pure defensive piece in the program since Andre Roberson, he alone can't make up for the loss of Josh Scott inside. Remember, J40's presence defensively over the last few years was almost more important than his offensive presence. To that end, the other forwards are a little more suspect while guarding the post. What happens when Wes is out of the lineup, or is otherwise occupied with foul trouble? Can Xavier Johnson, George King, Tory Miller, and Lucas Siewert step up to make an impact, and protect the rim? There's nothing that Coach Boyle hates more than easy buckets surrendered at the basket, and this could become a huge part of the season's narrative. What could help here, though, is an improvement on perimeter defense. Stifling the odd entry pass or dribble-drive penetration would go a long way here in helping to protect the forwards. But, as of yet, reports are that no one has stepped up defensively among the guard corps. In the end, someone of Collier, Fortune, and White will need to take that step and become a defensive stopper on the edge, or else the scoreboard could get a workout.

As an extension of this thought process, we will probably see more and more zone defense being played by those in Black and Gold. What was once antithetical to #TadBall is now a real possibility. If you leave four guards/wings out there, a bigger team could try to take advantage of individual matchups in man-to-man. The easiest way to battle this is to spread out in a zone and make the opposing bigs beat you with passes. I won't say Colorado will 'rely' on a 2-3 this season, just that we will see it for stretches. Ultimately, however, it's not a long-term path to success. While having the ultra-athletic defensive piece of Wes Gordon at the heart of a zone set is an enticing proposition, it'll open him up to a number of cheap fouls, and leave CU out of position on rebounds (which will drive Tad crazy). No, in the end, the Buffs will still win or lose in the man-to-man.

Really, the last thing to discuss is rebounding. Josh Scott, the nightly double-double threat, had been key here, and his absence his junior year with back trouble showed you how fragile the team could be inside without his presence. I see a number of avenues to pick up his rebounding slack, however, as there are a plethora of guards with good rebounding skills. Wes will always be the focus on the offensive end, but, for the defensive end, it will come more down to the wings staying active and alert on the glass than anything else. Look for XJ to really exert his will here, grabbing big boards to get the ball back in friendly hands. At the end of the day, hauling in the rebound after the stop isn't as big of a concern for me as creating the stop in the first place; I trust these Buffs to crash the glass, I don't trust them to protect it.

Overall, it's easy to point to the strengths of this roster: depth, experience, shooting, versatility. It's also easy to point to some potential weaknesses: defense and, possibly, leadership. I know this team will be able to score, and the presence of Derrick White will really boost the production out of possessions down the stretch, but an inability to earn defensive stops could be a big thorn in the team's side. How big? Well, last season the team posted a defensive efficiency under .95, good for top-35 nationally. It was the best overall defensive performance since 'Dre Roberson left for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder. While I don't think Colorado necessarily needs to be that good again, if we see adjusted efficiency crack .96 or even, Tad forbid, .97, they would be in trouble as the extra baskets given up would supplant the extra baskets earned. Keep an eye on that as the season progresses.

--

THE SCHEDULE

Non-conference

11/11 - Sacramento State - Boulder, CO
11/14 - Seattle - Boulder, CO (part of the Legends Classic)
11/17 - Louisiana-Monroe - Boulder, CO (part of the Legends Classic)
11/21 - Notre Dame - Brooklyn, NY (part of the Legends Classic)
11/22 - Texas/Northwestern - Brooklyn, NY (part of the Legends Classic)
11/27 - Wofford - Boulder, CO
11/30 - Colorado State - Boulder, CO
12/3 - Portland - Portland, OR
12/7 - Xavier - Boulder, CO
12/10 - BYU - Provo, UT
12/17 - Ft Hays State - Boulder, CO
12/22 - Eastern Washington - Boulder, CO

Tad Boyle has developed a deft hand when it comes to crafting his non-conference schedule. It's a difficult job, too. He has to strike a balance each year between a schedule that helps the team grow towards conference play, puts butts in the seats, is mindful of the ebb and flow of the end-of-semester academic calendar, and isn't biting off more than his team can chew.  Above all else, however, it also has to be a schedule that will put his team on track to catch the Selection Committee's eye come March.  Since learning some painful lessons in 2011, he's done an exemplary job of ticking off all those boxes, and it's a large part of the reason that Colorado has been on the lips of bracketologists for four of the last five seasons.

Last year was his masterpiece.  Between a neutral site game against high-profile Iowa State, true road tilts against Auburn and CSU, and the lucky strike of a meeting with heavyweight SMU in Las Vegas, it was just challenging enough to keep the RPI sparkling til the start of Pac-12 play without exerting the team all that much.  Indeed, the Buffs reeled off 11-straight wins against the meat of their non-conference schedule last season, only having to beat a single team who finished in the top-100 of the RPI (BYU) in the process.  Helped by a strong year from the Pac-12 - 2nd-best league in the combined RPI rankings - this was enough to produce a very attractive profile on Selection Sunday. The overall ranking was high (34th, according to ESPN) and the strength of schedule was solid (53rd); it was a no-brainer to include Colorado at that point.  A magic trick, pulled off with expert misdirection and timing.

The crux of the trick was scheduling opponents who turned around to, themselves, play tough schedules throughout the year.  While a number of CU's non-conference opponents disappointed in 2015-16 (like CSU), they at least struggled against good competition.  By the end of the year, Colorado was able to boast the 15th-best opponent strength of schedule in the country.  As a full quarter of the RPI calculation is based on the record of your opponent's opponents, that ranking was a B-12 shot to the Buffs' complete profile.  It's a subtle and unheralded part of the scheduling process, but Coach Boyle leveraged it perfectly a year ago.

This season, the schedule has been inverted a bit.  Whereas a daunting road trip started the slate in 2015, with the non-conference tournament placed at the tail end, that's reversed here.  After opening night against Sacramento State, the Buffs immediately enter the jet stream of the Legends Classic, starting with a pair of home dates against sub-regional squads before the more serious affairs against Notre Dame and either Texas or Northwestern.  It's only later that they take their true road trips to Portland and Provo.  An interesting foundational change, it leaves the schedule a little bunched up in the middle for my tastes.

The subtextual upside to this change, though, is that the Buffs will get to enjoy an early on-ramp to gain some speed and confidence before the schedule gets serious.  Last season, they were off and running on opening day, facing a back-to-back pair of dates away from home to open the calendar. This year, everything begins at home against lesser opponents before transitioning to higher-profile fare. Realistically, CU should be 3-0 as they board the charter to NYC, setting themselves up nicely to make some national noise under East Coast eyes.

Speaking of, that Legends Classic trip is a very interesting set.  Notre Dame will probably take a slight step back this winter from where they were in 2015-16, when they busted into the Elite Eight, but are still a very competent opponent, and one that will be jostling for prime position in the rough-and-tumble ACC.  While difficult, it would behoove the Buffs to claim their scalp, not only because the Irish project to be a good team this season, but because it would also open up the RPI booster that will be Texas.  The Longhorns are a preseason top-25 entrant, and, while extremely young, are easily a better profile prize than Northwestern (though the Wildcats are no 150+ dog, either).  It's in CU's best interests to see UT on the 22nd, akin to the RPI win they received last year by simply playing SMU.

After that, my eyes can't help but fall to the Xavier/BYU stretch in the second week of December. It's tough to get those kinds of teams to Boulder, but Coach Boyle has done well in scheduling them to home-and-home series (BYU visited last year, CU will play at XU next season).  Even though the Buffs are now a seductive RPI prize, teams would rather avoid the risks and expense of a trip to the Foot of the Flatirons.  Said Boyle:
"It's the hardest thing in our scheduling. That's why I really appreciate Xavier. I appreciate KU a couple years ago. I appreciate BYU being willing to do it. People think, oh call up school X, they'll play. But it doesn't work like that." 
Now that the ink is dried on the contracts, though, the reality of having to face these kinds of teams in the heart of non-conference play is daunting.

If you don't know much about Xavier, you better get educated.  This could be the best non-conference opponent to come to the Coors Events Center in the modern era; yes, even better than that 2013-14 KU team that got Ski'd.  They are a final four contender with some insane stores of talent at their disposal, including All-America candidates Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner. Well-coached, gritty, skilled; there's a reason, after all, that Coach Boyle said on media day that, if the game were played right now, XU would beat the Buffs by 20.  It's a brutal matchup, one that BuffNation better be up for.  BYU, while a decided step down from the Musketeers, in terms of a wholesale challenge, defend their home court very well, and could also easily rip CU.  While those two are proceeded by a trio of tricky dates - against regular Tournament entrant Wofford, rival CSU, and a road trip to Portland - they're, by far, the marquee non-conference dates on the calendar.  Even a split here would do the team some good, and it doesn't really matter which is a win and which is a loss; either would help the RPI considerably.

The remainder of the schedule is significantly easier to manage.  There's the annual D-II breather game, this year against Fort Hays State, that will serve as a interstitial crash pad to fall into after the Xavier/BYU tango. Obviously a filler date, the game against the Tigers won't count against the RPI, and offers an opportunity for the end of the bench to get some work before the rotation shortens at the start of conference play.  From there, the Buffs close out the year at Air Force (an opponent they have controlled the last few years) and against Eastern Washington.  It's another stretch that should end with three wins in the Buffs' pockets.

Of course, regardless of the schedule Boyle builds, the team is going to have to perform.  All the RPI-focused scheduling gymnastics in the world won't save you if you aren't putting up wins. Simply, Colorado has to convert the two- and three-foot putts on their schedule if they want to take the next step this season.  That means sweeping all of Sacramento State, Seattle, Louisiana-Monroe, Wofford, CSU, Portland, Fort Hays State, Air Force, and Eastern Washington.  Any slip-up here, and it almost won't matter what happens in the four spotlight games.  If they can convert all nine of those 'easier' dates into wins, however, the difference between and good season and a great one will be determined in Brooklyn and against Xavier and BYU.  At least a split would be helpful; anything more a dream scenario.  Either way, a minimum of 10 wins out of the 13 games in non-conference play would be required to set-up for the NCAA Tournament, which is exactly what I'm expecting.

Conference

1/1 - Utah - Salt Lake City, UT
1/5 - Arizona State - Tempe, AZ
1/7 - Arizona - Tucson, AZ
1/12 - UCLA - Boulder, CO
1/15 - USC - Boulder, CO
1/18 - Washington - Seattle, WA
1/21 - Washington State - Pullman, WA
1/26 - Oregon State - Boulder, CO
1/28 - Oregon - Boulder, CO
2/2 - Stanford - Palo Alto, CA
2/5 - California - Berkeley, CA
2/9 - Washington - Boulder, CO
2/12 - Washington State - Boulder, CO
2/16 - Oregon State - Corvallis, OR
2/18 - Oregon - Eugene, OR
2/23 - Utah - Boulder, CO
3/2 - Stanford - Boulder, CO
3/4 - California - Boulder, CO

Did Tad Boyle piss somebody off in San Francisco, the corporate home of the Pac-12 Conference? How else could you explain the starting run that the league has laid out for the Buffs, like a trap set to spring as the calendar flips to 2017?  Three-straight road games, all of them at places that CU has only won once at since joining the Pac-12 (yes, I'm counting the Chen-sanity game in Tucson), is a brutal start to the conference portion of the schedule.  And, once the team is finally allowed to return home, their reward for surviving that opening stretch is a 9 pm weeknight tip against what could be a resurgent UCLA squad, all while the students are still on break.  Are you kidding me?  There's a very real possibility that Colorado could start conference play 0-4, and it wouldn't even really be their fault.

Overall, this is a very unfortunate draw for the Buffs.  Beyond just the opening stretch of horrors, it also costs the Buffs some RPI points by featuring Arizona and UCLA just once a piece. Instead, we get two sets of games with the Washington schools, both of whom could struggle this season. Going deeper, there's also the reality of three of the five weekday games scheduled with tip times of 8pm or later, and the fact that the Buffs will have to play Oregon twice on just two days rest. All said, this is kind of a 'worst case scenario' draw for the team, both in the way it kills off any hope for a league title right off the bat, and still undercuts full profile value for Selection Sunday.  If I was Tad, I'd be asking for my money back.

There's a saving grace, however, and it's the final stretch run to close out the regular season. While the conference slate opens in pain, it ends with five of seven games played on home hardwood.  Yes, the trip to Eugene will be extremely tough (the Ducks are expected to be, again, one of the best teams in the country), but, between hosting the Huskies and Cougars, the road game with Oregon State, and finishing against Utah, Stanford and Cal in Boulder, it's an opportunity for the Buffs to rack up some league wins down the stretch, and close on a top-four bye with authority.  I could see the Buffs winning six of this final seven, making up for a lot of the struggles that will assuredly greet them in January.

So, just where does that leave the team?  I'm looking for them to earn 11 wins out of this mess. It starts with getting at least one from the opening set of four games, and otherwise holding serve at home.  Figure eight of the nine games at the CEC being wins, plus road dubs at Oregon State, Washington State, and Stanford (CU has won their last three at Maples).  That will be good enough, once again, to put them in contention for the coveted bye spot in the Pac-12 Tournament that they've been chasing since joining the league.  If they can steal a 12th somewhere, it should be enough to put them solidly in the second-tier of the league, behind presumed front-runners Arizona and Oregon.

Overall, I'm looking for the team to do, in the regular season, what they couldn't last year -- notch 22 wins.  It would set a new all-time record for victories in a single season, surpassing everything else accomplished in the current era of explosive rise up the national rankings. Sure, at some point they're going to lose a game they 'shouldn't,' just as they will win a game they 'shouldn't.'  Just as long as it all balances out, and the team stays on track, there's no reason they can't take the next step, and put together a hell of a season.

--

THE PAC-12

The Pac-12 enjoyed a relatively successful 2015-16.  Surpassing essentially every outside observer's expectations, including my own, they placed a record seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by Oregon's 1-seed treatment.  From top-to-bottom, the quality of basketball played in the league was the highest in years, and the product was exceedingly competitive and entertaining throughout the regular season.  The only problem is, everyone slumped when the calendar flipped to March.  It started in Las Vegas, where what was predicted to be a chaotic conference tournament turned out to be a staid, predictable affair. Despite a few close games (both semifinals went to overtime), last year's Pac-12 tournament was all chalk, and the final was a 31-point blowout. To make matters worse, those seven teams picked by the Selection Committee largely flopped at the Dance, going an ugly 4-7, with just two teams (Oregon and Utah) winning any games at all.  I still view the entire package as a job done well, but the league didn't exactly cover itself in glory on the national stage.

To compound the issue, the conference made the misguided, asinine decision to take the Pac-12 tournament out of the cozy, raucous confines of the MGM Garden Arena.  Instead, the experience this March will be held across the street at the cavernous, if well appointed, T-Mobile Arena.  It is simply not possible that the new building on the west side of the Strip will be able to boast the energy and excitement of the venerable establishment on the east side.  What was once a unique, self-contained party is now like almost every other major conference tournament across the country.  For want of money and flash, the league gave up what was an incredible atmosphere; shame, shame, shame.

The teams fighting for positioning in the new venue are facing some considerable challenges while trying to pickup the pieces from that post-season disaster.  After fending off a challenge from the Mountain West a few years back, the pressure to remain among the most well-received leagues in America remains constant.  The league must, once again, re-tool to keep pace in the ever evolving landscape of college basketball.

The biggest problem, as ever, is how to replace departing talent.  12 of the 15 players on the conference's first and second teams from a year ago are gone to professional opportunities, one more than the total the league had lost after 2014-15.  Even the hyper-veteran Buffs aren't immune, having to find a way to replace two-time All-Pac-12 nominee Josh Scott.  At some point, this talent drain is going to come to a head, and we're going to see a situation like we did in 2012, when the league was largely talent-starved.  Luckily, the conference is doing a much better job of defending their recruiting territories, but I can't help but wonder if there will be a breaking point in the near future.

While Colorado, Oregon, and Stanford will return a majority of their stars from last season, the rest of the league will be running out a number of new faces.  The hardest hit were Arizona, Cal, and Utah. For the Wildcats, at least, they can expect to benefit from some high-profile arrivals on the recruiting trail, but it still wouldn't surprise me to see them slip a step below expectations while trying to deal with the loss of a successful and productive senior class.  For Cal and Utah, it will be a more serious challenge to rebound, as they don't have nearly the recruiting resources to draw from. At least Cal gets the benefit of the return of Ivan Rabb, a pre-season All-America candidate. Of all the teams to battle roster re-configuration this summer, the Utes may be on the longest road to recovery.

Outside of the players, though, the league has continued to be remarkably stable.  Two years after a rash of new coaching hires, there is just a single new face to consider this season - Jerod Haase at Stanford - and few seem to be the opportunities for coaching turmoil.  Really, the only coach I would consider to be definitively 'on the hot seat' this year would be Steve Alford at UCLA; we could see some fireworks in Westwood between him and the fanbase if the Bruins hiccup like they did last winter. Beyond that, I could also be convinced that Ernie Kent at Washington State is in trouble, but he seems to have a longer leash, residing in a backwater that doesn't have the institutional memory of achievement to fight against.  Lorenzo Romar, too, but he's been at UW forever, and I've never taken the disquiet from Seattle all that seriously. Really, I could see this entire class of 12 coaches return for next season, and it wouldn't surprise me all that much.

Overall, I see a league in a transition phase.  It won't be as bad as it was in 2012, simply because of the talent at hand, but roster questions abound, none-the-less.  In the end, this could very well be a one team race.  Oregon is, heads and shoulders, better than every other team in the league (at least on paper). They boast a deep, veteran roster that can win comfortably in a number of scenarios.  After them, every other team in the West is going into the season with some question marks.

--

Rumblin's predicted order of finish:

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

NCAA Teams - Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, UCLA, USC
NIT Teams - Cal, Washington

Rumblin's preseason All-Pac-12 Team:

G - Jordan McLaughlin - USC
G - Markelle Fultz - Washington (Newcomer of the Year)
F - Dillon Brooks - Oregon (Player of the Year)
F - Ivan Rabb - California
C - Chris Boucher - Oregon (Defensive Player of the Year)

--

- Arizona -

I used to refer to Arizona as the 'Giant Death Robot' -- a defensive titan that was near impossible to crack on any court.  That was not the case last year, as they were simply 'good' defensively, and vulnerable against athletic teams who could push them on the glass.  In the end, the 2015-16 Arizona team was a solid step below their recent vintage, and it showed in a 4th-place finish in the Pac-12 and a first round defeat to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament.

From that squad, they lost three of their top four scorers and their best player off the bench, all seniors.  But, as is often the case, life in the desert may seem harsh, but a little drop of rain is all it takes for the blooms to burst forth.  Accordingly, a storm of recruiting excellence poured down over Tucson to bring life back to the program.  They hauled in another top-10 class, headlined by guard Rawle Alkins and Finnish forward Lari Markkanen, and, as a result, are well positioned to rebound and take another run.
From: Larry Brown Sports
Sophomore wing Allonzo Trier will key them off the wing, and could end up in the running for the league's scoring title... if he's eligible.  Assuming he is available to play this winter, he'll get to work with familiar names like Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen in the backcourt. The front court is where I have some concerns, though.  I've yet to be sold on Dusan Ristic, and Chance Comanche makes me giggle.  Without the departed double-double threat Ryan Anderson, who really powered that team last year, this could be their weakness. That's where redshirt freshman Ray Smith would've come in.  The former five-star recruit could've solidified the front court, however a third ACL tear forced him into an early retirement.

I'll give the 'Cats the benefit of doubt, though, both out of deference to Sean Miller the coach, and the electrifying talent at his disposal.  Their guard corps is elite (note: I'm guessing the right levers get pulled behind the scenes for Trier to play), and could be enough, on their own, to separate from the rest of the non-Oregon pack.

- Arizona State -

The Sun Devils really struggled last season under the gaze of new head coach Bobby Hurley. Beyond just the losses, they dealt with a number of off-court issues, leading to suspensions and departures (they were down to just eight scholarship players when the visited Boulder last February), and never found anything resembling a rhythm.  In the wake, thanks to some graduations and the outward transfer of malcontent Savon Goodman, Hurley has looked to hit the reset button, and reform the program in his image.
From: CBS Sports
The first step was bringing in some new blood: three four-star forwards that highlight a shock top-25 recruiting class.  Every single one of the new signees can play in the front court, and should help shore up a major problem ASU encountered last year -- checking opponents in the paint.  The transition won't be immediate, however, and the overall process was dealt a blow when one of the four-stars, big power forward Romello White, was ruled an academic redshirt for this season. Oh, ASU, never change.

There is some hope, however.  Tra Holder returns, and Hurley will finally get the benefit of a couple of transfers from Buffalo.  If they can link up with the best of the incoming recruits, 6-6 wing Sam Cuncliffe, the Devils may just end up surprising some people.  I think they're in more of a 'wait til next year' mode, though.

- California -

What the hell is Ivan Rabb still doing in Berkeley?  The over-talented power forward was clearly ready for professional ball last season, yet decided not to follow fellow five-star recruit Jaylen Brown to the NBA Draft.  Instead, the Oakland native will return for his sophomore campaign, and likely All-America status.  Simply, he's the best forward in the conference, and one of the best in the country. An absolute difference maker, Cal is lucky to have him back.
From: Pac-12.com
It's doubly lucky for the Bears that he did return, or else they'd be in big trouble.  Beyond just losing Brown to the draft, they also lost Ty Wallace to graduation and Jordan Matthews to a surprise transfer to Gonzaga.  Matthews is the one that really stings.  Expected to have returned this year, he was a difference maker at the wing, capable of lighting it up from anywhere on the court as a dynamic lead guard. Without him, Cal will be pressed to find deep wells of scoring this winter.  Jabari Bird could pick up some of the slack, but the one-time five-star recruit isn't nearly enough to keep the Bears in the top third of the Pac-12.

- Oregon -

The Ducks man, it's just not fair.  They were an incredible show all through last season, losing just two games from the middle of January through to their eventual loss in the Elite Eight to Oklahoma. Now, they get to return four of their starters from that team, and seem poised to run away with the Pac-12 crown for the second straight season.
From: KATU.com
The one flaw in that plan is Dillon Brooks.  The point forward par excellence suffered a foot injury that required surgery, and missed both practice and their European exhibition swing over the summer. Without him, the Ducks are still a good team, just not a transcendent one.  With him, they're a Final Four contender.  The thought is that he'll be back sometime in late November, maybe early December. Indeed, I expect him to return, and be up to POY speed by conference play, but you never can tell with these things.

Past him, though, Oregon is still loaded.  They somehow convinced the NCAA to give walking pogo stick Chris Boucher an extra year of eligibility.  He'll only add to the dynamic Jordan Bell and JuCo player of the year Kavell Bigby-Williams up front to give Oregon one of the best forward corps around. If that wasn't enough, Tyler Dorsey remains one of the elite scoring guards in the West, and Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis is free from injury and redshirt to lead the point.  With hyper-efficient point guard Casey Benson now coming off the bench as a reserve, this team is near-perfect. Assuming Brooks returns in form, anything less than another league title would be a shock.

- Oregon State -

I'm not nearly as wrapped up in all that is Wayne Tinkle as others are.  Certainly, the silver fox from Montana came in and performed miracles, getting the Beavers to their first NCAA Tournament since I was in kindergarden, but a lot of that was based on the talents of the departed Gary Payton, Jr. Without 'the Mitten,' I'm just not digging Oregon State, even as their recent influx of talent starts to come of age.
From: Pinterest
The Beavs do have a handy one-two punch in the form of legacies Tres Tinkle (son of the head coach) and Stephen Thompson, Jr. (son of assistant coach Stephen Thompson, Sr.).  The pair are balanced scorers who can power the team for whole stretches.  It's just that, after them, there's not a lot of proven production on the roster, especially as developing guard Derrick Bruce is no longer on the roster.  Can incoming talents like freshman wing JaQuori McLaughlin and JuCo point guard Ronnie Stacy help prove me wrong?  Sure, but I'm just not seeing enough on their roster to warrant anything better than a lower-mid-table finish.

- Stanford -

Stanford finally went and did what I hoped they never would -- fire Johnny Dawkins. The perpetually under-performing coach had dragged the Cardinal through much mediocrity and the occasional post-season run over eight seasons.  He could never turn the enticing talent at hand into anything more than a NIT-caliber resume, and his teams were reliable road pickups for the Buffs over the years. Johnny will be missed.
From: the Sporting News
In his place, the Cardinal have brought in Jerod Haase from UAB.  A former Kansas Jayhawk from his college days, Haase was known for diving on the court for loose balls, and looks to bring a similar hard-nosed mentality to the bench at Maples.  He certainly comes into an interesting position, blessed with a roster that returns much of its talent from last season.  The Cardinal could surprise this season, if the transition into the new coaching style goes well.

Their biggest concern is probably at point guard, where they've been struggling to replace the production lost when Chasson Randle graduated two years ago.  Christian Sanders is a nice player, but largely unspectacular, and Robert Cartwright is still a relative unknown after suffering an ugly injury early last season.  If they can get anything from the top of the attack, though, the core of talent that includes a returning Reid Travis, the versatile Marcus Allen, and wing Dorian Pickens could be enough to have them pushing for post-season play.

- UCLA -

My offseason notes on the Bruins started with this little nugget: "I just simply do not care."  I'm sorry, but I feel absolutely nothing when considering the crew from Westwood.  Yes, I get that they're talented, and #DaddyBall was some of the best late night entertainment on television last winter (for all the wrong reasons), but I struggle to get my blood up over a generally soul-less style of play that more often rocks the fans to sleep than excites them.  That they were entirely unsuccessful last season doesn't help matters, either, crashing into the basement of the league with a 10th-place finish.
From: USA Today
Really, in that vein, the best coaching work of the Steve Alford tenure may have come in his defense of his job.  He wrote a letter of apology to the fan base after they slumped to that 15-17 conclusion last March, and sent back the cash from an extension he signed back in 2014. Alford also brought in a top-five recruiting class that features three of the top-25 incoming talents in the country.  Combined, it was enough to stave off the pitchforks, and earn him another bite at one of the premier spots in the profession.

Look, they have the talent to win lots of games this year.  Freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf should pair well with returners Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Thomas Welsh.  They'll certainly score buckets of points, I just don't see how they'll defend their basket.  As defense is a problem, they'll get into a lot of shootouts, and you'll see some chaotic results.  Sure, maybe they'll get back into the Dance, but it won't be enough for the ever-demanding blue-bloods in Los Angeles.  Assuming they don't make the Sweet Sixteen, this could be the last we see of Alford in the Pac-12.

- USC -

Last year, we finally got to see Dunk City take over the City of Angels.  While the rival Bruins were struggling with an existential crisis, USC surged onto the national landscape, playing the fast, exciting brand of run-and-shoot basketball that had served coach Andy Enfield so well while at Florida Gulf Coast. They attempted over 41% of all shots at the rim, kept their average possession length well under 16 seconds, and scored buckets of points.  Southern Cal deservedly scored their way into the NCAA Tournament, and seemed poised for even greater things this season with no graduating seniors on their '15-'16 roster.
From: Busting Brackets
Then, the defections came.  Forward Nikola Jovanovic and point guard Julian Jacobs decided to take a chance on the NBA Draft, only to go undrafted.  Eccentric shooting wing Katin Reinhardt then decided he'd had enough of that LA lifestyle, and left for Milwaukee and Marquette, despite having played the second-most minutes on the team last season.  Suddenly, three of the Trojans' best players were gone ahead of schedule.

The cupboard they left behind is far from bare, though.  Jordan McLuaghlin remains, and the electric jitterbug of a point guard is one of the most exciting talents in the conference.  He'll get to work with versatile shooter Elijah Stewart and elite athlete Bennie Boatwright in the starting lineup, a grouping that should keep things well afloat.  If they see an expected step forward from center Chimezie Metu, this team could get serious in a hurry.  No, the Trojans will be just fine this season, don't you worry.

- Utah -

What the hell happened to Utah?  Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge graduated, and super-center/bond villain Jakob Poeltl jumped to the NBA.  That much was expected.  The loss of four key contributors to this season's planning, Isaiah Wright, Kenneth Ogbe, Chris Reyes, and Brekkott Chapman, however, was not. That's not just roster attrition, that's a roster gutting. In total, the Utes lost all but two players from last season's rotation, leaving plenty of minutes to go to new faces this winter.
From: RunninUtes.com
So, who's left in Salt Lake City?  Well, for one, coach Larry Krystkowiak, who built the program up from nothing to become one of the most feared names in the league.  If there's a coach to have heading a reconstruction project, it would be him.  They also return Lorenzo Bonam, who killed Colorado twice last year, and elite wing Kyle Kuzma.  That's two Lincoln Logs for Larry to set as a foundation.  For the rest, he'll have to plug-and-play with a grouping of seven newcomers. Specifically, I expect to grow to hate the names David Collette (mid-season power forward transfer) and Jayce Johnson (blue-chip center prospect), but it may take some time for the whole thing to set-up.  Give them a year, though, and the Utes should be back.  I've long since given up doubting the other Coach K.

- Washington -

I never know what to make of the Huskies.  They always seem to boast elite talent, having sent seven players to the NBA Draft in as many seasons, but can never find a way to turn that talent into wins. Their average finish since pulling the ignominious double of winning the league, yet missing the Tournament, in 2012 is eighth-place, which comes with the butcher's bill of 15 losses per year.  How that's possible, I can't even begin to fathom, but I'm starting to take for granted that UW will under-perform every season, which is not a good sign for the dean of the Pac-12 coaching corps, Lorenzo Romar.
From: the Seattle Times
This season, they're looking to re-load from the one-and-done tenures of Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray with another infusion of elite recruiting talent, headlined by Markelle Fultz. The freshman from Maryland also seems destined to leave early as a probable lottery pick next spring, but should light up the scoreboard while laying over in Seattle.  Combined with David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, and Malik Dime, these guys have athleticism for days, and can run any number of teams out of the gym.  Is it enough to win games of significance?  That remains to be seen.

- Washington State -

If there is such a thing as 'Coug-ing' an offseason, Washington State did it this summer.  Desperate to find any traction in the Palouse, they just needed to hold onto the talent at hand, and maybe they could've seen some on-court gains in 2016-17.  Instead, Que Johnson, Ny Redding, Renard Suggs, and Valentine Izundu all transferred out of the program.  That's their best three-point shooter, a developing point guard, a versatile rotation wing, and an athletic center all out the door when the program was already talent-starved.  *sigh*
From: Pac-12.com
So, what remains will be the Josh Hawkinson show for one last spin around the sun.  The double-double machine tested draft waters, but returns to put up inhuman numbers once again. What success the team will have is based on the interplay between Hawkinson and fellow returners Conor Clifford and Ike Iroegbu.  It's something, but probably not enough to stave off a second-straight basement finish.

--

RECRUITING

This section had been pretty sparse in previous years.  After the resounding success of the 2012 recruiting class, which saw the program among the top-20 in the nation, there hadn't been a lot to show for the coaching staff's efforts on the trail.  In fact, BuffNation had come to regard Coach Boyle and crew as under-performers, compared to where they 'needed' to be, known more for high-profile misses than any true success in bringing in 'elite' recruits. The fanbase whined about the loss of recruiting whiz Tom Abatemarco, worried about the lack of signees from California, fretted over the Nike vs Adidas war that caused local talent like De'Ron Davis to look elsewhere, and bemoaned under-the-radar reaches that may have brought talent to the program, but didn't bring stars or bragging rights.  It was a perception supported by a 2013 class that has all but disappeared to transfer, and a 2015 class that turned in just one true freshman signee.

While I would dispute many of those charges as circumstantial, it's hard to challenge that the 2013 class was anything other than a foul tip.  Sure, George King has surprised everyone outside the program by becoming a deadly scoring threat, but the underwhelming performance and eventual transfer of players like Dustin Thomas, Jaron Hopkins, and Tre'Shaun Fletcher is a painful miss. However, as that class has slowly vanished into thin air, we've seen the coaching staff scramble in pursuit of their replacements, utilizing outside transfers from all levels of the game and infusions of talent from unconventional sources like Belgium (Akyazili) and the Netherlands (Strating). That the Buffs are in a position to still compete is a testament to the staff's abilities in this arena, as much as the 'empty' '13 and '15 classes are an impeachment. Indeed, after flying too close to the sun in 2013, I would argue that the coaching staff has done better than most realize in re-stocking the cupboard, culminating in a '16 class that I think the fanbase will grow to appreciate.

Still, though that 2016 foursome was a nice haul of capable prospects, one that I like in terms of filling both needs and providing exciting talent, the sense around BuffNation was that Coach Boyle really needed to find some recruiting success in 2017.  The last whispers of the 2012 statement class are about to graduate, after all, and playing three-card-monte with the transfer wire can only take you so far.  The stakes are high.

To that end, rest easy, because His Tadness has answered almost every recruiting question you could raise this cycle.  Emanating from a single, statement host week (when the football team thrashed Idaho State), the Buffaloes earned the commitments of three four-star recruits. Forwards all, the trio landed like whales on Tad's boat, silencing all of the critics that had dogged the coach over the years. When they sign with CU this week, they will form the most well-regarded recruiting class since 2012, projected to land in the national top-25 when all is said and done.  If 'coffee's for closers,' than Coach Boyle and staff deserve a big-ass gift card to Starbucks.

Up first was wing Tyler Bey, who committed to Colorado over regional recruiting rivals San Diego State and Arizona State. A 6-7 small forward from LA (originally Las Vegas), Bey became the first marquee SoCal recruit to declare to be Boulder-bound since Xavier Johnson (with all apologies to Bryce Peters). He's known as an elite-level defender and rebounder, with plenty of versatility to range all over the court from the '2' to the '4.' Phrase variations like 'long arms,' 'high-level athleticism,' and 'unselfish play' also usually feature on Tyler's scouting reports, along with notes regarding a developing three point shot. He's an exciting prospect that is considered a fringe top-100 talent by most services; lots of upside here, particularly on the defensive end.
From: Scout
Right on his heels, word leaked that local product D'Shawn Schwartz was also pledging to be a Buff. A 6-6, 220 lbs leaper from Colorado Springs, he continues the El Paso County pipeline that sent heavies like Josh Scott and Wes Gordon northward up I-25. Another wing with good rebounding talent, Schwartz has been getting a lot of positive local and national reviews on the AAU circuit. A unanimous four-star talent, some sites have him in the top-70 nationally, and his stock could continue to rise over the winter. Still, he has a chip on his shoulder, which Coach Boyle has often expressed an affinity for.  I like his jumper a lot more than I do Bey's, and, accordingly, see D'Shawn as more of an offensive piece, compared to Tyler's defensive. Good vision, good passing skills, as well. He chose CU over Butler, Memphis, and UNLV.
From: the Post
While Bey and Schwartz committed on the same day during their visit, the final piece of the 2017 puzzle was strung out a few weeks.  Eventually, however, beefy SoCal center Evan Battey made the choice, and committed to joining the Black and Gold over entreaties from Purdue and Miami. The football-sized 6-7, 280 lbs prospect, seemingly destined more for Coach MacIntyre's o-line than Tad's front line, is alternatively considered a top-150 overall or top-20 center prospect by the various services, and stands as a very interesting capstone to the class. I can't help but compare Battey to another oddly-shaped Pac-12 center of recent vintage, Oregon State's Joe Burton, and hope for similar things from Evan's forthcoming career.
From: the OC Register
If you look at who will be graduating this year, you can also clearly see that Coach Boyle was looking to fill need with his three high school commits. With Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon stepping out of the program after this season, there's a big hole open in the roster for athletic, versatile forwards. Bey looks great as a future Wes (slightly undersized '4' with high athleticism and good defensive skills), while Schwartz should slip nicely into the XJ role (good three-point stroke, strong weakside rebounding, tough matchup).  Battey only adds some spice, the kind of wide-body pivot player that Boyle has often looked for -- Damiene Cain in 2011, Tory Miller in 2014 being prime examples.  I love these fits, and can't wait for all three to hit Boulder.

With the understanding that the team will have four open scholarships after the current senior class graduates, do note that the final piece of the 2017 puzzle is already on campus: Alexander Strating. The wing from the Netherlands is on a walk-on redshirt this season, to be placed on scholarship next fall.  In total, the quartet of commitments can be considered one of the best recruiting classes, on paper, in program history, and project to lock down the wing and paint for the next four years.  As a final aside, it's interesting that this makes two-straight classes that the coaching staff has pulled key recruits from Southern California, and the third-straight that they've pulled from the international circuit; they're developing both a style and a pipeline.

--

CONCLUSION

In his opening comment on media day, Coach Boyle laid down some of his old school reality. "Right now, if I had to describe our team in one word, it would be 'overrated.'" He went on to say that the team is 'not getting it done' in practice, and that reality is going to make for a painful lesson if they don't figure it out.  Yeesh, that's a little concerning, isn't it?  Well, Tad is nothing if not a pragmatist, and he lives to tamp down expectation, whether it's positive or negative. Matter of fact, I would've been worried had he come out with a rosy outlook, and an expression that everyone was underselling his charges.

Still, I wonder where he's getting the sense that his team is 'overrated?'  Outside of a core of the most loyal-minded of BuffNation (*cough*), not much is expected of this group.  Some national reporters, trying to show the depth of their knowledge, have opined that the team could surprise as a sleeper, but, for the most part, the assembled media is looking elsewhere.  Case-in-point, the pre-season Pac-12 media poll had Colorado picked fifth, and a number of bracketologists around the country are projecting the team to barely make the Tournament, if at all.  If anything, the Buffs are being under-sold.

I would imagine what Coach is alluding to is the impression the squad has of themselves. There's a lot of talent on this roster, and a lot of out-sized personalities who are otherwise very confident of their abilities.  His statement was in effort to combat that in-house sentiment, rather than a step to ward off fan excitement about the coming season.

Surely, there is some danger of a letdown, though.  The defensive package is a concern, especially without Josh Scott there to erase some of the perimeter mistakes.  Further, if either of Wes or Tory get injured, particularly early in the season to expose a lack of depth up front, the train could jump the tracks. Still, I am otherwise confident in the assortment of talent at hand. They've been through the wars -- or 'seen some shit,' as I worded it in my football preview.  It would shock me to see this many three-, four-, even five-year players, all with the requisite talent for the level of play, come out and lay an egg, particularly against teams with much less cohesion and experience.  No, I will stand by a rosier prediction.  The Buffs will post a season worth remembering in 2016-17, and you will all be glad to see it.

To that end, here are my goals for the year:
  • Finish in the top-four of the Pac-12, earning a conference tournament bye for the first time since 2004.
  • Win 22 regular season games, setting the all-time program record for success in a single campaign.
  • Make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, somehow, someway.
I don't think any of these goals are out of the realm of possibility, either.  The Pac-12 is in a transitional year, with a lot of teams caught up in roster flux.  A group like Colorado, returning the vast majority of production from a team that was otherwise successful, is in great position to take advantage of others that may still be searching for an identity come January.  A primary roadblock here would be the difficult and awkwardly laid-out conference schedule, set, seemingly on purpose, to trip the Buffs up right out of the gate.  Still, with a softer close to the schedule, I anticipate CU being able to backdoor their way into the upper echelon of the league.

For the larger target of 22 regular season wins, it's all predicated on doing something that barely evaded them last season: win-out at home.  Just one slip-up on the Coors Events Center's hardwood, against Utah, separated the Buffs from this achievement in '15-'16, and it was on a last-second buzzer-beater, to boot. The Xavier and Oregon games are the largest impediments here, and could both easily turn into losses. Coach Boyle, however, has never lost to the Ducks in Boulder, and the team will be well-focused on the Musketteers by the time they come to town.  It's within reach.

Assuming the team can make it back to the Dance for the fifth time in six seasons, once there, they may also be in better position than in previous opportunities to advance.  Guard play dominates the post-season, and the Buffs are decidedly guard-oriented in '16-'17.  Given a nice draw, that backcourt expertise could be enough to push them where no group of Buffaloes in the modern era has gone before: the Sweet Sixteen.

But, of course, all of this is predicated on them putting in the work.  Inattention to detail, really at any step along the way, could cost the team dearly.  What I'm talking about here is potential. This team, undoubtedly, has the potential to achieve everything listed above, and maybe even a little more.  The trick will be taking that next step -- winning those games when everything seems to be going against you, avoiding the letdowns against lesser opponents, and staying focused for five months of grinding play against some of the best basketball teams this country has to offer. As Coach Boyle said on media day, "It's not going to be given to us, it's not going to be handed to us, it's not going to be tweeted to us."  The Buffs are going to have to earn their success.  I think they can do it, too, now all that's left is the execution.  Regardless, it should be a fun show to watch.


In summation, Tad Boyle is awesome.

- Fin -

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Excellent research and analysis. Bookmarking as a future resource this season. GO BUFFS!

Stephen Buechner said...

Keep up the good work Rumblin'! I always love the basketball preview, as well as the rest of your blog.

Go Buffs!

Claroofus Jones said...

Joyous, flawless, and accurate e-tome. Thanks again for the preview.