Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, March 3, 2017

The 2017 Senior Class

It's that time once again, time to honor another group of seniors for their contributions to Colorado Basketball.  In this case, similar to last season, it's another quartet expiring their eligibility, preparing to run out of the north tunnel for the final time Saturday afternoon against Cal. Regardless of how the season has gone compared to expectations, they still deserve a final tip of the cap and their due, a thank you for years of service and hours of work behind the scenes to put a largely successful product on the court.

In their number count the final vestiges of the famed 2012 recruiting class.  At the time, that group stood as the most highly rated recruiting class in the modern history of the program.  While the 2017 class may end up stealing some of that thunder, especially if there is a late addition, there's no doubt that, at the time, the 2012 sextet was seen as a thunderbolt statement that CU hoops had arrived and was getting feisty on the recruiting trail.  With the book on that class finally coming to a close, it's the end of an era of Colorado Basketball, one which, admittedly, never quite managed to live up to the hype.

Of that six-member class, Josh Scott, Xavier Talton, and Eli Stalzer graduated last spring, while Chris Jenkins transferred to Detroit Mercy, where he has been putting up solid 12/7 numbers for the Titans in this, his final season of collegiate competition.  That leaves Xavier Johnson and Wes Gordon as the last men standing to take their bows this week.  They will be joined by a pair of outsiders who started their careers elsewhere before eventually joining the Black and Gold, but are, nonetheless, valued teammates -- Derrick White and Josh Fortune.  All four, interestingly, hold the distinction of being fifth-year seniors, a rarity in the current era of major conference college basketball.

Pointedly, who you won't find mentioned here are any of the four members from the 2013 recruiting class.  What would've been their natural graduating year will pass by without a word.  A large part of that is due to the fact that three quarters of them are no longer with the program -- Dustin Thomas and Jaron Hopkins each transferred two years ago (to Arkansas and Fresno State, respectively), with Tre'Shaun Fletcher bolting this past offseason for Toledo. Only George King remains, but he is considered a junior, due to a well-applied redshirt in 2014-15.  This absence of results from the majority of the 2013 class, even more than the production of those who signed on in 2012, is cause for a lot of the relative frustration from the last three years.

However, such recriminations are for another day. For now, though, let us stand united in thanking the four taking their final bows on Saturday.  After the jump, I'll give my thoughts on the careers of each, while also taking a look at what I best remember from their tenure in Boulder.

Click below for the post...

Xavier Johnson - Los Angeles, CA - Ethnic Studies/Sociology -

A bubbly, exuberant flex forward from SoCal, XJ can always be found at the center of the action. Having transformed his senior year into a capable power forward, his is a different game now, compared to when he first stepped on campus.  Once slashing and dashing, like a cavalier of old with a swashbuckling smile, Xavier now bruises his way into the paint, looking to attack the rim from close-up.  Throughout it all, however, Johnson could be counted on to be ever smiling, ever eager to step into the spotlight.
From: The AP
During his time on the Front Range, though, this energy was not always applied in the most positive of ways. Who can forget his comments after the Jan 23rd, 2014 game with Arizona, where, from the losing locker room, he declared that the Wildcats (who were the #1 team in the country at the time, and who would go on to the Elite Eight) "weren't that good," and that the Buffs would beat them by 20 back in Boulder.  Of course, CU would not win that game back in the CEC by 20.  Indeed, they lost by 27 in one of the more epic beatdowns in the Tad Boyle era.  From that moment onward, XJ was seen as an antagonist, the straw that stirs the drink, in more ways than one.

The eye-cringing moments with Johnson didn't stop there.  This year alone, he was suspended for two games over a violation of team rules, then caught on camera joking around with fellow senior and suspendee Wes Gordon while the team took a painful loss in their absence.  This just one month after XJ found himself in an altercation in Tempe (not his fault) that cost him a half of basketball against Arizona State, leading to the first in a string of close losses that cost Colorado any hope of making the NCAA Tournament.

Johnson, then, is no stranger to controversy.  But, along with the sideshow antics, he also possesses obvious talent and an undeniable competitive flair to compliment his expressive joie de vivre.  Maybe not the intent, but I always found myself chuckling along with XJ.  Everything he did on an off the court seemed to come with a wry smile and a sideways glance, like he was trying to break the fourth wall in his own personal sitcom.  For good or bad, and the various degrees in-between, I always enjoyed having Johnson on the team, and the program will not be the same in his absence.

Coming back from an Achilles tear that cost him the 2015-16 season, Xavier has performed well in this, his final season of eligibility.  14/6 averages, with a 113 offensive rating and excellent shooting numbers, he's been great this year, when available to play.  What's more, he's been drawing fouls at an obscene clip (5.3/40 minutes played) and putting up strong rebounding rates against conference competition.  If there was any worry that XJ would take a step-back post-injury, they've been laid to rest, and he will exit as a clear team leader.

Best remembered for - 

I already talked about his vibrant personality, so let's move on to something more practical -- his rainbow, high-arcing jumper.  Whether it be from the free throw line or from behind the arc, Xavier has always put as much air as possible behind his shot, sometimes threatening to approach the rafters in his pursuit of the perfect trajectory.  It's a distinct look, one utterly unique across this level of competition, and something that I will never forget.

Best aspect of his game - 

Versatility.  As he's transformed into an interior forward, Johnson has showed off a variety of post moves that, to this day, seem to catch opposing defenders off guard.  Combined with his perimeter skills, enabling him to either hit an outside shot or attack the lane off the dribble, this makes him a highly versatile threat across the spectrum -- a true challenge to match-up with and guard.

Best game as a Buff - 3/7/13 vs Oregon

A number to choose from here.  XJ had huge lines this year alone against Wofford, Notre Dame, and Arizona.  For me, however, I look back to his freshman year, when a huge effort from him helped overcome the pre-game loss of Andre Roberson, and secure the Buffs a spot in the NCAA Tournament with a win over top-25 Oregon.  XJ, pumping in a then-career high 22 points, was nearly perfect on the night, going 7-7 from the field and 5-6 from the line.  Simply outstanding, and a great example of his dangerous offensive abilities.

Wesley Gordon - Colorado Springs, CO - Anthropology/Ethnic Studies - 

Of all the journeys to fifth-year senior status on display today, Wesley's is the most natural.  Upon arriving in Boulder, he was eventually convinced to redshirt, giving him time to adjust to collegiate life, and separate himself on the roster sheet from players like Josh Scott.  This paid off, with Gordon stepping into the mix four years ago and providing a credible interior look that has served the Buffs well ever since.
From: the BDC
Wes, though, was never the star. Quiet and reserved on the court, when compared to teammates like Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, he always seemed to prefer to stay outside the spotlight, whether it be help-side defense or weak-side rebounding.  Sure, he possesses explosive athleticism and legitimate talent, but asking him to lead was probably a route that was never going to bear fruit.

Nonetheless, Gordon was instrumental to the Buffaloes' plans over the last few years, emerging as a capable rebounding and shot-blocking threat, while putting up efficient offensive numbers on the other end.  With three more blocks, he would become just the second player in program history to record 200 in a career, and is top-10 in boards with a few games to play.  With the ball, he's got a career Ortg over 112 and nearly as many win shares as he does defensively. Those are solid accomplishments, no doubt about it.

However, it should be noted that inconsistency was a persistent struggle for Wes. This season alone he almost has almost as many games with four or fewer points (8) as he does in double figures scoring (10), with rebounding numbers that are all over the map.  Simply, in that vein, he can be a frustrating player to watch -- undeniably talented, but largely incapable of anchoring a team, in either obvious or obscure ways.  I find it hard to blame him, though.  Wes is who he is; it was our fault as fans for levying the heavy burden of expectation past his ability to carry it.

So, Gordon will leave the Buffs as a highly enigmatic presence.  Still, I will always remember him for his ability to lurk in the wings, ready to pounce for an awe-inspiring block, and his penchant for coming up with key offensive rebounds and stealthy put-backs at the rim.  A solid power forward to the end; not much you can really argue with here.

Best remembered for - 

Rising out of nowhere to fling back a wayward shot from an unsuspecting opponent.  He's been top-four in the Pac-12 for block rate in each of his four seasons in Boulder, and has shown a superior ability to anticipate opportunities for rejection.  More often, it wouldn't be a face-up swat; Gordon seemed to prefer leaping out as the help defender when a guard tried to sneak into the lane.  Those are the most explosive blocks in his repertoire, and the ones that make the highlight films.

Best aspect of his game - 

Offensive rebounds.  Wes lead the Pac-12 in OR% in both his freshman and junior seasons, and is well over 11% for his career.  Just an outstanding nose for second chance opportunities, he could be consistently found under the rim, angling for anything off the glass.  These offensive boards would lead to easy put-back chances, helping him pile up efficient points without going out of his way to force his own shot.

Best game as a Buff - 2/13/16 vs Washington

With Josh Scott out with an injury for visits from the Washington schools last year, and Colorado hurting for his presence inside, Wesley Gordon stepped up and dominated the paint.  Over the two games, each needing to be wins for the Buffs to make the NCAA Tournament, Gordon was huge, posting a combined 32/25 line with eight blocks.  In this one, he was clearly the best player on the court in Black and Gold.  He was everywhere defensively, helping to slow down the high-flying Huskies, while executing well on the offensive end.

Josh Fortune - Hampton, VA - Communication - 

A marquee transfer back in 2014, Josh Fortune came to Boulder after starting his career with the Providence Friars.  A promising wing with versatile skills, he seemed to be the perfect compliment to Tad Boyle's system - a shooter with defensive ambitions and the ability to play multiple positions. For a while, at least, his arrival was paying big dividends for both Josh and the program.  He was the third leading scorer on the team last year, helping the team make the NCAA Tournament.  As a result, it was anticipated that he was on the verge of a solid senior campaign.  In my season preview, I even called him Colorado's 'fulcrum,' the kind of player who can help determine the timbre of a season by where he falls on his projectable spectrum.
From: the SL Trib
Unfortunately, Josh seemed to lose control of his jumper as the season went by, finding the rim far more often than the net in the midst of a major shooting slump.  It capped his offensive output, and eventually cost him a spot in the starting lineup.

However, while Fortune would struggle with both his shot and turnovers on the break, he never let his attitude slip.  To this day, he remains active and focused in practices, and I still see the positive contributions he puts in during games.  He's active on defense, he's willing to make the extra pass in sets, and his teammates still respect him.  This could've been a really ugly situation, all things considered, but Fortune has handled the slump with grace and class.  That says huge things about who he is as a person, to continue to contribute to the team when the goings are rough.  

Best remembered for - 

The ever-changing hair styles.  After consistently showing a clean-look while at Providence, Josh arrived on campus and gradually started to spice things up.  From his Bubbles-esque natural look, to various versions of cornrows, to proto-dreds, and the current patterned shapes, Fortune was never afraid to try out a new hairstyle.

Best aspect of his game - 

Defense.  While the shooting numbers have gone south, you can still see Josh jumping passing lanes, and aggressively sticking with his man.  He usually plays clean defense, typically staying under three fouls/40 minutes played.  Shooting can come and go like the tide, but defense travels, and it's a big reason why Fortune has continued to see minutes this season.

Best game as a Buff - 2/28/16 vs ASU

Josh Scott would get the majority of the accolades on his senior day, but Josh Fortune put up some outstanding numbers against the Sun Devils in a game the Buffs absolutely had to have.  Josh was 6-8 from the field, 3-5 from three, while also chipping in four assists and three steals against zero turnovers.  This was J44 at his absolute best -- maybe not the most watched player on the court, but vital as a 6th-man.  With him playing like that in the second unit, there's not much the opponent can do to skate past Colorado.

Derrick White - Parker, CO - Business -

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the shortest-tenured member of the graduating class, D-II transfer Derrick White.  The stunning ascension of White from the second-tier of the collegiate scale to the starting lineup at a Power 5 institution already made him the stuff of legend.  That he lived up to the preseason hype, even exceeding it by most measures, only accentuates his improbable tale. Quite simply, the kid is a baller, the combination of talent, competitive grace, and intelligence you so infrequently find in a complete package at this level.  While his will be a tale told in 'what-if' whispers, I can't help but stand in awe of what he accomplished this season, with a wistful sigh in mind of the fact that we in Buff Nation only got to see him ply his trade for some 30-odd games.
From: Mile High Sports
I will admit that, when the transfer was first announced prior to last season, I was a little dubious that someone from UCCS could be the answer in the backcourt for this program.  There's a certain stigma attached to those that don't make the top-level cut out of high school.  We as fans will happily welcome a transfer from other corners of D-I at the drop of a hat, but the second you mention D-II, the reflexive reaction is one of denial and doubt.  That's a failing of myself and fans everywhere, born out of an elitist mindset in respect of a highly static power structure.  Derrick White broke that mold, that perception, and deserves all the credit in the word for doing so.

But, his legacy doesn't stop there.  In a season of frustration and disappointment, Derrick has been a shining light of execution, performance, and joy that everyone in BuffNation can take pride in.  I stated in my season preview that 15/3/3 averages from White was probably underselling his abilities a bit. In fact, he's put in 17/4/4, and has been even better in conference play.  While the team as a whole has fallen short of expectations, White has, instead, shot past all predictions to become the heart and soul of the team; the reliable rock amid a sea of inconsistency. 'The Chosen One' indeed.

Derrick has excelled at both ends of the court.  On offense, he's as capable pulling up for a dagger three as he is pulling off the dunk of the year.  Patient and precise, he's also a willing distributor, earning every bit of his near-120 ORtg. On defense, while he can struggle on the glass, Derrick has proven to be one of the best defenders near the rim on dribble-drive that I've ever seen.  His ability to anticipate and block an opposing guard's would-be layup is beyond impressive.  At this point, I'm just stunned that people drive into him in the paint at all.  While not perfect, White has been everything you want to see in a lead guard, to the point that everyone, Tad Boyle included, is pained that he'll only get the one tour in Black and Gold.

I hope you got a good look, because we may never see a season like this again.  Players will score more points, they'll pull more rebounds, hand out more assists, sky for more blocks, and, importantly, lead the Buffs to more wins. But, the narrative impact of Derrick White, coming into the program and slaying dragons before immediately walking away, will probably never be equaled. Again, the stuff of legends.

Best remembered for - 

As fun as he is to watch offensively, Derrick's fantastic understanding of the game and ability to read opponents, translating to consistent, clean blocks on would-be attackers, is a thing of beauty.  As a point guard, White has posted the 6th-best block rate in the conference, and consistently shuts down dribble-drive penetration.  You can see them coming, too -- Derrick knows it, the fans know it, even the opponents know it.  The blocks are coming, and there's nothing opposing guards can do to counter.

Best aspect of his game - 

Pac-12 officials never quite learned to give him the due of other star guards around the conference, but Derrick's ability to get into the lane and draw contact has been fantastic.  Top-10 in the league in FT rate, with a shooting percentage from the stripe nearing 84%.  Given another year, and better national attention, he'd have gotten some of the calls guys like Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, and Spencer Dinwiddie used to.  As it is, however, Derrick makes the most of the opportunities whistled, and never stops attacking defenders.

Best game as a Buff - 2/2/17 @ Stanford

Derrick has a pair of 30-burgers to his name, and a number of other massive performances, this season, but this effort, on the road, shows his ability to completely stuff the stat sheet.  19/8/8/4/2, while utterly dominating the pace and timbre of the game, boggles the mind.  All that while only getting used on 22% of possessions.  Like a damn puppet master pulling on some strings, he eviscerated the Cardinal in Maples, and they could do nothing about it.

Thank you Xavier, Wesley, Josh, and Derrick!  True Buffs to the end!

No comments: