At practice earlier this week, Colorado men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle implored his team to ignore whatever hype they might see on social media following a thorough exhibition win against Nebraska.
It hardly was an unusual request, even for a team picked to finish squarely in the middle of the Pac-12 Conference. No coach wants their team obsessed with headlines before they’ve played a real game, and the Buffaloes certainly have too many question marks to puff their chests out too much heading into Monday’s season opener at home against UC Riverside (6:30, Pac-12 Mountain).
Still, Boyle might not want his guys to read this column. Because the thought here is the 2022-23 Buffs should be an NCAA Tournament team.
Not could. Should.
Despite a sizeable influx of newcomers — transfers J’Vonne Hadley, Jalen Gabbidon and Ethan Wright, two true freshmen, and two redshirt freshmen who missed all of last season due to injuries — this in many ways resembles an ideal Tad Boyle team.
The core group of returnees in the junior and sophomore classes — Tristan da Silva, Nique Clifford, Luke O’Brien, KJ Simpson, Julian Hammond III, Lawson Lovering and Javon Ruffin — all are poised to make significant jumps this season. The Buffs have length, speed and depth, particularly along the wings. Defensively, this team has a chance to be ferocious. If they play D the way Boyle so often preaches, the Buffs will be a problem.
Offensively, even after a poor start from long range last season, the Buffs ended the year as the Pac-12 leader in 3-point percentage (and second in free throw percentage, too). Even after losing the three players most responsible for CU’s long-range prowess, the Buffs could lead the league from three again.
Hadley already has played his way into a likely starting role. Gabbidon is a former Defensive Player of the Year in the Ivy League who can lock down multiple positions. Wright gives CU another long-range threat off the bench.
“The one thing I like about this team is their spirit. Their competitiveness and their energy. Their coachability,” Boyle said. “That’s the thing that really encourages me about this team. The two scrimmages we’ve had have really helped us. They really have. But I take nothing for granted.”
By no means is an NCAA Tournament berth an automatic ticket. The Buffs aren’t UCLA. A lot of ‘ifs’ must fall into place, the continued progress of the aforementioned juniors and sophomores tops among them. CU needs something closer to that entire list taking the next step, not just one or two players. Unless 6-foot-11 freshman Joe Hurlburt gets up to speed in a hurry, front line size and depth will be an issue. The Buffs can’t survive consistent foul trouble from the 7-foor-1 Lovering.
It won’t be a finished product early. Boyle already has warned this group could mirror last year’s team in the sense it may take a while for the new-look rotation to jell. Last year’s team turned in a few ugly performances early before finishing fourth in the Pac-12. This year the Buffs face a tougher early schedule, with a two-week, five-game trip after the Riverside opener that includes what surely will be a raucous atmosphere at Grambling State, a huge measuring stick sort of challenge in Nashville against No. 11 Tennessee, and three games against a tough field at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. There’s a very real chance the Buffs’ record when they return from the beach won’t exactly inspire visions of March glory.
Yet more often than not under Boyle the Buffs have improved as seasons progressed. The returning players were part of a group that did just that last year, and the potential ceiling is higher for this year’s roster — even without Evan Battey and NBA second-round pick Jabari Walker.
One of the highlights of the upcoming season will be Boyle breaking Sox Walseth’s program coaching record of 261 wins (Boyle has 254). Since taking over for the 2010-11 season, Boyle’s teams have suffered a multi-year NCAA drought just once, technically missing the tournament in four straight springs (2017-20) but in reality experiencing a three-season drought, as the 2020 squad would have landed a berth had the tournament not been canceled at the start of the COVID pandemic.
CU returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2021 but fell short last season. Don’t expect the program to extend the drought this year.