Colorado Basketball: The Full Picture

That sound is back.

No matter what else is going on in your life, that sound brings that huge smile to your face. That sound, for me, is actually two:  a basketball hitting that hardwood floor, or that same basketball sliding through that nylon net without interference, or in a non-romanticized term, a swish.  We’ve reached November, and you know what that means.

In Colorado, most people associate November with the season’s first snow.  I’m not most people.  November means college basketball is back, I love November.  There’s just something about that beautiful game, the chemistry, the flow.  It is what I know, what I love, there’s just no other way to put it.

Last year, my season preview was broken down into five specific categories, and this year’s will include all of them except for the breakdown of the rest of the Pac-12 conference.  I released them separately, but unfortunately this year, that’s not an option.  What that means for you, is that you’d better get comfortable.

As a reminder, here’s how we break this baby down.

  • Colorado Basketball:  The Schedule
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Roster
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Numbers
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Predictions

Our first section focuses on breaking down the full schedule into specific groupings to highlight key moments throughout the season and help the casual fan pinpoint important moments to key on.  We’ve seen time and time again the NCAA Tournament committee reward programs willing to play quality opponents more so than those just trying to rack up wins against inferior competition.  This reality must enter every coaches mind as he sets up the schedule for future years.

Each schedule must be carefully crafted with a smattering of high profile opportunities to make national noise, a healthy serving of quality opponents both home and away, and lesser competition to ensure a winning culture and opportunities to work out kinks in the recipe.

(I hope you enjoyed my Thanksgiving dinner metaphor)

WIth that, the first section of this year’s #RollTad preview.

Colorado Basketball:  The Schedule

Grouping One:  “The Rude Awakening”

  • Nov 13:  Iowa State
  • Nov 17:  @ Auburn

The schedule does the Buffs no favors heading into the 2015-16 season.  They open up the season against preseason #7 Iowa State in a “neutral court” game that in all reality will be a road game for the Buffs in South Dakota.  Even with Fred Hoiberg manning the sidelines for the Chicago Bulls now, Iowa State has one of the nation’s most lethal rosters.

Once again, Colorado matches up with Auburn in ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon in the second game of the year.  This time, they travel to Auburn, to face what many think will be an improved ball club this year.  It isn’t the talent that worries me, though.  Road games in college basketball are a bear to win, especially coming off another road game nearly 1,250 miles away early in the year.

Splitting these two games would be a welcome start to the season that everyone should consider a fair result.  Starting 0-2 is definitely not out of the question.

Grouping Two:  “The Learning Curve”

  • Nov 20:  Portland
  • Nov 22:  Nebraska-Omaha
  • Nov 25:  Air Force
  • Nov 29:  Northern Colorado
  • Dec 2:  Fort Lewis

The Buffs return home for a five game stretch filled with opponents that should allow for the team to work through whatever issues arise, solidify their rotation, and hopefully gain some confidence as we close on the conference slate.

Portland represents a decent opponent slated to finish in the middle of the pack in the WCC.  Nebraska-Omaha is one of the newest members of Division 1 basketball and while improved is still acclimating to life at this level.  Air Force is an important game if only to maintain dominance within the state, the Falcons are picked to finish 8th in the Mountain West this year.  The same can be said about Northern Colorado, Tad Boyle’s former coaching home.  They have not found success since his departure to Boulder.  Fort Lewis is a local Division II program that, again, is unlikely to challenge the Buffs over the course of an entire game.

The Buffs can consider a sweep of these games as the only acceptable result.

Grouping Three:  “The Opportunity”

  • Dec 6:  @ Colorado State
  • Dec 12:  BYU

This grouping represents an extremely important part of the schedule for the Buffs.  Both opponents provide Colorado with an opportunity to tally quality non-conference wins that will register strong marks in the RPI.

Colorado State won’t be nearly as formidable as last season’s 27 win club, with Daniel Bejarano, Stanton Kidd, and JJ Avila all moved on.  That said, they still project to be a decent team who can provide Colorado with a quality road win in non-conference play.

BYU represents the best non-conference home opponent the Buffs will play this season. Projected to finish 2nd in the WCC behind Gonzaga, they are a popular NCAA Tournament pick this preseason and provide a big opportunity for the Buffaloes to register a tournament quality non-conference win within the friendly confines of Coors Event Center.  Tyler Hawes is gone, but returning is Kyle Collingsworth and Chase Fischer, both elite guards who will give the Buffaloes trouble.

A split wouldn’t be the end of the world, neither loss cripples our postseason hopes, but leaving this stretch without a win would be disastrous.  Finding a way to sweep these two games would likely leave the Buffs in pretty good position heading into the Las Vegas Classic.

Speaking of…

Grouping Four:  “Business Trip”

  • Dec 18:  Nicholls State
  • Dec 19:  Hampton
  • Dec 22:  Penn State
  • Dec 23:  Kent State / SMU

This year’s version of the Las Vegas Classic leaves a lot to be desired.  The first two rounds of the Tournament actually take place on campus, so the Buffs receive Nicholls State and Hampton at Coors.  Nicholls State is one of the worst programs in Division I, and Hampton, while much better, should not provide much trouble as they are predicted to finish 6th in the MEAC preseason poll.

Neutral site games are the make or break match-ups of the non-conference slate.  Penn State is projected to be just outside the top 100 of KenPom this season, and thus, is a hugely important game for Colorado.  A loss really hurts our RPI profile, a win is a solid boost.  DJ Newbill is gone for Penn State, the Nittany Lions don’t return a single double digit scorer from last season.  They do bring in two Rivals150 commits in Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves to restock the cupboards.

In a perfect world, the Buffaloes dispatch the Nittany Lions, make the Las Vegas Classic championship game and would take on SMU.  Facing a top 25 opponent in any arena is a solid boost to your tournament resume, regardless of the result.  Obviously, a win is going to move the meter far more than the alternative solution, and that’s the goal, but just getting that matchup is a big win for our profile.  SMU would have to beat Kent State, an opponent similar in strength to Penn State in order for that matchup to occur (if we lost to Penn State and Kent State lost to SMU, obviously we’d meet as well, in a less than ideal scenario).  The Mustangs return a majority of their roster from a year ago when they made the NCAA Tournament as a 6th seed so expectations remain high despite the heavy sanctions placed on them this summer.

If the Buffs are to remain on track the goal here should be at least a 3-1 run with a matchup against SMU as a part of the equation.  Losing to either Penn State or Kent State would be a blemish on the resume in terms of postseason hopes most likely.

Grouping Five:  “The Barometer”

  • Jan 1:  @ California
  • Jan 3:  @ Stanford
  • Jan 8:  Utah
  • Jan 13:  Oregon State
  • Jan 17:  Oregon

The opening stretch of the Pac-12 season will likely make or break the Buffs postseason chances.  Opening up on the road against a California team expected to make a serious run at the conference title is not exactly fun, but at least the trip will be out of the way early on in the year.

The expectations at Stanford are way down this year after the graduation on Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic, and Chasson Randle.  That game represents an opportunity to steal an early conference road game, a rare commodity in Pac-12 play.

The Buffs then return home to play another conference title contender, their travel partner, Utah.  The Utes are without the league’s best player last season, Delon Wright, who now dons an NBA jersey, but the rest of their NCAA Tournament roster from last season returns.

Oregon State returns to Coors Event Center after knocking off the Buffs last season, and this time, they’re expectations are even higher.  Gary Payton II is the league’s best defender and might even stake his claim as the best player overall.  This game is arguably the most important of the stretch as this represents the most reasonable opportunity for the Buffs to knock off a quality opponent early on in the conference campaign.

If I had to pick a team that has been the most disrespected in college basketball circles this summer, it has to be Oregon.  I wasn’t a believer in them last season, but I won’t fall into that trap again.  Elite scorer Joseph Young has moved onto the NBA, but the rest of the Ducks are back, and they have immense talent.  This is another home game that the Buffs will be hard pressed to win, but doing so would definitely elevate their argument as a NCAA Tournament hopeful.

Grouping Six:  “Making Moves”

  • Jan 20:  @ Washington
  • Jan 23:  @ Washington State
  • Jan 27:  Stanford

This grouping represents the easiest three game stretch of the entire Pac-12 schedule.  Washington returns just three scholarship players from last year, there won’t be many more opportunities to win on the road more cushy than this.

If there is one, though, it may come at Washington State.  No more Devonte Lacy up in Pullman, but baby faced Josh Hawkinson does return.  Those are winnable Pac-12 conference road games, you have to find ways to take advantage of those opportunities.

Next is a return trip from Stanford, who as we mentioned previously, is expected to finish in the bottom third of the league this year.  Home games against teams with those expectations must be won, simple as that.

Grouping Seven:  “Second Lap”

  • Jan 31:  California
  • Feb 4:  @ Oregon
  • Feb 6:  @ Oregon State
  • Feb 11:  Washington State
  • Feb 13:  Washington

The schedule in the Pac-12 always finds a quirk or two.  This year, it comes in its repetitiveness early on in the year.  The Buffs first 13 games come against just 7 opponents, and all the teams among this grouping represent return trips from games earlier in the slate.  Because of that, we won’t waste much time breaking down the match-ups other than to say this:

The first three games don’t provide much opportunity for wins, and getting two likely bottom feeders at home to follow that up represent must win games.  Coming out of this grouping with anything less than two wins would be a major disappointment.  A third win would be a fantastic bonus.

Grouping Eight:  “Proving Grounds”

  • Feb 17:  @ USC
  • Feb 20:  @ UCLA
  • Feb 24:  Arizona
  • Feb 28:  Arizona State
  • Mar 5:  @ Utah

This grouping earns the same title as last year’s finishing stretch.  Equally as brutal, the Buffs must find a way to come out of this final stretch in better shape than last year (2-4 down the stretch) if they want to find themselves battling for an NIT or NCAA Tournament berth.  Again, they close with three of five on the road, and again, three of their final five opponents are likely to finish among the top third of the league.  Also, as hinted at above, all of these opponents (minus Utah) the Buffs face just this once all season.  While it could be viewed as a benefit to see Arizona and UCLA just once, you also miss out on chances to boost your resume as well.  USC and Arizona State are both opponents the Buffs must circle as winnable games, they can’t miss on those if they want to finish the league above .500.

Overall, the shape of the Buffaloes schedule appears more favorable than last year’s, with more winnable non-conference games down the stretch against opponents that show quality but aren’t overbearing.  Avoiding UCLA and Arizona in conference play a bit provides the Buffs with some much needed breathing room to move up the standings potentially as well, so opportunities are definitely there for this group aiming to bounce back after a brutal season last year.

Now, onto the next breakdown of this year’s Buffs.

Colorado Basketball:  The Roster

Gone are three key rotational pieces, Askia Booker, Dustin Thomas, and Jaron Hopkins.  There are few players to come out of this program more polarizing than the man formerly affectionately referred to as “Ski”.  Often times mesmerizing, occasionally head-scratching, there’s plenty about him that will be missed.  That said, with the chemistry issues of last year’s bunch, it is hard not to place a burden’s worth of blame on Ski’s shoulders, especially given his decision to abandon his team once it was discovered the Buffs would be taking place in the little known CBI Tournament in the postseason.  Thomas and Hopkins were young talents who didn’t develop the way we’d all envisioned in their two years in Boulder.  Jaron fluttered back and forth between weirdly accurate three point shooter to hitting the side of the backboard on repeat and disappearing for long stretches.  Thomas made the game look so easy, until the ball approached its target slightly offline time and time again.  Defensively, he struggled to stay with Pac-12 caliber players.

Arriving are four pieces unavailable to the Buffs last season for various reasons.  Probably the biggest name is Providence transfer Josh Fortune, who brings a scoring knack that last year’s bunch lacked.  Fortune has good size for a wing, and during his time at Providence showed a natural touch behind the three point stripe.  He won’t be relied on heavily with the ball in his hands, or to make plays for others, but I do think he’s more capable of the latter than given credit for thus far.  The Buffs reached far and wide for their incoming class this year, snatching Thomas Akyazili (Belgium) and Kenan Guzonjic (Bosnia) from overseas.  Neither are expected to provide big minutes for the Buffs this upcoming season, but it is hard not to get excited about Akyazili’s potential.  He had offers from big time programs like St. John’s and Utah, and while playing for the Belgian U20 team (as their youngest member) he put up fantastic numbers and showed capability as a ball handler and spot up shooter.  He’s a bigger, physical guard with incredible handles, the biggest question mark for him will be can he get accustomed to the speed of the American game as a guard with less than exceptional athleticism.  Guzonjic is still working his way back from a severe knee injury that wasn’t healed properly, but the coaches appear to be high on his shooting range as a stretch four.  Returning to the fold is George King, who redshirted last year in a move by Tad Boyle to separate himself from his classmates.  Of course, as fate would have it, both of those players have since left the program, so the playing time that King sought will be forced upon him this season.  King is a tenacious rebounder for a perimeter forward, but must prove that he can defend with versatility as he’s a bit of a tweener at the college level.  A streaky shooter in the past with a decent release, finding a bit more reliability out of him will be Tad Boyle’s challenge this season.

Likely unavailable this season is star forward Xavier Johnson, who tore his achilles in the offseason.  There are rumors of his potential return for Pac-12 play, but on a selfish level I hope that isn’t the case because the achilles is a brutal injury that takes time to properly heal, and returning too early could do serious detriment to his career post college.  Of course, we could really use his talent next year as well, which is part of the equation.  We are ensured of the unavailability of transfer guard Derrick White this season, who has one of the cooler stories in recent memory.  A local product from Legend HS, White was not given a sniff from a Division I college coming out as a skinny undersized guard.  He went to UC-Colorado Springs, quickly blossomed four inches, and became one of the best players in Division II.  Looking to make a bigger name for himself, he chose to transfer to Boulder this season, and by all accounts, he’s often been the best player at practice this summer and fall.  It is a shame the NCAA continues to disallow athletes capable of proving themselves and moving up to the Division I ranks to play right away, but Tad Boyle and the Buffs will benefit from his arrival next season.

Now let’s get down to who returns for Tad Boyle this upcoming season.  You can’t talk Colorado hoops without highlighting Josh Scott first, so here we go.  Hampered with back injuries for most of last year, many forgot just how dominant this Colorado grown big man can be.  His post footwork is unmatched by anyone in the nation, and he even added a somewhat reliable long range jump shot to his repertoire last season.   He’s a fantastic free throw shooter with magical touch with both hands inside the paint.  His only detriment is his lack of explosiveness around the rim, he finishes too often below the rim, and has trouble finishing through contact because of that issue as well.  If he found a way to improve on that, good luck to his opponents.  Think I’m overhyping the man?  Think again, in his last seven games last year, once he got back to being his healthy self, he averaged nearly 20 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.  Those are All American numbers.  Also returning is fellow homegrown big man Wesley Gordon.  He’s really struggled to make a consistent impact, especially with Scott in the lineup.  That can’t happen this year, he has to step up and be the Buffs second best player this season.  He’s a tremendous shot blocker with agile feet defensively, but has to work on his strength and ability to keep bigger guys off the block.  Offensively, he’s very gifted, even has three point range, but is often times too unselfish around the rim.  He loves to pass, but routinely makes that extra pass you don’t need instead of finishing above the rim with consistency.  Xavier Talton will look to bounce back from a disastrous year.  As a sophomore, Talton surprised people with his growth, knocking down perimeter jumpers with consistency and locking down opponent wings.  Last year, it all fell apart.  His numbers worsened in every major category, including shooting a worrisome 30% from the field overall and just under 32% from 3PT range.  A bounce back campaign from the now senior would be a huge boost for this ball club.  Perhaps the biggest “X-factor” of all, though, is junior TreShaun Fletcher.  Gifted with many physical tools, Fletcher’s biggest issue is keeping him confident on the floor.  After going through a knee injury his freshmen year, he never really found his rhythm consistently last season and you could tell he was still being careful out there.  Despite that, his numbers rose dramatically from his freshmen year to last, even shooting a high quality 46% from 3PT range.  If he can maintain his aggressiveness this year, and reach his potential as a lockdown defender, Fletcher has a chance to be a big impact player for the Buffs as an upperclassmen.  Bruising sophomore Tory Miller is expected to have a big impact on this season as well.   He’s a highlight reel of big time dunks, hustle plays, and impact plays defensively, but he struggled to guard post players last year consistently, needing to add weight and quickness.  Boyle has pointed to him as the most improved player on the team, which would be bad news for all of CU’s opponents this season.  Dominique Collier, legendary product of Denver East HS, is back for his sophomore year.  His first season on campus was a struggle, getting injured, suspended, and just overall struggling to catch his feet at this level.  He’s a heady point guard who can use his first step quickness to get into the lane and create for others.  He has a flat jump shot, but the mechanics are there, if he can just add some air under the ball he could really become a plus shooter.  He doesn’t have a lot of explosiveness, so he’ll need to find a craftier finishing ability in the Pac-12, but I expect a big time improvement from him this season.  Lightly used Eli Stalzer is also back in the fold, but with his music taking up a majority of his time, he often misses practice and will probably be passed on the depth chart by Akyazili this time around.  He remains a fan favorite who is entirely capable of stepping onto the court and hitting a big shot or two.

Overall, this year’s group has too many question marks to formulate any semblance of expectations overall.  You look at the depth and you are probably satisfied with the first three guys off the bench, but who is your second best player?  Your third?  Someone besides Josh Scott must step up and become a consistent scoring threat or your going to just see every team double him down low and let others beat them.  Will anyone be up for that challenge?  We honestly just don’t know yet.  If the answer is yes, this group will improve on last year’s disappointment, if its no, then we will see a lot more of the same from 2015.

Colorado Basketball:  The Numbers

In this segment, I pull out a few numbers, whether statistics, or rankings, or whatever, that I think Colorado basketball fans will want to keep an eye on this upcoming season.  There are several key metrics that coincide with the effectiveness of a team in a particular year.

220th

Where the Buffs ranked nationally in points allowed last season, a number in which I know makes Tad Boyle cringe.  Giving up 68.1 points per game in one of the worst scoring seasons in college basketball history will put you behind the eight ball in many situations.  Those of you familiar with Colorado basketball will recognize the term “TadBall”…which refers to his style of play, play defense and rebound.  I find it hard to imagine that this program continues to struggle defensively.

35.3

The percentage of three pointers made by Colorado opponents last season, ranking the Buffs 231st in the country in defending such shots.  This is the biggest issue for me right now, and apparently the staff as well, as they announced in the offseason that they’d be switching up their defensive philosophy to try and run teams off the three point line.  This is a wise change, as three pointers have become more commonplace in college hoops and are now used more as a weapon than an afterthought.  Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon are both proficient shot blockers, trust them to make plays when opponents are forced to attack the middle.

-1.9

The Buffs turnover margin last year, ranking a putrid 295th in the country.  College ball is a guard sport, and that is where the Buffs often times struggled last season.  They must be smarter with the basketball, and especially more efficient feeding the ball into the post to Scott, Gordon, and Miller.  Basketball is sometimes a simple game, the more opportunities you have to score the ball offensively, the more likely it will happen.  The Buffs are not the most efficient group shooting, so taking care of the ball and earning extra possessions would go a long way to helping this group get buckets.

5.0

Colorado’s rebounding margin last season, ranking them 33rd in the country.  This is what the Buffs do best.  Limit opponents second chance opportunities and create a few of their own.  Tad Boyle preaches this non-stop in interviews, practice sessions, etc, this is Colorado basketball’s identity.  In past years they packed the paint and allowed teams more open looks than you’d like, but with changes, we may see this number decrease in favor of holding down opponent’s 3PT%.  That will be something to watch throughout the year.

1.5

Dominique Collier represents your returning assist leader from last season, at 1.5 assists per game.  These types of numbers are scary for Colorado fans because we no longer have a creator capable of creating shots for himself such as Askia Booker on the roster.  Guys are going to have to sacrifice for others and make more plays.  Ideally you’d like to see 2-3 guys averaging close to 3 assists per game for the offense to really flow.

7th

Colorado’s predicted finish in the Pac-12 preseason media poll this offseason.  Expectations are down for the Buffaloes this season, but I happen to find that as a positive.  Tad has proven in years past that he can get the most out of teams with lesser talent, and I’d expect a renewed focus on defense and rebounding out of this year’s group.  They’ll need to exceed those expectations to make the NCAA Tournament, and a lot has to go right, but its possible, and that is all you can ask for.

Colorado Basketball:  The Predictions

We’ve reached the culmination of TheAirUpHere’s Colorado Basketball season preview.  You’ve learned about the schedule, the roster, and you’ve been given some important numbers to keep your eye on this season.  Tomorrow, the Buffs open their season against powerhouse Iowa State, and all this speculation will form into results.  Let’s take one last stab at how this season should shape up.

Feel free to hold me to these, they wouldn’t be predictions if I didn’t show some faith!

Pac-12 Predictions:

Conference Standings (W/L Totals)

  1.  UCLA Bruins (14-4)
  2. Arizona Wildcats (14-4)
  3. California Golden Bears (13-5)
  4. Oregon Ducks (12-6)
  5. Utah Utes (12-6)
  6. Oregon State Beavers (8-10)
  7. Colorado Buffaloes (7-11)
  8. USC Trojans (7-11)
  9. Stanford Cardinal (6-12)
  10. Arizona State Sun Devils (5-13)
  11. Washington State Cougars (5-13)
  12. Washington Huskies (5-13)

NCAA Tournament Berths (5):  

  • Arizona Wildcats (3), UCLA Bruins (4), California Golden Bears (4), Oregon Ducks (7), Utah Utes (8)

Postseason Awards:

  • Pac-12 Player of the Year:  Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Freshman of the Year:  Jaylen Brown, California
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Most Improved Player of the Year:  Jordan McLaughlin, USC

1st Team All Pac-12:

  • Ryan Anderson, Arizona
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon
  • Jaylen Brown, California
  • Josh Hawkinson, Washington State
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah
  • Josh Scott, Colorado
  • Tyrone Wallace, California

2nd Team All Pac-12:

  • Andrew Andrews, Washington
  • Dwayne Benjamin, Oregon
  • Tra Holder, Arizona State
  • Nikola Jovanovic, USC
  • Allonzo Trier, Arizona

1st Team All-Pac 12 Defense:  

  • Andrew Andrews, Washington
  • Jordan Bell, Oregon
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah
  • Josh Scott, Colorado

Colorado Buffaloes (BOLD) Predictions:

  • Josh Scott will average 17+ PPG
  • Josh Fortune will have at least 2 games with 5+ 3PT makes
  • Josh Scott will lead the Pac-12 in double-doubles
  • Dominique Collier will average 4+ assists
  • TreShaun Fletcher will flirt with a 10ppg scoring average
  • Wesley Gordon will have multiple games with 5+ blocks
  • Most Valuable Player:  Josh Scott
  • Most Improved Player:  Tory Miller
  • Most Important Player:  TreShaun Fletcher

Thank you for reading, lets surprise some people this season and make watching our Buffs fun again!  See you at the Dark Horse, see you at Coors Event Center!  #ROLLTAD

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