Brooks: Buffs’ Search For On-Court Leader On-Going

BOULDER – It was a shocking loss, but not the kind that makes you write off the season . . . or the coach, or his players, or the program. That’s preposterous, the stuff of sheer panic. It was three games in, after all.

As they (they being coaches and commentators and a giddy fan base) say, there’s plenty of basketball to be played.

But let’s be honest: Saturday’s humbling, stunning, confounding 56-33 ‘L’ in Laramie was an all-encompassing defeat that makes you – Tad Boyle and his Colorado men’s basketball staff included –  go, “Hmmmm.”

And “hmmmm,” even a double “hmmmm,” doesn’t cover this one. “WTF?” might be more fitting. (That’s short, of course, for Where’s The Ferocity? – and we’ll get to that later.)

Hate to hit rewind when Boyle and his guys are punching fast forward, but several stats are too baffling not to be revisited and can’t be overlooked: nine points scored by the Buffs in the second half, no CU player in double figures, no CU player with more than two assists (six for the team), a team field goal percentage of 27.9 (12-of-43).

Meanwhile, on the Wyoming side of the box, there were these sparkling numbers: 22 assists on 22 field goals, 22-for-42 shooting from the field (52.4 percent), 9-of-22 from 3-point range (40.9 percent), nine steals and five blocked shots.

That's ugly by the numbers.

Boyle said after Monday’s practice that his team was aware of how poorly it played: “They know. You can’t argue with the tape and what happened. You can’t argue with the score. There’s no pushback there.”

He also said this: “Kids are resilient . . . a lot more than adults.”

Which tells me that it took longer than Saturday night’s two and a half hour bus trip down I-25 for Boyle to come to grips with what he’d just witnessed. For me, the loss’ most disturbing issue is that the Buffs appeared to be suddenly and inexplicably back in the early post-Spencer Dinwiddie period, when the junior point guard went down in January with his season-ending knee injury.

The Buffs understandably spent time in shock, looking about the court for an on-floor leader(s) to emerge. But that was 10 months ago and most of us believed leadership issues would be resolved in off-season and preseason work. But apparently not in time for this season’s first road trip.

And that raises another disturbing possibility: Without a standup, take-control type on the floor when things are spiraling south in a hostile arena (and there are plenty of those in the Pac-12), will the Buffs be huge at home and routinely roughed up on the road?

This season holds much more promise than that.

But like we said earlier, it’s very, very early – three games in, after all – and this is still a very young CU team. Whatever ails the Buffs is fixable. Boyle knows there’s much lab work to be done, but he also knows that ample non-conference opportunities await before conference play begins on Jan. 2 against UCLA.

On Monday, I asked Boyle to identify the biggest red flag he saw waving as he and the Buffs left Laramie for the final time in the current four-game series.

“When things don’t go good, when we face adversity, our heads go down, our dobbers get down,” he answered. “It affects our body language, our attitude . . . instead of thinking next play, if we’re going to do this we’re going to do this together. People try to go on their own and do it. (But) it’s a learning opportunity for us.

“You just move on, but we’re not going to forget about it . . . we’re going to try and learn from it – recognize our mistakes, learn from our mistakes and try not to have them happen again.”

Taken as that kind of afternoon, the Buffs will be just fine as they prepare for three consecutive home games before taking another road trip on Dec. 7 to Georgia. The first of the three at the Coors Events Center comes Tuesday night (7 p.m.) against a senior-laden, sharpshooting Air Force team.

Before the Buffs head for Athens early next month and into the Pac-12 the month after, their leadership needs to be identified and their ferocity amped up. That wasn’t in question in last week’s late-night/early morning dismantling (90-59) of Auburn; they were dominant on both ends of the court and virtually every corner of the stat sheet.

But the Buffs need to pack that act when they leave the CEC, and there has to be locker room/on-court leadership to accomplish that. Boyle has a bead on who can do it. “It’s got to come from Josh Scott, he’s our leader, and hopefully it’ll come from Askia Booker, hopefully from Xavier Talton, Xavier Johnson – the guys who’ve been around,” he said.

Of that foursome, Booker is the only senior. The other three – Scott, Johnson, Talton – are juniors, “guys who’ve been around,” as Boyle said. Each is thoroughly familiar with Boyle and what he expects.

But when Dinwiddie went down last winter, Booker was thrust into a leadership/facilitator role. He handled it with aplomb. Three weeks into Dinwiddie’s absence, Talton told me, “I think (Booker) had it in him all the time. It’s just different with Spencer being out; he has to take more of a leadership role and I think he’s really come into that.”

“Ski” needs to come into that once again. Through three games, his numbers have been down (22.6 shooting percentage, 8.0 point average, five assists, five turnovers). But Booker’s productivity has ebbed and flowed throughout his career, and Boyle is betting on the flow once again, betting that Booker’s ability to be a complete player and leader resurfaces.

While crediting Larry Shyatt’s coaching ability and Wyoming’s defensive intensity, Boyle pointed to a lack of execution as a major contributor to the Buffs’ feeble second half. Sharing the ball instead of trying to beat defenders off the dribble, theorized Boyle, comes from players reverting “to what they’re used to. That’s what they’re used to doing in AAU basketball, in street ball in the summer . . . we’re trying to get out of that.”

Tuesday night would be a good time for a bold and lasting step in that direction. The Falcons, 3-1 since an opening loss (84-78) at Army, average just under 10 3-pointers a game (9.8), are shooting 50.6 from beyond the arc, and 56.6 percent from the field overall.

Said Boyle: “I’m not sure we could 50 percent in an open gym. They’re a good shooting team, very well-balanced (with) four senior starters – a veteran group. We’ve got to be ready.”

After what he termed “a good film session and two good practices,” Boyle believes the Buffs will be prepared. They’ve also got that whiff of Wyoming to wash away. Better to not let it linger, but neither should it be completely forgotten.

We’re betting Boyle won’t let that happen, but the brunt of the memory and what to do about it falls on the guys on the court – particularly whoever steps forward to lead them.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU 

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