Brooks: Boyle's Buffs Decide Together Is Better
BOULDER - Tad Boyle was new to the job, but not to the business. He knew what it would take for his team to shake itself out of an early funk that brought three road losses in the first five games.
The key word there might be "road;" Boyle's first Colorado men's basketball team has been dynamite at home but something close to soggy gunpowder away from the Coors Events Center.
Nonetheless, if they had continued to play as they did through most of November, no matter the venue, the Buffaloes would be hauling excessive baggage - tons of the stuff - on this week's trip to Las Vegas.
Coaches can lecture their teams 24/7 on playing together, playing within themselves, playing unselfishly . . . whatever. But until the players determine that's the right recipe and begin using it, the stagnation won't stop.
That's what happened with Boyle's bunch after an 82-66 loss at Harvard on Sunday, Nov. 28. Back in Boulder on Monday, seniors Cory Higgins and Levi Knutson and junior Nate Tomlinson huddled and reached a consensus: Keep this up and we're going down. Fast and fatally. A players' only meeting was called.
"The biggest thing was that we had to commit to each other from here on out and really hold each other accountable," recalled Higgins. "We hadn't been doing that in the first couple of weeks of the season. That meeting was basically a contract between us as players to commit to give everything we had to this team.
"We talked about change coming from within - and until that happens it's not going to work. All this talking is great, but if you're not going to change, it doesn't mean anything. That was another point of emphasis: that we were going to have to take it upon ourselves to change."
Anything Boyle could have done wouldn't have been enough. To stress his point about playing stiffer defense, he kept leading scorers Higgins and Alec Burks out of the starting lineup for a game. But this wasn't about anything Boyle could do.
"Losing sometimes will make you look at yourself and your team and figure out where you have to get better quick," he said. "What I've told people that I've learned as a coach is a little bit humbling, but after the San Francisco game (an 83-81 overtime loss), I kind of said, 'OK, we've got to learn from this and things have to change right now - the way we play, the way we approach things.'
"But after the Harvard game, our players decided that - and that's when things changed. Until the players understand it, until they commit to it and decide this is what we want to do, that's when things change. When we talk about taking ownership in the program, well, that's a great example of that."
Only five games into the season, the Buffs were 2-3 and at a crossroads. Whether the players' only meeting charted a course that will play well on the road and successfully transport them into March and beyond is anybody's guess.
But it did pay dividends through a five-game home stand. CU won all five, exhibiting a night-and-day difference from the disappointing opening five. The challenge now is packing it all up and taking it to Vegas, where the Buffs face New Mexico on Wednesday and either Northern Iowa or Indiana on Thursday in the 10th Annual Las Vegas Classic.
"It should be a fun event, should be fun to play in," Knutson said. "Most of all, we're just looking forward to competing against some good teams and seeing where we're at as a team.
"We took care of business at home; we had good crowds and good energy. But we have to replicate that on the road, that's the next step for this program."
Boyle believes in the season's first month, the Buffs were adjusting to him and his staff and trying to determine what their roles would be. But as Higgins and Knutson pointed out, the players also were getting acquainted with themselves. And sometimes the deepest and most telling introspection only occurs after a loss.
"Since those first couple of weeks we know what we're looking for and what we need from each individual and collectively," Higgins said. "I think we have much more of an identity now. We've come a long way; we're much more consistent now."
The level of consistency will be tested by the Lobos, whose strength is inside while the Buffs' is outside. Boyle calls UNM "a Big 12 caliber team, athletically and depth-wise. They're a good outfit."
But he also brands the Lobos as a "good opportunity" for the Buffs to measure themselves and whether their November epiphany will hold up away from their home court. "We've had some disappointing losses - you look at San Francisco, you look at Harvard," he said. "This is a way for maybe us to make up for one of those. I hope we can do that."
Knutson knows what is being talked about outside the program also is being mentioned inside. "A lot of people are trying to figure out where we are as a team . . . we are, too," he said.
Finding a way to defeat New Mexico, noted Boyle, will require much of what it took for CU to defeat Colorado State in overtime (90-83). The key words for the Buffs in the aftermath of that win were "toughness and pride . . . when you have two teams and both have strengths and are pretty evenly matched, that's what it comes down to. And making plays down the stretch."
On the fundamental side, CU must continue to do what Boyle and his staff have been emphasizing - rebounding as a team and playing post defense as a team.
"Everybody has to help, to dig off the perimeter," Boyle said. "We switch one through four ball screens a lot, and because of that sometimes our perimeter guys get posted. They've got to fight and battle down there."
Playing together and playing unselfishly, added Knutson, doesn't merely apply to "sharing the ball more; that's only part of it. Most of it is on the defensive end and rebounding - it's got to be a team effort. One guy can't stop five; it's got to be everybody."
Offensively, the Buffs need improvement in setting screens. In Burks, Higgins, Tomlinson and Marcus Relphorde, Boyle has players who can break down a defense off the dribble. But beginning this week, as the level of competition rises, the importance of helping out teammates with screens also goes up.
"We'll have to screen for each other and use it as a way to free each other up," Boyle said. "That's going to become more and more important."
During the five-game home stand that enabled the Buffs to push their record to 7-3, they won by an average of 25 points. The CSU game tested their ability to withstand what could have been a fatal lapse at the end of regulation and forced them to rally in the extra period. The outcome could have easily swung the other way.
"You've seen a difference on the floor . . . a lot of good things came out of it," Boyle said of his team's recent performances. "Now, adversity is going to hit us again, we don't know at what point. And that's when we'll be tested again - how do we react to that, how do we handle it?
"But the thing we continue to talk about with this group is that we have to be together - play together, bond together, because that's the only way we're going to be successful."
The Buffs have their shortcomings (see: dominant inside presence), but on most nights they can compensate with team rebounding and defense. Offensively, when they're playing with and for each other, they're effective and fun to watch.
If they stay true to their covenant made after the Harvard trip, good times are ahead.