Brooks: Buffs Buoyed By Break-Even Vegas Trip
BOULDER - Not many Las Vegas visitors break even, so from that standpoint Tad Boyle considers himself ahead of the pack. On a two-night stand last week in Vegas, his Colorado men's basketball team lost a game and won a game, returning to Boulder upbeat after its appearance in the 10th Annual Las Vegas Classic.
The Buffaloes gave themselves good reason to be buoyant, rallying from a disappointing first-game loss (89-76) to New Mexico with a more gratifying performance (78-69) against Indiana in the consolation game.
The game against the Lobos was a 40-minute reaffirmation of what Boyle has been trying to hammer into his team since mid-October. Unable to counter UNM's frontcourt size, CU compounded that problem by frequently going soft inside defensively. Rebounding suffered, too, as the Lobos led from start to finish and in reality were in control throughout.
But in those 40 minutes with the Hoosiers, the Buffs proved several things to themselves that should prove beneficial in January and beyond. They showed they are highly capable of fashioning a big lead (19 points), fizzling it away (Indiana pulled to within three points), then regrouping and finishing.
Had they been unable to hold off the Hoosiers in the final minutes, well, the Buffs might have lost more than a non-conference game. But with leading scorer Alec Burks fouled out, senior Cory Higgins took a large step forward in the stretch and CU was able to make a safe, successful exit.
"It showed that these guys have a backbone as a team; we bowed our backs a little bit there," Boyle said. "Close games in college basketball come down to teams and players that make plays at critical times of games. That's not any secret. But I thought Cory Higgins made some plays for us down the stretch that you expect and hope your seniors are going to do. And he played like a senior the last three or four minutes of that game. I thought he played well the whole game, but he made plays for us down the stretch."
Boyle also pointed out that the Buffs ratcheted up their defense from the previous night: "We made a commitment to it that, quite frankly, we didn't have the night before against New Mexico.
UNM shot 61 percent from the field, Indiana 40 percent. Boyle called both UNM and IU "good teams," but conceded that the Lobos' size and guard play - particularly that of senior Dairese Gary - separated the teams.
"I think in the Indiana game our guys realized that we have to rebound the basketball to keep leads," Boyle said. "Our first possession defense was pretty good; we just let them get second and third shots . . . that was one of the reasons we were fouling a lot; we were letting them get offensive rebounds. Part of getting a complete stop is getting the rebound.
"But I thought our guys were dialed in defensively. We kept talking about the only way to extend leads is by getting stops - and that's the only way to keep leads as well. It's the focus of what we've talked about every time out and before and after every game."
The Buffs haven't had problems scoring. Averaging 83.6 points, they're eighth nationally and third in the Big 12 Conference. Four players are scoring in double figures - Burks (19.3), Higgins (16.9), Marcus Relphorde (11.9) and Levi Knutson (11.8). CU leads the Big 12 in free throw percentage (.780) and is second (.495) and third (.381), respectively, in field goal and three-point shooting percentage.
But in two major defensive categories (overall defense, three-point defense) and rebounding, they're No. 11 in the conference.
"We're scoring plenty of points at home and on the road," Boyle said. "We just have to concentrate on defense and rebounding. If we get that in check we can play with a lot of teams."
Counting Wednesday's game against Maryland-Eastern Shore (7 p.m., Coors Events Center, FSN RM), CU has three games to continue tuning up before No. 10 Missouri visits on Jan. 8 to open Big 12 play. Fall semester finals ended the week before Christmas, with spring semester classes not beginning until Jan. 10. Boyle called the period "the best time to be a college basketball player . . . in terms of just getting better individually and as a team."
The Buffs' offense might not be what keeps Boyle up at night once league play begins. He's also feeling better about the way his players have begun sharing the ball, particularly how point guard Nate Tomlinson is distributing it.
Through 12 games, Tomlinson has a team-best 35 assists, with 24 of them recorded in the past seven games. His turnover totals during those same spans are 18 and 12, respectively, with almost half (five) of his dozen errors in the past seven games coming against Indiana. That was uncharacteristic, noted Boyle: "Nate has been really steady for us. His assist to turnover ratio (1.9) has been terrific, which is the first thing you look for in a point guard. The thing I appreciate about Nate is his unselfishness; he makes everybody around him better."
CU usually is scoring enough now minus a contribution from its point man. However, both coach and player foresee a period coming - it might arrive on or about Jan. 8 - when the Buffs need Tomlinson "to be more aggressive offensively . . . and keep the defense honest," said Boyle. "I don't think he necessarily has to hunt his shots, but he has to take them when they're there. He's a good shooter, more than a capable shooter."
Tomlinson averages 23.4 minutes but has taken only 29 shots in 12 games. He concedes, "Yeah, sometimes I hurt us not shooting enough. I need to take the shots when they're given to me. But I think we're all playing together well at the moment; we're sharing the ball. I just have to step up (as a shooter)."
Now a junior, Tomlinson was the Buffs' assist leader for the past two seasons under former coach Jeff Bzdelik, averaging 3.0 dishes in his first year and 4.2 in his second. Tomlinson averaged 7.4 points as a freshman, 5.3 as a sophomore. He's at 3.5 points and 2.9 assists this season.
He calls himself "a confident shooter, so I need to knock them down. I do have to be more aggressive. It's just been two years of being hand-cuffed; I'm just trying to break them off and get my game back."
Tomlinson's father (Billy) is a basketball coach in Australia and Nate hopes to land in his dad's profession. He judges his game with a critical eye and says with only a small bit of sarcasm that he "did everything I could to make us lose" against Indiana. "But we came together as a team and pulled that one out."
The Buffs are 8-4 overall, but 6-1 in their last seven games - a run Tomlinson credits to him and his teammates "realizing the potential we have as a ball club and starting to get that as the Big 12 (season) comes around. It's been good for us.
"We just have to be consistent. Against Indiana, we probably played 15 good minutes in the second half, then in two or three bad minutes we let them back in the game. We just have to play consistent basketball. We may not be playing against Big 12 competition coming up, but that's not the point.
"It's how we play; if we do the right things and prepare ourselves we'll be ready for Missouri."
That's been Boyle's aim for the past 21/2 months.