Brooks: Youth Factor Is Big In CU’s Home-Opening Win
BOULDER – Tad Boyle might be a long way from settling on an eight- or nine-player rotation for his Colorado men’s basketball team, but this much is settled: Freshmen will figure prominently in any plan he devises.
That became apparent Sunday afternoon at the Coors Events Center in CU’s 91-65 home-opening romp over overmatched UT-Martin. Boyle’s quartet of first-year scholarship players – Dustin Thomas, Jaron Hopkins, Tre’Shaun Fletcher and George King – and redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon made key contributions as the Buffs shook any residue from a 72-60 loss two nights earlier to No. 25 Baylor.
“I’m still getting used to the rotations,” Boyle said. “I’m not sure we have the rotations yet that we’re going to have as the year goes on. But I really like our guys . . . I thought our freshmen really grew tonight and gave us good minutes. It’s hard again with the rotations; I’d like to not have three or four (freshmen) on the floor at once, but sometimes there’s nothing I can do about that.”
And there are times – at least in early November – when it seems like a good idea, provided they contribute as they did Sunday. Four of the Buffs’ first-year players combined for 36 points, with Gordon leading that pack with 13 and eight rebounds. He debuted against Baylor with nine points and eight boards.
“I’m pleased with the way he played against Baylor (and) the way he played tonight,” Boyle said. “If Wesley defends and rebounds like he did tonight he’s going to help this team.”
Thomas and Hopkins scored nine points each, with Hopkins contributing three – tying him for team high – of the Buffs’ 19 assists. Fletcher added five points and while King didn’t score, he grabbed three rebounds and made one assist in his 5 minutes of court time.
“We got a lot of guys in the rotation and I thought that was good,” Boyle said. “We’re awfully young, as I’ve been telling you guys, and I think it showed at times.”
CU didn’t begin pulling away from UTM, a first-time foe from the Ohio Valley Conference, until sophomore Xavier Johnson hit a three-pointer from the left wing to tie the score at 24-24 with 8:21 left in the first half. That trey ignited a 12-0 Buffs run that eventually went to 19-3 and resulted in a 40-27 advantage – CU’s largest of the first half.
The 6-7 Thomas, who appears to be proving his versatility nightly, and the 6-9 Gordon were instrumental as the Buffs pulled away. Thomas had five points and Gordon four in the 19-3 surge, and Fletcher capped the run with a three-pointer.
“I think the freshmen did a good job of coming in and not being timid toward the game,” Thomas said. “We played good and played with confidence.”
By intermission, the Buffs led by 10 (45-35) – courtesy of that big run. But CU had to overcome the early hot shooting of UTM’s Terence Smith, who scored 10 of his team’s first 14 points and helped the Skyhawks go ahead 14-8 – their largest lead of the game.
“I think we came out a little slow,” Gordon said. “But the game went on and we picked it up a little bit. Our energy is something we need to keep the entire game. We have to come out from the first tip with high energy.”
UTM shot 41.4 percent from behind the arc, hitting 12 of its 29 trey attempts and underscoring one of two main deficiencies Boyle observed. “We didn’t guard the three line,” he said, “and we turned it over 18 times . . . we had six (turnovers) against a top 25 team on Friday night.”
Boyle knew his team’s advantage Sunday was inside, “And anytime you have that you want to exploit it as best you can,” he said. The Buffs did, outscoring the Skyhawks 44-10 in the paint and outrebounding them 46-26. The most fault Boyle found with his team’s interior work was a nine-possession stretch that produced “only two paint touches. That can’t be. It’s got to be eight out of nine – not two out of nine.”
Still, CU’s post players had their moments. In addition to the 6-9 Gordon’s 13 points, 6-10 Josh Scott scored a team-high 15 and collected eight rebounds.
“In our league we’re not used to seeing guys that are 6-10 or 6-11,” said UTM coach Jason James. “We see guys that are 6-6 and 6-7. When you get those guys that are 6-10 and can play, I think it’s an issue.”
CU junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie added 13 points, hitting just two field goals in three attempts but going 9-of-10 from the free throw line. Johnson’s 12 points rounded out the four Buffs in double figures.
CU pulled ahead by 14 points twice in the first 4 minutes of the second half, the first time on a three-point play by Johnson (50-36) and the second time on a pair of “XJ” free throws (54-40).
But those double-digit leads disappeared after UTM three-pointers on three successive possessions. Marshun Newell hit the first, Dee Oldham the next two, cutting CU advantage to seven points (56-49) with just over 13 minutes remaining.
If the Buffs felt threatened, they didn’t show it. A pair of free throws by Scott and a fast-break layup by Hopkins restored CU’s double-digit lead (60-49) and that score held until Dinwiddie hit one of two free throws with 9:14 to play and converted his second miss into a layup to put the Buffs up again by 14 (63-49). They pushed ahead by as many as 27 points in the final 3 minutes.
The Buffs have given Boyle no reason to doubt their desire. “The fight in our team and our competitiveness is there,” he said. “I don’t worry about that with our guys.”
CU hosts Wyoming on Wednesday night (7 p.m.), the second of a six-game homestand. The Cowboys defeated the Skyhawks 78-60 on Friday night in Laramie, and Boyle reminded that “there’s not one player in our locker room, not one coach who’s beaten Wyoming.”
The Cowboys have defeated the Buffs in each of the past two seasons, winning 65-54 in Boulder and 76-69 in Laramie.