Brooks: Buffs’ Only Focus Is On Bay Area Opportunities
BOULDER – In mid-November or early March, it’s good for basketball players to have short memories – but maybe even more so in early March. This is the college game’s month of madness, and quickly forgetting what happened last weekend and focusing on the week to come is what coaches want.
It’s easier for some than others, which we’ll get to shortly.
For Tad Boyle and his Colorado Buffaloes, it means learning from recent second halves of bewilderment against Arizona and Utah and turning the laser toward the Bay Area – first Stanford, then Cal.
The Buffs, in Boyle’s words, are in “the middle of the muck” in the Pac-12 Conference standings, at 9-7 mired in the goo alongside the Cardinal and the Golden Bears. At 8-8 and trying to pull free of the slime are Oregon, Utah and Washington.
The extraction process in the final week of regular-season play is critical for all the obvious reasons – seeding in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and entry into the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-12’s top four seeds receive first-round byes, the league’s tourney champ receives an automatic NCAA berth. It’s a worthy prize, which CU claimed two seasons ago.
The talk outside their locker room isn’t so much about whether the Buffs can win big in Vegas, it’s if they can manage a split in the Bay Area, win at least one in Vegas and solidify an at-large NCAA entry. That’s but one scenario; bracketologists and regular guys on the street with even a dash of hoops cred differ greatly in their assessment of CU’s NCAA chances.
Are the Buffs in regardless of what happens this week and next? I’m not going there, and neither will Boyle nor his players. The big picture is of small concern. Here’s the company line, courtesy of sophomore post Josh Scott: “We’re focused on Stanford today and tomorrow and Wednesday.” Ask any other player or coach that question and there’s your answer.
SO BACK TO THE ORIGINAL THOUGHT seven paragraphs higher, about the value of short memories, particularly at this point in the season. (We can call it muck season.) I asked Boyle if it’s difficult for a young team to “turn the page” on losses such as last Saturday’s at Utah and move on.
His answer: “For a young team it’s easy. They’re just worried about where they’re getting their next pizza. When’s the next per diem payment coming? Young teams turn the page easy.”
My follow up: Is that a good thing?
Boyle: “It’s a good and bad thing . . . what did we learn from our experience? That’s what young teams sometimes don’t do – they don’t take time to reflect and learn why we got smacked by 27 at home against Arizona. Why did we lose at Utah on Saturday? What do we have to do to beat Stanford on Wednesday? That’s my job – to make sure they understand why what happened happened and what do we need to do to correct it? That’s the challenge with young teams. In terms of turning the page, it’s easy for them. It’s hard to learn.”
The young Buffs did several things right early in Saturday’s first half in Salt Lake City, among them sharing the ball, protecting it and at least occasionally looking for Scott to enhance an inside-out offense. Most of that – along with any semblance of defense – disappeared in the second half, when CU allowed Utah to shoot 70.8 percent from the field, did more gazing at one another than guarding, and committed 11 of its 15 turnovers.
As for the offense being channeled through Scott, neither he nor Boyle wants it that way all the time. However, it’s a nice starting point on most half-court possessions.
“I’ve talked with our ball handlers and said get me the ball, but it’s really hard to get me the ball when you turn it over or take quick jump shots,” Scott said. “There are things, times when we need to look to get the ball inside to me or Wesley (Gordon) or ‘X’ (Xavier) Johnson . . . we need the emphasis on getting it to everybody, not just me.”
Added Boyle: “It comes and goes. It gets back to consistency. It’s not like they have to touch it every time down, but we know that we’re better when the ball goes inside before we take a quick three, or when we can get to the free throw line. You don’t get to the free throw line if you don’t attack the basket – whether that’s posting it up with our big guys or our guards attacking the rim. It’s a combination.”
While the subject is consistency, also high on this week’s wish list are more consistent nights from redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon and junior Askia Booker. Gordon had difficulty finishing at the rim in Utah, Booker was all but bottled up (1-of-8 from the field) by Utes guard Brandon Taylor.
BOYLE SAYS THE 6-9 GORDON “is important to us, he’s that ‘X’ factor.” He told him as much earlier this week, noting, “I don’t want him to feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, because it’s not. But he’s a guy who can move the needle for us with his defense, his shot blocking and his ability to finish around the rim. And he’s a great passer. Wesley Gordon is important to this team. You can do it with smoke and mirrors for a while, but eventually your warts are going to show up.”
Gordon might be closer to Scott than anyone on the team (they were fierce high school competitors in Colorado Springs) and Scott said of his bud: “We’re our harshest critics . . . he knows what’s going on. He feels like he let us down in some ways (at Utah). It has nothing to do with him. He’s a freshman; I didn’t finish in some games last year. It happens. It’s something to learn from. You adjust and he’s going to do that.”
In Booker’s case, Boyle said his shooting guard turned facilitator in Spencer Dinwiddie’s absence “is pressing a little, trying to do too much. He needs to rely on his teammates, believe in them. He’s a good player, a talented player, we know that – but he can’t do it by himself. Neither can Josh; we have to do this thing together. If there’s anything ‘Ski’s’ been a victim of, it’s trying to do too much by himself and not relying on his teammates to help him.”
The Buffs have maintained their energy, effort and cohesion, said Boyle, but “we’re just not good enough on either side of the ball right now.” The head-scratching part of the equation: They’ve shown – at least at home – that they can be good enough on both sides of the ball.
Can they find a way to do it in the Bay Area? Rebound, defend, keep the turnovers at a manageable number, finish inside when necessary, play together and – one more time – rebound and defend. If it seems like a lot to figure out in the regular season’s final week, none of it is breaking news to the Buffs. Since mid-October, Boyle and his staff have been delivering the same sermon.
If turning the page is so very easy for a young team, getting on the same page is the hard part.