Boyle's Buffs Open Practice With Big Expectations
BOULDER — It's been a while since Tad Boyle's Colorado Buffaloes put on their dancing shoes in March.
Four years and counting, to be exact, a time span that means no player on Colorado's roster has participated in an NCAA Tournament game.
Wednesday morning, the Buffs opened their 2020-21 campaign with their first official practice of the year — and after practice, Boyle made it clear he expects his 11th Colorado team to end that drought.
"Without a doubt, this is an NCAA Tournament team," Boyle said firmly. "Now we have to go out and prove that."
The Buffs have 30 practices over a six week span before their season opener, a Nov. 25 game against South Dakota State in the Little Apple Classic in Manhattan, Kan.
That's not a lot of time to get a team that has an interesting blend of returning vets and untested freshmen up and running — especially a team that lost two key seniors to graduation and an All-Pac-12 performer to the NBA.
But Boyle believes it's enough.
"This is a very interesting team in that we've got veterans who have been there, done that, and we've got a group of freshmen who have not," Boyle said. "But the freshmen are really talented and they're very competitive. They have a lot to learn, they have a lot to improve upon, but they compete and they are not scared. That's a really good sign because we're going to need at times for those guys to be able to step up and give us minutes and contribute."
Boyle's latest recruiting class is considered to be one of his best since he arrived in Boulder. It includes a pair of 6-foot-8 wings in Jabari Walker and Tristan da Silva, 6-7 shooting guard Luke O'Brien and 6-5 guard Nique Clifford.
Also new is 6-7 grad transfer Jeriah Horne, while one of the best-kept secrets in the Pac-12, redshirt freshman guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, will introduce himself to Colorado fans this year.
But the glue that will hold this team together is a group of veterans, led by senior guard McKinley Wright, already among the all-time CU leaders in a number of statistical categories. Wright returned to Boulder for his senior season to get one more chance at an NCAA Tournament berth after watching the opportunity stripped away last March by the coronavirus pandemic, and he will almost certainly be a national awards candidate.
"I think McKinley Wright is one of the top point guards in all of college basketball and one of the best players in all of college basketball," Boyle said. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I said that when he was a freshman and I sure as heck am going to say it again when he's a senior. He's a special player."
A team leader since the day he stepped on the floor as a freshman, Wright's job in that role will be even more important this year. While the Buffs will be able to lean on other returning vets — including Evan Battey, D'Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton — they will need those talented but untested freshmen to step up.
That could become even more important in a season when the coronavirus could cause teams to lose players at any moment.
"I'm more of a coach this season," Wright said of his role. "It's like being a coach on the floor. We've got a lot of younger guys. I've been here three years. I know everything Coach Boyle is going to say. I know every play we have, I know his rules, I know what's going on in practice, from the defensive breakdowns to the offensive breakdowns, everything. For me it's just being like that coach on the floor, helping these young guys get to the right spot, making sure they're taking care of their bodies, making sure they're taking themselves off the court, preventing Covid — all the type of stuff like that."
Indeed, stressing safe Covid-19 protocol will be critical. The virus is a wild card that is new to every coach — and an issue that has already affected just about every team in America in one way or another.
For the Buffs, it meant a fall session that was anything but "normal." It meant one- and two-person workouts, periods when the Pac-12 would not allow contact, and a county health order that eliminated virtually anything resembling a regular preseason workout for two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Buffs also had some players forced to miss all workouts in quarantine. That's something Boyle hopes to avoid from this point forward.
"We've been able to absorb two 14-day quarantines for partial pieces of our team and the 14-day non-gathering order from Boulder County," he said. "We've been able to overcome that. But going forward, it would be really difficult for us to overcome a situation where we had multiple guys quarantined for 14 days. Every practice now is critical for our development for putting a team on the floor that can represent the University of Colorado the way we want to. We talk about it every day and I just keep my fingers crossed every day when those test results come back, but so far so good."
If all goes well, this might turn out to be one of the deepest teams Boyle has had.
Wright, Schwartz, Battey and Walton bring plenty of experience to the table, while three other returnees — Eli Parquet, Alexander Strating and Maddox Daniels — add to the depth. Barthelemy, meanwhile, now has a year of college practice under his belt while Horne, Boyle's first grad transfer at Colorado, will be also expected to contribute right away.
If even a couple of those talented freshmen can add some significant contributions, it would make these Buffs a team capable of breaking into the upper echelon of the Pac-12.
"We've got a lot of freshmen that can really hoop," Wright said. "This is one of the better recruiting classes that Colorado has ever had, including my class. They have a lot of pieces, a lot of dudes I don't think will be here for four years. Freshmen are really going to have to play big minutes for us this year and contribute on both ends of the floor for us."
The pieces are there, Wright believes, to potentially make this the best he's played on at Colorado. Given that last year's squad spent 13 weeks ranked in the AP top 25, that's no small standard.
"We have the potential to be one of the best teams I've been a part of," he said. "We have so much length and so much depth with this team. Guys who have taken their game to another level — D'Shawn and Evan, adding Jeriah and these young guys, getting Dallas back at full strength. We have the potential to be really good."
NEW NUMBER, NO BRACE FOR WALTON: Walton, a 7-footer who has battled back from three ACL tears in his high school and college career, will be wearing No. 13 this season — but won't be wearing a knee brace.
Walton made the switch from No. 35 in honor of his aunt, Kristen Walton, a former Colorado State volleyball standout who died two years ago of cancer.
"Her number was 13 and it meant a lot to me and my family to make that switch," Walton said.
As for the knee brace, something he wore all of last year, he has shed the equipment because he now feels confident without it.
"It was more mental," he said. "Especially leg injuries, it's more of a mental battle that you're fighting. Your body may be ready physically, but if you're a little scared of re-injury, sometimes having that brace reassures you that, 'OK, I can make some moves and if something bad happens I'm going to be OK.' It was mainly fighting that mental obstacle for me over the past year."