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Woelk: Big Offseason Looms For Boyle's Buffs

Mar 17, 2022

BOULDER — In the wake of Colorado's season-ending loss to St. Bonaventure  in the first round of the NIT — "wake" being the operative word — Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle provided a succinct description of CU's season.

"Good but not great."

Good because the year produced the Buffaloes' ninth 20-win season under his direction, out of 13 in program history. Good because the Buffs advanced to the conference tournament semifinals for the sixth time in his tenure, helping CU to its 10th postseason appearance in his 12 years in Boulder.

And good because the very young Buffs overcame a number of obstacles to make a late-season run that included a win over No. 2 Arizona and a conference tournament victory over Oregon.

But not great.

"Great" requires at least meeting the baseline standards the Buffs have established over the last dozen years.

Those standards begin with an NCAA Tournament berth, something CU has accomplished five times in the 11 years possible in Boyle's tenure. They continue with the ability to protect their home floor, and they include a team built on every-night defense and every-possession rebounding.

The Buffs were 0-for-the field in those departments.

The result?

As Boyle bluntly pointed out, his players were making spring break plans Thursday, a day when the college basketball world was settling in for the first full day of the NCAA tourney.

"When you have spring break as a college basketball player, then it's been a disappointing year," he said. "You want to be playing during your spring break."

The numbers that will leave Boyle with a bad taste in his mouth the entire offseason — and will hopefully have the same effect on his players — are those that played a major role in the Buffs being on the outside looking in when the NCAA party commenced.

Start with CU's 12-6 record at home, the most losses in the CU Events Center in Boyle's 12 seasons in Boulder and matching the total number of home losses in the Buffs' previous three seasons combined.

"That's unacceptable," Boyle said. "We have to look internally as a staff. Every player that's returning has to look internally because we did not meet the standards of Colorado basketball that we've set for ourselves."

But the foundation of those standards is where the Buffs came up short — and that set the table for the rest of the missed goals.

In Boyle's words, the Buffs were an "average" defensive team and an "average" rebounding team. 

The numbers support his assessment.

In Pac-12 games, CU finished sixth in scoring defense, fifth in field goal percentage defense, eighth in 3-point percentage defense, fourth in rebound margin and ninth in turnover-assist ratio.

Offensively, the Buffs were solid. CU led the conference in 3-point and free throw percentage and was third in overall field goal percentage.

But on those nights when the shots didn't fall, the Buffs couldn't always rely on their defense — and that made the difference in at least three of their home losses, as well as a handful of their defeats on the road.

Add a couple more wins to Buffs' total — in particular USC and UCLA at home — and Colorado would have been squarely in the conversation for an NCAA at-large berth.

Instead, CU settled for an NIT bid, one that ended in disappointing and abrupt fashion in the opening round.

Thus, as fans were filing out of the Events Center late Tuesday night for the last time this season, Boyle made one thing clear:

The offseason starts now.

That means individual meetings with players before they leave for spring break (and again after they return). It means coaches meetings to begin devising ways to get the Buffs squarely back on their foundational building blocks.

It also means getting answers to personnel questions, the biggest of which is the future of CU's leading scorer and rebounder this year, Jabari Walker. 

The CU sophomore is projected as a second round NBA Draft pick on most boards should he decide to turn pro. But there is also a school of thought that he could make himself a lottery pick if he remains at Colorado another season.

Meanwhile, the possibility of other departures also exists as the lure of the transfer portal is ever-present.

But once personnel issues have been decided, the key to the offseason will be figuring out how to refocus the program on the non-negotiable principles Boyle espouses.

The building blocks are there — no matter Walker's decision. The upside of having to play so many young players this year means a wealth of experience returns.

Guard K.J. Simpson is on the cusp of becoming a Pac-12 standout. Fellow freshman guard Julian Hammond III now knows what a Pac-12 season requires and gained valuable experience down the stretch. Sophomore Tristan da Silva could develop into an all-conference caliber player and fellow soph Keeshawn Barthelemy showed bursts of becoming an offensive spark. Sophomore Nique Clifford grew quickly into his role as a starter and Luke O'Brien proved to be a great "energy" boost off the bench.

Meanwhile, freshman big man Lawson Lovering should come back bigger, stronger and more confident, and two freshmen who didn't play this year — Quincy Allen and Javon Ruffin — could be key contributors.

CU has also signed two quality freshmen, Joe Hurlburt and RJ Smith, both of whom could contribute immediately as well, and the possibility of a portal addition also exists.

But their offseason development will be critical.

Boyle wants his team to be a top-three defensive team and a top-three rebounding team in the Pac-12. The offense, he knows, will take care of itself. The Buffs have plenty of firepower from front to back, and they showed this year they know how to win on the road (Colorado actually won as many conference road games — six — as it did Pac-12 home games).

No doubt, this will be a long offseason as the Buffs think back on what might have been this year.

But simply thinking about it won't change next year. If the Buffs — coaches and players — dedicate themselves to taking a step forward and putting in the necessary work, they could produce a season that meets the program's standards.

Then, a year from now, the Buffs will be playing basketball for their spring break.