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Woelk: Boyle's Buffs Have Some Questions, But There Are Some Things We Already Know

Oct 27, 2022
Nique Clifford and Tristan da Silva at Pac-12 Media Day.

BOULDER — As Tad Boyle prepares to open his 13th season at the helm of the Colorado men's basketball program, there are of course plenty of questions surrounding the Buffaloes.

Who will seize the reins as the team leader(s)? Who will fill the rebounding and scoring gaps created by the departure of last season's top producers? How quickly can last year's youngsters become this year's veterans?

Perhaps most intriguing, what kind of rotation will Boyle and his staff develop from a talented, deep — but inexperienced — roster?

Those aren't questions the Buffs will be able to answer in a week or even a month. The development of Boyle's latest team most certainly won't be an overnight process — and given the makeup of the squad, it could take longer than years past.

CU fans have a chance to get a first-hand look Sunday when Colorado plays host to Nebraska in a 4 p.m. exhibition game at the CU Events Center. (The game will be livestreamed by CU and the Pac-12)

But while there are plenty of questions for Boyle and his staff, there are some things of which we can be fairly certain.

The Buffs will be competitive. They will play hard, they will play defense and they will rebound. They will be a factor in Pac-12 play and by season's end be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament berth.

We can say these things because history strongly suggests that's what Boyle's teams always do. With a dozen years under his belt in Boulder, CU's head coach has developed a consistency and continuity within the program that is unmatched in Colorado hoops history.

For starters, Boyle is on target this year to become the winningest head coach in CU history. With a 254-155 career record with the Buffs, he needs just eight more victories to surpass Colorado's all-time leader, Sox Walseth (261-245). 

Meanwhile, Boyle enters the season with a .621 winning percentage, just behind Colorado's all-time leader Forrest Cox (147-89, .623).

Other superlatives:

— Boyle's teams own five of Colorado's 15 all-time NCAA Tournament berths (with a sixth canceled by the 2020 Covid pandemic) — and five of the six appearances in the last 50 years.  

— Boyle's teams have finished in the top half of the conference nine times in his 12 seasons.

— The Buffs have played in two conference tourney title games under Boyle and made five semifinal appearances.

— Boyle has produced a healthy list of pro players, with seven NBA Draft picks and five former Buffs on NBA rosters when the season began this year.

— Colorado's all-time top five seasons in victories all belong to Boyle.

— The program has produced memorable leaders — McKinley Wright, Evan Battey — who captivated the CU fan base like only a few athletes in Colorado have done. 

This year? As mentioned previously, there are plenty of questions

But Boyle is confident the pieces are in place.

"I love where our program is right now," Boyle said at Tuesday's Pac-12 Media Day. "We've had great continuity in our coaching staff.  We've had great continuity with our players."

That is, of course, the Boyle way. He and his staff have earned a reputation as excellent developers of talent, and that quality will be critical this year.

The Buffs have talent, beginning with returning junior starters Tristan da Silva and Nique Clifford. Both are veterans who have made solid contributions — but they will be expected to increase that production significantly this season.

The Buffs also have talented youngsters whose job it will be to turn the flashes of potential they showed a year ago into steady, consistent production. Throw sophomore guard Julian Hammond III and KJ Simpson, sophomore center Lawson Lovering and junior guard Luke O'Brien into that group.

Lovering, by the way, could be a critical piece. After a stop-and-start freshman season that was ended prematurely by injury, the highly touted 7-footer spent the offseason adding weight and muscle to his frame. Boyle's programs have seldom had impactful big men — if Lovering steps into that role, it will be a huge boost on both ends of the floor for the Buffs.

"He's a unique player and somebody who's different from anyone in our program," Boyle said. " He's much improved, much more confident, big and strong."

Newcomers who could have an impact?

Redshirt freshmen Quincy Allen and Javon Ruffin — both of whom were with the program last year but didn't practice because of injury — could find themselves in key roles. Meanwhile, grad transfers Jalen Gabbidon (Yale) and Ethan Wright (Princeton) and JC transfer J'Vonne Hadley could be critical components as well.

The 6-6, 215-pound Hadley is a versatile player who was his conference's player of the year last season, averaging nearly 11 points and more than six rebounds per game. He could fill several roles for CU this season.

But exactly what CU's rotation will look like is far from decided. Boyle has been mixing and matching in practices and scrimmages, and will no doubt experiment more as the season progresses.

"We're going to be a deep team," Boyle said. " It's interesting because we're probably going to start Lawson Lovering … When he comes out of the game, Tristan may move to the five spot. If J'Vonne Hadley is in the game, he may play the five and Tristan may play the four.  So these two guys are really versatile. But I think with our team this year, especially on the front line, we're going to have to kind of mix and match and figure things out."

Boyle is confident he has the pieces at guard. Both Simpson and Hammond can play the point, and he may play them together at times. Wright and Gabbidon are quality wings, O'Brien could be a top 3-point weapon and Ruffin could have an impact.

The bottom line is this is a team that could have excellent depth.

"We're going to have a lot of versatility," Boyle said. "You're always going to have injuries.  You don't want to have too many of them, but you have to adjust accordingly when you have some guys out of practice.  But we don't skip a beat because our depth is going to be a major factor for us this year as we go through the season."