Through 12 games, the Colorado Buffaloes men's basketball team has displayed only fleeting glimpses of the squad expected to once again reach the NCAA Tournament while ranking as a dark horse candidate for the Pac-12 Conference crown.
That's the bad news. However the glass-half-full outlook says the Buffs also have shown a penchant for playing to the level of the competition, which might work in their favor once Pac-12 Conference play begins on New Year's Day at Utah.
It has been a maddening conundrum for head coach Tad Boyle. And one he is running out of time to correct with the Buffs bracing for their final nonconference game Thursday at home against Eastern Washington.
Monday's ragged victory at Air Force provided yet another boggling case study. While the Buffs shot an exemplary .540 from the field, they also looked completely disorganized while committing 12 first-half turnovers and eventually were outrebounded 38-33 by the much smaller Falcons.
"This team right now, in late December, with one game before the Pac-12, we haven't played to our capabilities yet," Boyle said. "Part of that is encouraging. But the other part of that is, what the hell are we waiting for? You can look at it two ways, I guess.
"All I try to do as a coach is get these guys to play hard, play smart, and play together. They're playing together and the playing hard sometimes we're doing, and I thought we did (Monday at Air Force). We did not play smart (at Air Force). Down the stretch, we didn't play smart. The first half, with the turnovers, we've got to be better."
For a group that has started four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior in every game so far, the problems seemingly should be correctable. So far the team that led the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage and free throw percentage is shooting below the pace this season, but it is not a stretch to believe a squad loaded with proven shooters eventually will shoot its way out of its collective slump.
It is the mental mistakes, such as the glut of turnovers or inability to box out smaller opponents, that threatens to derail a season that, at the very least, has been expected to end with the program's fifth NCAA Tournament berth in six seasons.
"I thought we took good shots for the most part (at Air Force)," Boyle said. "We just have to get better ball movement and make better decisions. I still think we've got guys making really, really bad decisions on drives. It seems like we have four or five offensive fouls every game. We've got guys driving, knocking guys over. It's part of playing smart."
The return of Dom Collier from a stress fracture in his foot — he played Monday for the first time since a brief appearance in the second game of the season — should provide a boost in the backcourt, yet Collier's return also illuminates a curious dynamic with the 2016-17 Buffs.
Throughout the offseason, fans and critics alike pointed to Collier and his 1.32 assists-to-turnover rate last year as the weak link in a veteran bunch of CU returnees. Yet in a sampling that does not yet include the grind of the Pac-12 slate, senior Derrick White's assist-to-turnover rate through 12 games hasn't been much better at 1.35. And after going 7-for-12 on 3-pointers in his only two full games of the season, Collier is being counted on to revive a long-range attack that has been lagging so far.
"Coaches and teammates have told me to be ready to shoot and just be confident when I go out there and shoot the ball," Collier said. "I'm trying to look for our big men, because they're the ones that allow us to shoot the open threes."