Overrated. Pathetic. Disgusted.
These are just a few of the choice words head coach Tad Boyle has used to describe his Colorado men's basketball team from the preseason through this past, final week of 13-game nonconference schedule.
On one hand, the adjectives appear somewhat harsh for a team that put together a 10-3 mark and toppled the nation's No. 13-ranked team along the way. On the other, Boyle's various pleas of frustration make a fitting description for a team pegged as a legitimate dark horse contender in the Pac-12 Conference that has struggled to put together consistent 40-minute games.
There have been impressive moments, certainly. The win against No. 13 Xavier is tops among them, with a dominant finish that sealed a win against Texas on a neutral floor ranking second. Senior Xavier Johnson has made a strong return from the torn Achilles that sidelined him last season. And though turnovers have been a periodic issue, Derrick White has provided a much more versatile scoring threat at point guard.
There have been head-scratching moments, too. A second consecutive home loss against Colorado State is the sort of setback that may haunt the Buffs when the NCAA Tournament selection committee convenes, and a program known for its steady rebounding has been victimized lately on the glass.
While the end of nonconference play is not technically the halfway point of the 2016-17 schedule, it still presents a moment of reflection to assess the Buffs' body of work so far. With the Pac-12 opener arriving on New Year's Day at Utah, here is a look at CU's nonconference report card.
The raw numbers are solid. The Buffs are averaging 75.2 points and shooting .438 from the floor. Their 3-point percentage (.338) and free throw percentage (.699) are down from last year's Pac-12-leading marks, but not horrendously so. White has emerged as the team's best finisher at the rim, and Johnson is on pace to post the best scoring average of his career by a wide margin.
Yet often the Buffs have seemingly gotten in their own way on offense. A case in point occurred during the first half of the nonconference finale against Eastern Washington when a cutting Wesley Gordon received a perfect pass deep in the post but, as is his habit, chose to kick the ball out. Instead of getting a point-blank chance from a 6-foot-9 senior, the Buffs instead settled for a 3-point attempt from freshman Lucas Siewert, who has gone 2-for-15 on 3-pointers since the season opener. Boyle has repeated several times the Buffs are not yet clicking together on the floor. Despite the decent overall numbers, their offensive ceiling has yet to be reached.
CU has reached its goal of holding opponents under 40 percent from the field in just six of 13 games. Yet some of those opponents that reached 40 percent did so barely, giving the Buffs an impressive overall defensive field goal percentage of .383. Even more impressive is the .299 mark CU's opponents have compiled from 3-point range, as well as the average of 66.8 points allowed per game. That latter mark is likely to rise in Pac-12 play, but if the Buffs can remain close to those other defensive numbers it will help gloss over the team's other shortcomings.
A few weeks ago, this would have been a better grade. But the Buffs ended nonconference play by getting outrebounded in three of the final five games. The two in which CU had the advantage hardly were dominant, edging Division II Fort Hays State by just four rebounds and Eastern Washington by two — and Eastern Washington still owned an 11-9 lead on offensive rebounds. BYU's plus-15 rebounding advantage was the best against a CU team in almost two years.
Individually, most of the Buffs' regulars are either at or above their career rebounding averages. Collectively, though, their average nonconference rebounding margin is down from plus-11.5 last year to plus-four this year. Given the opponents will become more physical and accomplished in league play, the recent trend is something CU needs to reverse immediately.
It's difficult to assign a meaningful grade to the bench bunch since a key component, junior guard Dom Collier, has played just two full games due to a stress fracture in his foot. Collier should be stronger as Pac-12 play begins, and in his brief cameos he has shown a spark as a 3-point shooter off the bench.
While Siewert and fellow freshman Bryce Peters have struggled to make an impact, rookie Deleon Brown has emerged as a solid bench contributor. Brown hasn't been afraid to make the little plays, like taking charges or dishing out assists, and he was shooting over .500 until a minor 2-for-7 slide in the past two games. Two of the more experienced reserves, junior forward Tory Miller and sophomore guard Thomas Akyazili, have not made significant strides since last season, though Akyazili leads CU with an assists-to-turnover rate of 2.07.
Boyle is the first to admit he hasn't found the right buttons to mold his talented group of individuals into a cohesive unit. Shortcomings like energy and focus, often cited as inconsistent factors for the Buffs, shouldn't be an issue for a squad that has started four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior all season. Often the Buffs have played to the level of the competition. That proved dangerous in upset bids by Seattle and Wofford, yet it could serve the Buffs well in upcoming games against Pac-12 heavyweights Arizona, UCLA, and USC.