Clearly there is reason for optimism. Yet there also remains room for improvement for a Colorado Buffaloes men's basketball team that entered its holiday hiatus ruing its missed opportunities more than it was celebrating the program's best start in 74 years.
The approaching turn of the calendar also brings a turn of the college basketball schedule as CU enters Pac-12 Conference play on New Year's Day against Cal.
With 13 nonconference games in the books and 18 league games ahead, it is the unofficial midway point of the season. The Buffaloes have answered several preseason questions, with the emergence of George King and Josh Fortune ranking near the top. And CU begins the week as the No. 2 Pac-12 team in the RPI rankings at No. 18, just behind No. 16 Oregon yet well ahead of the league's third-ranked team, No. 30 Oregon State.
Still, the Buffs have fallen short in their two tests against ranked opponents, losing by a total of 10 combined points in the opener against then-No. 7 Iowa State and, after 11 consecutive wins, No. 18 SMU last week.
Coach Tad Boyle is the first to admit there remains much room for improvement, and so with the medical status of senior Xavier Johnson expected to be clarified in the coming days, here are five issues the Buffs must either maintain or improve in order to return to the NCAA tournament after a run of three appearances in a row ended last year.
1. Keep dominating the glass
CU has been stellar at rebounding, beginning the week ranked 10th in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-11.5. The Buffs have outrebounded their opponent in every game since the opening loss against Iowa State and just outrebounded the NCAA leader in rebounding margin, SMU, 38-34 (including 14-9 at the offensive end).
Josh Scott has led the way at 9.4 per game, but four other players are grabbing at least four a game, a pack paced by Wes Gordon (6.7). Steady rebounding can make up for such shortcomings as turnovers or a bad shooting a night. Keeping pace on the glass will keep the Buffs on track.
2. Work through George King's growing pains
King wasted little time showing he put last year's redshirt season to good use, erupting for 41 points in the first two games while connecting on 8-of-14 3-pointers. King scored in double figures in eight of 11 games since, highlighted by a 23-point explosion in a win against Brigham Young.
But as perhaps the best slasher on the team, King sometimes has settled for too many 3-pointers. And though he remains the team's second-leading scorer at 14.4 per game, King has averaged 11.9 points over the past seven games — and that stretch includes his stellar outburst against BYU. For a player who is average defensively and is not overly versatile (a .692 free throw percentage, season totals of just 10 assists and three steals), CU needs King to remain in a consistent scoring groove.
3. Don't fret Gordon's offense
Boyle expressed preseason hopes that Gordon could be a threat for a double-double every night. Roughly halfway through his third year on the floor, Gordon simply isn't that type of player. Yet the 6-foot-9 junior forward remains a terror in the paint defensively, leading the team with 31 blocked shots while altering countless others.
Gordon also is a huge part of CU's solid rebounding totals, but the team still often runs plays for him, particularly at the beginning of halves, in hopes of repeating some of the efforts like the 15-point, 12-rebound output that spurred a win at Colorado State. That would be fine if Gordon was connecting at the .550 rate from the field that led the team last year. Instead, he has struggled to a .403 mark.
Simply put, Gordon is shooting much more frequently yet scoring at just about the same rate. Gordon can stumble into eight to 10 points a game by just remaining active in the paint.
4. Continued improvement from Collier
When Collier struggles through a four-turnover, zero-assist night like he endured against SMU, it is easy to forget the sophomore is still just 13 games into his role as CU's floor general. Collier has shot .487 from 3-point range and already has surpassed last year's assist total, while the bulk of his 27 turnovers have occurred in three bad games (14 turnovers against Iowa State, Northern Colorado and SMU; 13 turnovers in his other 10 games).
Not coincidentally, two of those bad games were against the two ranked teams on CU's schedule. That trend must change against the Pac-12 heavyweights. Backups Xavier Talton and Thomas Akyazili protect the ball better, but CU's offense clearly operates more smoothly when Collier is on the floor and protecting the ball.
5. Keep the chemistry
So far, Boyle has done a masterful job of keeping each player content in their respective roles, despite rotating King, Fortune and Tre'Shaun Fletcher among two starting spots. Scott should be commended for his senior steady leadership as well, as the Buffs' overall grit and chemistry has helped them overcome several double-digit deficits.
Keeping each player focused in their roles, particularly if Johnson opts to roll the dice on a comeback, needs to continue for CU to end its 10-game losing streak against ranked opponents at some point during the Pac-12 slate.