With a youthful rotation and the onset of Pac-12 Conference play still ahead, there remains plenty of time for the Colorado men's basketball team to display the sort of start-to-finish improvement critical toward the goal of eventually calling the 2017-18 season a success.
Still, Friday's date against Iowa on a neutral floor disguised as a hostile gym will provide a crucial measuring stick for the Buffaloes. After overcoming a run of three losses in four games — two of which occurred in the team's first true road games — by outlasting a solid South Dakota State team in double-overtime, CU has an opportunity to prove its progress hasn't become stunted.
While the thrilling, high-scoring victory Friday night put the Buffs back on the right path, it also was a needed remedy for a team attempting to battle through its first true taste of adversity. That run of three losses in four games began with one of the Buffs' few experienced players, senior Tory Miller-Stewart, going down with what likely is a season-ending injury. It included the youngsters' first true road tests of the season in challenging settings — a rivalry match at Colorado State, and a visit to one of the top teams in the nation in Xavier.
The third of those losses was a lackluster defeat at home against San Diego, an exercise in frustration unlike anything the young Buffs have experienced this season. Yet what may have been more alarming in the aftermath of that performance — perhaps a predictable stumbling block with a rotation that regularly features five freshmen — was head coach Tad Boyle's assertion that his team had not shown a reasonable level of improvement in recent weeks.
With the future of the program already logging heavy minutes, that sort of regression (or at least lack of progress) cannot continue. Among other points, Boyle said this past week, "Our improvement hasn't risen to the rate it needs to," and described the Buffs' championship in November at the Paradise Jam in Virginia, when they won three games in three days, as an early-season pinnacle rather than an promising launching point.
Friday's match against an Iowa team that has fallen short of expectations could continue to push the Buffs back on to a more favorable trajectory heading into league play, which opens Dec. 29 at Oregon State. The capacity of the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. is 3,250, and if the Buffs' season-opening game against Iowa State at the venue two years ago was any indication, about 3,235 of the spectators Friday night will be Iowa fans. It will be a neutral floor in name only, and an opportunity for the Buffs to show they have what it takes to prevail in possible winnable games on the road within the league, such as Oregon State or Washington State.
Another challenge for Boyle heading into Friday's nonconference finale will be to get his veterans to play like veterans. The Buffs' youngsters will continue to experience ups-and-downs. Yet when CU has been at its worst, the rookies have been the least of the culprits. When the Buffs shot a then-season low .393 at Colorado State, CU's freshmen went 14-for-24. When CU committed a season-high 23 turnovers against New Mexico, the freshmen were charged with only 10 — and that's with rookie McKinley Wright handling point guard duties.
While the freshmen struggled shooting-wise right alongside their teammates at Xavier, they committed just six of the team's 16 turnovers and were charged with only two in the back-breaking run of eight turnovers in the game's first 7 minutes, 8 seconds. Even when the Buffs posted a woeful .259 field goal percentage against San Diego, the freshmen shot .352 while the rest of the team went 8-for-37 (.216).
Given the team's youth, there will be a few more nights like the one CU struggled through against San Diego. Continuing a failure to improve over the course of several weeks during any stretch of the season will be more problematic to the Buffs' progress than any ugly loss. After leveling out recently in that department, a winning effort against Iowa in a tough gym would be an encouraging lesson to take into Pac-12 play.