LAS VEGAS — Certainly there wasn't any jubilation inside the Colorado locker room after the Buffaloes were eliminated from the Pac-12 Conference tournament on Thursday in what more than likely was a season-ending defeat against Arizona.
Still, the look on Tad Boyle's face hardly was one of dejection. There was a glint of hope in his eyes, a buzz perhaps stirred by a simple glance around the room. Sure, there were a lot of long faces dealing with the dejection of defeat and the cruel reality of a season at an end. Yet there also was a wealth of young talent stepping off the floor of the league tourney for the first time, along with a sense the program is in good hands with a talented freshman class already eager for more.
It was a far different vibe than a year ago, when a season that began with the expectation a veteran team not only would lead CU back to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in sixth seasons, but would finally end the Buffs' run of first-round exits. When the misery finally ended with the Buffs glumly trudging out of CFE Arena after a first-round loss at Central Florida in the NIT, it was clear the program was ready for a reboot.
Few would label this year's 17-15 season, likely to end without a postseason berth for the first time in Boyle's eight-season tenure, as a success. It's difficult to recall nonconference losses to the likes of San Diego and Colorado State — particularly given how the CSU program collapsed down the stretch — and not wonder what could have been in 2017-18, regardless of the team's youth. When the Buffs began preseason practices Boyle described his thought process during previous offseason as attempting to approach the season as Year 1 of his program. Year 1 for Boyle actually was in 2010-11, when the Buffs narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament before advancing to the NIT Final Four.
This year's team obviously fell short of that goal, though some of that difference can be attributed to Boyle inheriting a team in 2010-11 that already included Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, and Levi Knutson, to name just a few. That year set the stage for the three consecutive NCAA Tournament bids that followed, and despite this year's youth, Boyle and those talented freshmen-now-sophomores will be expected to deliver similar success during the upcoming seasons.
"In my mind, if this is Year 1, we've built a foundation," Boyle said. "I knew that we had so many new faces and so much new blood on this team that had to contribute that if they asked me before the season what my expectations are, I don't always know that. But next year my expectation level will rise because of the guys we have coming back.
"The biggest thing was understanding what you were dealing with in terms of our freshmen and letting them play through mistakes. That's sometimes a challenge because you want to hold everybody to the same standard. But you understand freshmen are freshmen. And even Lucas (Siewert) and Del (Brown) as sophomores didn't get a lot of experience last year as freshmen. You have to let them grow up, and there's going to be growing pains growing up. That's the fact of the matter."
With the loss of seniors George King and Dom Collier, the Buffs no longer have a single player remaining from the program's run of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years that ended two years ago first-round loss against UConn. (That would change if Tory Miller-Stewart, injured after just six games this year, opts to return for a fifth season.) It's a good time to be a young, up-and-coming team in the Pac-12 Conference, with the embattled front-running programs at Arizona and USC facing extensive roster overhauls as well as the specter of possible NCAA sanctions, depending on how (or, at this point, when) the FBI's ongoing investigation into recruiting fraud finally concludes. There is an opportunity at hand.
The page officially has flipped on the Boyle era. It's up to CU's veteran coach to make sure the youngsters continue developing enough over the summer to return the Buffs to those early Roll Tad heights and even surpass them. Chances are Arizona, the league's regular season champs in five of the past six seasons, will be the kings no more, with the Wildcats set to lose all five starters with every member of their 2018 recruiting class having already de-committed.
There is no reason the Buffs shouldn't be in contention to take over that throne.