It was a conversation with Kim English that got me thinking.
I recently spoke with the Colorado assistant basketball coach regarding his role as the de facto in-house mentor for George King, both on and off the court, as the departing Buffaloes senior begins preparations for the tryouts and showcases that will determine the next step in his basketball journey.
English made a point about King's situation I confess I never considered. Instead of going out and trying to prove you actually can do something the scouting report says you can't — in King's case, ball-handling and his assist-to-turnover rate — a player must instead hang his hat on his strengths.
King seemingly took English's advice to heart, doing what he does best — shooting and rebounding — to earn the Most Outstanding Player award for the East team with 21 points and nine rebounds Friday night at the NABC All-Star game in San Antonio.
With this theory in mind — strengthen your strengths and survive your weaknesses — I asked CU head coach Tad Boyle if that sort approach can work for a team the way it can for an individual. In the case of the Buffaloes, can a program that rode the tenets of defense and rebounding to four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons between 2012 and 2016 sacrifice some of that efficiency in order to shore up such perennially glaring weaknesses as turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio? And if so, do they risk sacrificing the backbone that helped lift the CU program to previously unseen heights in the first place?
"That's a good question, and here's how I look at the offseason versus the season," Boyle said. "You look at the offseason, guys don't generally get better defensively in the offseason on their own. They can continue to improve in that area, and one of the things I'm really challenging our guys to do this offseason is play a lot of one-on-one, because when you play one-on-one it's you and the offensive player. You have to be able to stop him. You have to be able to guard him. Now, that doesn't help with learning help-side or any of that, but you can get better defensively that way.
"In the offseason, I'm concerned about our players becoming better passers, better dribblers, better shooters. And hopefully if those fundamentals improve, especially the passing and the dribbling, that assist-turnover ratio will hopefully get better."
It is fair to question whether the Buffs' continued devotion to defense and rebounding, from the recruiting level through the on-court product, can eventually lift CU to even greater heights than the program enjoyed during its run of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years, the last three of which ended with first-round defeats.
Certainly the Buffs always have been competitive defensively and on the glass under Boyle. Since joining the Pac-12 before the 2011-12 season, the Buffs have never ranked lower than fifth in rebounding margin in league games. They have finished in the top five in defensive field goal percentage in six of seven seasons and led the league in that category this past season. CU's best in-conference performance in rebounding margin was plus-6.6 in the most recent NCAA tourney season of 2015-16. Despite this past year's first-place finish in defensive field goal percentage, the Buffs actually put up a better mark of .411 in the tourney seasons of 2011-12 and 2012-13.
That mark of consistency has been offset by the Buffaloes' inability to hang on to the ball during Boyle's tenure. No matter the point guard — pick one between Spencer Dinwiddie, Dom Collier, Derrick White, and McKinley Wright — the Buffs have never finished better than eighth within the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio. They have finished 12th three times and also have finished 10th or worst on four different occasions in turnover margin. For the first time the Buffs finished last in that latter category this season at minus-4.10.
If there is a stat that binds all four of this season's Final Four entrants together, it's assist-to-turnover ratio. None of the semifinalists are particularly dominant on the glass, and Loyola is the only one that ranks in the nation's top 50 in defensive field goal percentage (43rd at .414, though the other three teams rank between 74 and 101). Michigan ranks 14th nationally in turnover margin at plus-3.6, yet all four teams rank among the nation's top 47 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Michigan is third (1.59) and Villanova is eighth (1.56).
The Buffs ranked 64th nationally in rebound margin and 77th in defensive field goal percentage. They ranked 276th in assist-to-turnover ratio and an unsightly 337th out of 346 teams in turnover margin.
Defense and rebounds can win games, and can even lead the way to the Big Dance. But too many turnovers cost the Buffs a better seed in 2016, and also cost CU a tourney win in the first round against UConn. Until the Buffs find a way to take care of the ball without sacrificing their competence on defense and on the glass, they will be working uphill in the quest to not only return to the NCAA tourney, but to eventually enjoy a run that last longer than just one game.