SAN FRANCISCO — As the Colorado men's basketball team traveled to Arizona earlier this month for its Pac-12-opening series at Arizona and Arizona State, head coach Tad Boyle had a sinking feeling things just might get worse before it could get better.
Days earlier, Buffaloes point guard McKinley Wright, playing the only way he knows how in what was supposed to be a light first workout after a brief holiday hiatus, suffered a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a loose ball. This was on the heels of a miserable performance at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, where the Buffs went 1-2 and barely eked out a win in the last-place game after harboring goals of winning the tournament.
On the way to Arizona, Boyle assumed Wright would be unable to play against the Wildcats and Sun Devils. Wright did indeed play, though he eventually missed one game to a shoulder issue that might keep Wright at less than 100 percent for the remainder of the season.
Wright's return to the lineup for Thursday's win at Cal offered a silver lining in what otherwise has been a trying season for Boyle. While other seasons of his tenure might be considered more disappointing in terms of personnel-vs.-expectations — the 2014-15 team and especially the 2016-17 team spring to mind — no season in his nine years at the helm at CU has forced Boyle to adjust on the fly quite like this one.
Since the Colorado men's basketball team opened preseason practices in October, just about anything that could go wrong has done so for the Buffaloes. About two weeks into practice, 7-foot sophomore Dallas Walton was lost for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. Junior guard Deleon Brown earlier this month was ruled academically ineligible, a turn of events Boyle says he has never before had to deal with in 25 years of coaching college basketball.
In addition to McKinley Wright's shoulder issue, the Buffs have lost guard Namon Wright, the team's only senior. Namon Wright hasn't played since Jan. 3 at Arizona (other than a five-minute cameo at Utah) due to a foot issue that will require season-ending surgery.
In October, team depth appeared as if it would be a strength of the 2018-19 Buffs. At this point, that depth is hanging by a thread.
It was believed in this corner the Buffs would be able to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. Barring an unlikely run to the Pac-12 Conference tournament title, that probably isn't in the cards. Still, regardless of how Saturday's date at Stanford unfolds, the Buffs have plenty to play for as the midpoint of the league schedule nears. Given the injuries, sophomore-heavy rotation, and the fact talented first-year Buffs like Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, and Daylen Kountz still are learning what it takes to compete at the Pac-12 level, eventually landing an NIT berth could be considered a step forward.
Perhaps that's not the sort of progress CU fans hoped to see. But for a whittled rotation that on paper is set to return fully intact next season, reaching the NIT out of a watered-down Pac-12 would have to be considered a commendable achievement.
"Deleon Brown, we miss him," Boyle said. "We missed him against Utah. We missed him (at Cal). He's a really good perimeter defender. A junior who has been in these battles before. But the guy doesn't take care of business in the classroom, he can't play college basketball. It's a good rule.
"That's where he's at. Namon's injury. Dallas' ACL to start the season. McKinley's injury. We're kind of patchworking it here. Not an excuse. Never going to use it as an excuse. But it's certainly presented some challenges for us."