LAS VEGAS — There might still be games to play this season for the Colorado men's basketball team.
Yet in the wake of the Buffaloes getting eliminated from the Pac-12 Conference tournament in the semifinals Friday night, the 2019-20 season begins now for coach Tad Boyle's program. And, assuming the roster remains intact and CU is fortunate enough to avoid disastrous injuries, anything short of an NCAA Tournament berth a year from now will make the 2019-20 campaign a disappointing one.
Admittedly, I said before this season the Buffs should at least compete — emphasis on compete — for a 2019 tourney berth. That didn't quite happen.
A number of factors kept the Buffs below that threshold. The preseason torn ACL suffered by 7-footer Dallas Walton erased a valuable piece of the Buffs' frontcourt depth. CU's overall depth took two more significant hits earlier this winter with the season-ending foot injury suffered by the Buffs' lone senior, Namon Wright, and the academic foibles of junior guard Deleon Brown, who was ruled ineligible for the second semester. Those losses thrust true freshmen Daylen Kountz and Eli Parquet into far more expansive roles that what was expected of them in October.
Of course, the Buffs fell short in several instances on the floor as well. Turnovers generally have been an issue for CU under Boyle, and this season was no exception. The Buffs missed two chances at a defensive rebound late at Washington State that likely would have secured a win, and they also wasted leads at home against Oregon State and at Stanford. A win in any of those three narrow losses would have put the Buffs in the Pac-12's top four and given them a bye in the first round of the tournament — a pass that would have been particularly advantageous for a team short on depth that seemed to run out of gas in the second half Friday against Washington.
Nevertheless, anyone that watched this team go from one that often looked helplessly lost in late December to one that finished 10-3 and reached the league semifinals should be encouraged by the progress. And because of that the Buffs need to be in the Big Dance next year.
The vaunted sophomore class — led by All-Pac-12 first team selections Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright — officially will cross over from youngsters to upper classmen. Redshirt freshman forward Evan Battey improved dramatically from November to March after sitting on the sideline for two full seasons. Junior guard Shane Gatling now has a year of Pac-12 experience under his belt after transferring from the junior college level. Kountz showed flashes of explosiveness and no longer will be a freshman.
In addition to welcoming Walton back, the redshirt will come off 6-foot-11 forward Jakub Dombek from the Czech Republic. And don't forget Boyle still has a scholarship to play with this spring. The Buffs still could a player to be named later — a transfer, late high school signee, or even another international recruit — who might be able to contribute immediately. With Brown's status still up in the air, there might be two scholarships to work with this spring.
Of course, this season might not be over yet. By Sunday night CU will learn if it has been invited to the NIT for the third time in Boyle's nine seasons. If so, the young-but-improving Buffs must embrace the challenge — much like the 2011 team that used a run to the NIT Final Four as a springboard to three straight NCAA tourney appearances and four in five years — rather than sleepwalk into the tourney like the 2017 NIT team, which capped a disappointing season with a fittingly disappointing first-round loss at Central Florida.
The 2019-20 season is the one the Buffs have been building toward since the 2017 recruiting class (Wright, Bey, Battey, and D'Shawn Schwartz) first stepped on campus. With or without that NIT invite, the chase is on for that bid to the real tournament in 2020.