Basketball teams that count depth as a major strength, like the Colorado men's basketball squad, typically sports the sort of bench that can go toe-to-toe with the opposition's starters.
That hasn't been the case so far with this year's Buffaloes.
Part of it can be attributed to youth and inexperience, as head coach Tad Boyle has regularly used three freshmen as part of the rotation. Part of it also can be chalked up to injury as junior guard Dom Collier, pegged as perhaps the leading player of the CU bench, has played in only two full games due to a stress fracture in his foot.
However, another factor in the uneven production from CU's bench has been the inability of two reserve veterans, junior forward Tory Miller and sophomore guard Thomas Akyazili, to build on their efforts from last season. Both players have expressed confidence that will change as the Buffs get set to begin Pac-12 Conference play Sunday at Utah (4:30 p.m., ESPNU).
"In terms of Tory...I think as Pac-12 play starts coming, I think you're going to see his minutes increase," Boyle said. "Thomas has struggled. He's not played as well certainly as he played last year. I think he's pressing a little bit. Now we've got Dom back and our bench is going to be really important, because the balance of this team is a strength of this team."
The 6-foot-9 Miller made big strides last year as the top big man off the bench, increasing his scoring total from three to 5.5 points a game while his rebounding average jumped from 2.2 to 4.6.
Miller has struggled to make a similar improvement this year, in part due to an ankle injury that kept him out of two games and limited him in several others. While Miller's scoring output basically has held steady at 5.6 points per game, his rebounding average has dipped 3.3. In a sign his overall production may be a product of fewer minutes alongside the ankle injury, Miller's field goal percentage of .489 is a decent step above last year's .469 mark.
"I think that ankle injury set me back a lot. You don't want to make an excuse, but when you can't play you can't play," Miller said. "I think Pac-12 is going to be a different animal with my impact. I'm back to 100 percent now where I can make an impact and push forward."
Akyazili's struggles have manifested predominantly with his shooting touch, with the sophomore from Belgium entering Pac-12 play with a .333 mark overall and a frustrating 1-for-14 showing on 3-pointers. Akyazili didn't exactly make waves with his shooting prowess a year ago (.325 overall, .288 on 3-pointers), but his inability to even be a threat from long range has allowed defenses to sag away from CU's perimeter when he's on the floor.
A sharp passer, Akyazili ranks second on the team with 29 assists and boasts CU's top assist-to-turnover rate at 2.07, but his woes from long range combined with the emergence of freshman guard Deleon Brown has trimmed two minutes off Akyazili's average playing time from last year.
"It's a new season, and I know the work I've put in," Akyazili said. "I know what kind of player I am. I know my role on the team. I think everyone on the team can be a difference-maker. I think it was a confidence thing. I was ready to play when I came back here after the summer but it didn't go the way I wanted. I'm going to forget about our nonconference schedule and learn from it. Pac-12 is a new season and I'm looking forward to it."