On Sunday the eighth season of coach Tad Boyle's tenure as the leader of the Colorado men's basketball program officially begins, as the Buffaloes open preseason workouts at the Coors Events Center.
It will be the beginning of navigating uncharted waters for Boyle, who is attempting to restock a program that has put together four NCAA Tournament appearances along with a pair of NIT berths during his previous seven seasons. The Buffs will be working eight new faces into the mix, most of whom will be competing for spots in the rotation. That list includes five true freshmen — McKinley Wright, Tyler Bey, D'Shawn Schwartz, Evan Battey, and Lazar Nikolic — along with 7-foot redshirt freshman Dallas Walton and Missouri transfer Namon Wright.
The preseason arguably presents the most challenging few weeks of Boyle's CU tenure. And with so many new players to sort through, there is no shortage of questions Boyle and his staff expects to address ahead of the season opener at home against Northern Colorado on Nov. 10. Here is a look at the most pressing of those issues.
Defense, defense, defense
It is stated three times because if there is one preseason concern already keeping Boyle up at night, it's getting his club up to speed defensively. During the team's four-game trip through Italy in August, CU went 3-1 and put up respectable defensive numbers. Upon arriving home, however, Boyle was quick to admit those numbers were due more to the talent level of the opposition than anything the Buffs were doing at the defensive end of the floor.
"Building defensive habits," Boyle said. "You get 10 practices before you go to Italy, and you get to touch on a lot of things but you don't get a chance to drill down. You don't get a chance to really, really build habits in 10 practices. And you have to put in so much stuff it's almost like they're drinking water from a fire hose. You don't know how much is retained.
"Now it's back to the drawing board. Day No. 1, we are building defensive habits."
Find a glass cleaner
Yes, the Buffs return their leading rebounder in senior George King. But as a guard, King can't be expected to carry the bulk of the rebounding burden every night. Six-foot-9 senior forward Tory Miller-Stewart is the Buffs' top returning post player and expects to play a larger role, yet he enters the season with a career rebounding average of just 3.6. Forward Lucas Siewert, a sophomore, showed glimpses down the stretch of improved play inside last year, but he still did most of his damage as a freshman outside the paint.
Boyle reiterated Walton will remain a work-in-progress this season and beyond. Look for Bey to be leaned upon for big contributions on the glass. While King led the Buffs in rebounds per game in Italy, Boyle said it was the 6-foot-7 Bey who paced CU in rebounds per minute. Bey has drawn comparisons from Boyle to Andre Roberson for his ability to leap powerfully in traffic to grab rebounds.
"It's a concern, but that's where Tyler Bey is a guy from the four games in Italy really stood out," Boyle said. "He's a tremendous rebounder and a guy who has got the ability to someday lead the nation in rebounding. I don't want to put pressure on the kid, but I think he's got a big, big ceiling when it comes to that."
All indications are the point guard spot will be turned over to Wright, a late signee last spring who will take over the role of the Buffs' primary ball-handler vacated by Derrick White, a first-round draft selection of the San Antonio Spurs.
Though only 6-foot, Wright boasts a sturdy build, an ability to get to the rim, and a solid mid-range game. Like most freshmen guards, Wright will be challenged to keep his turnover rate down before the lights go on Nov. 10.
Two of those newcomers, Battey and Nikolic, were unable to compete in Italy due to injury and eligibility issues, respectively. That only heightens the learning curve for that particular duo alongside a cast of newcomers still learning to play together.
"The thing with this team is there's so many question marks and right now not a lot of answers," Boyle said. "We know the freshmen are going to be up and down. They're going to have good games and bad games. They'll ebb and flow, like freshmen do."