Like after any opening game, there remains plenty of room for improvement for the Colorado men's basketball team following the Buffaloes' season debut Friday night.
At the same time, there were plenty of encouraging signs as well for a new-look club that played better as the night went on during a 66-51 win against Northern Colorado. It was a reasonable test for a young Buffaloes squad going against a UNC team loaded with veteran experience.
Still, it was just opening night. One regular season game with 29 more to go. While the Buffs passed their opening test, head coach Tad Boyle was quick to caution his team still has a long way to go — starting with a visit Tuesday by the University of Denver, which is coached by former Boyle assistant Rodney Billups.
"Look, it's game one," Boyle said. "All I know is we beat a good team that can win their league. I don't know the Big Sky like I used to know the Big Sky when I coached in it. But I do know that Northern Colorado has a good enough team to win that league. Time will tell. This is test number one. We passed it on defense. We passed it on rebounding. We still have a lot of room for improvement.
"This is a team — because we're so young, because we have so many pieces — that you're really going to see improve as the year goes on. It's going to be fun team to follow. It's going to be a fun team to coach for me. And it's really going to be a fun team to watch for our fans. But this was game one. We're not going to get ahead of ourselves."
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for CU on Friday was how well the Buffs acquitted themselves on defense and rebounding. Long considered the pillars of Boyle's coaching approach, it was only a week ago that CU's leader was lamenting how far behind the pace his club was in those departments. If the effort against UNC was any indication, the young Buffs are learning in a hurry.
CU was getting outrebounded by eight as late as the early stages of the second half but turned that performance around in a hurry. Led by nine rebounds from senior George King — eight of them coming after halftime — CU ended with a 45-38 rebounding advantage while receiving a number of solid contributions across the rotation. Freshman Lazar Nikolic grabbed six rebounds in his first career game, while sophomore Lucas Siewert matched a career-best with six rebounds as well. Three other players (Tory Miller-Stewart, Namon Wright, and freshman McKinley Wright) all grabbed at least four.
Defensively, the Buffs were sharp from the outset, consistently getting their hands in the faces of UNC's shooters and generally keeping the Bears from getting open looks. UNC didn't shoot better than 33 percent in either half and finished with a 6-for-37 mark on 3-pointers.
Even though the bulk of the Buffs' points likely will not come from the post this season, Boyle has reiterated the need for his team to work the ball into the paint on offense. According to CU's head coach, among the 20 possessions in which the Buffs got a paint touch against UNC, they either scored or drew a foul on 16 of those possessions. When they didn't get the ball into the paint, the Buffs scored or drew a foul just once in 16 possessions.
"I don't know if it's the basketball gods or what, but when we get paint touches we're pretty good," Boyle said. "Three-point shooting is going to come and go. Free throw shooting is going to come and go. This team, against SMU in a scrimmage, was 20 of 22 from the free throw line. (Against UNC) we couldn't make a free throw. But we played through it because we defended and we rebounded down the stretch."