The 2017-18 season already was going to be perhaps the most demanding coaching challenge of Tad Boyle's tenure with the Colorado men's basketball team.
The broken foot suffered by senior forward Tory Miller-Stewart suddenly has magnified that challenge.
Already tasked with working five freshmen into the rotation while keeping the Buffaloes competitive in the Pac-12 Conference, Miller-Stewart's injury, likely a season-ending setback, robs Boyle's Buffs of one of their few veterans. And it also forces CU to play the rest of the season without their most experienced and most aggressive post player.
In the big picture, it appears there are options available for both Miller-Stewart and the program, though at this early juncture neither Miller-Stewart nor Boyle have been able to comment on how this injury impacts the team, or the player, long-term. By the letter of the NCAA laws, Miller-Stewart remains eligible for a medical hardship and a fifth season of eligibility. Conveniently, Boyle still has a scholarship at his disposal for the 2018-19 season, and with two guards already signed for the 2018 freshman class, Boyle stated a big man would be targeted with that open slot.
Detractors might point out the Buffs could do better than bringing back a player who has averaged just 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds over the course of 101 career games. Yet a return by Miller-Stewart would add experience to a 2018-19 team that still will be on the young side. It also would give Boyle some flexibility on the recruiting trail while looking at the 2019 freshman crop, as Namon Wright is the only player scheduled to be a senior next season.
Of course, Miller-Stewart also could take a look at improving sophomore Lucas Siewert and Evan Battey waiting in the wings and move on as a graduate transfer.
More immediately, Siewert and 7-foot freshman Dallas Walton will be tasked with filling Miller-Stewart's minutes. And the youngsters, neither of whom are polished inside scorers, no longer will have the 6-foot-9, 246-pound senior to push them in the paint at practice.
"It's definitely a challenge that I'm willing to take on," Walton said. "One thing I've got to praise Tory for is he really prepared me and (Siewert) and all our young bigs in order for situations like this. He goes at us every day in practice the way he does in the games. That's what has helped us, and that can help us further down the road."
Siewert still is struggling with an ankle injury that forced him to the sideline for two games and limited him to six minutes in Saturday's loss at Colorado State. Boyle repeatedly has referred to Walton as an ongoing work in progress, and at a comparatively slight 230 pounds, Walton can get pushed around by thicker forwards like CSU's 6-foot-11, 240-pound Nico Carvacho, who recorded nine rebounds and four blocked shots against the Buffs. Collectively, the Buffs probably can find ways to make up for the loss Miller-Stewart's 6.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. It will be far more difficult for either Walton or Siewert to command the same defensive attention inside. Miller-Stewart has never shot more than 72 free throws in a season but was on pace to attempt more than 115 this year.
Getting Siewert (5.0 rebounds per game before Saturday's abbreviated appearance) back to 100 percent will help, as will continued strides from Walton. It also is an opportunity for freshman Tyler Bey, lauded by Boyle as an elite-caliber rebounder, to turn that potential into performance (Bey posted season-highs of six rebounds in 22 minutes at CSU). Walton has acquitted himself well in limited chances offensively, going 6-for-9 from the floor. Walton's 10 overall rebounds and 2.0 rebounding average don't jump off the page. Yet in terms of rebounds per minute — a stat Boyle values — Walton's mark of .196 isn't terribly far behind Miller-Stewart's .210. (Bey is at .214).
There will be challenges, with two games apiece against Arizona 7-footer Dusan Ristic and USC's 6-foot-11 Chimezie Metu tops among them. Those youngsters, though, already have been challenged with growing up in a hurry. That hasn't changed. Miller-Stewart's injury just sharpens the learning curve.