Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Boyle by the numbers
How CU’s Tad Boyle ranks among the program’s all-time coaching leaders
Wins: 130, fourth (Sox Walseth 261, Ricardo Patton 184, Forrest B. Cox 147).
Winning percentage: .617, second (Forrest B. Cox .623).
Postseason wins (NCAA and NIT only): 4, t-second (Forrest B. Cox 5, Joe Harrington 4).
NCAA Tournament appearances: 4, first (Forrest B. Cox 3, Sox Walseth 3).
Tad Boyle knew there had to be changes.
After enjoying a meteoric rise as the leader of the University of Colorado men’s basketball program, Boyle and his Buffs were humbled a year ago. CU had watched an unprecedented run of three consecutive bids to the NCAA Tournament, not to mention an NIT semifinal appearance in Boyle’s first season in 2011, come to a screeching halt during the 2014-15 season.
Inconsistent play culminated in a streak of seven losses in nine games early in Pac-12 play. Boyle remained confident his veteran group, the core of which had spurred the three previous NCAA berths, would figure it out. They never did.
From Josh Scott’s back injury to the team’s best player, Askia Booker, not competing with his teammates in the lower-tier CBI tournament, the year proved an abject disaster. Boyle vowed it wouldn’t happen again, even if it required a heavier hand on his part toward the Buffs’ inattention to detail.
As the Buffs prepare to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five seasons, those shortcomings feel like an illness long cured. And the biggest reason for the abrupt bounce-back is not necessarily the heavier hand Boyle used when he had to.
It’s that the Buffs took it upon themselves to make certain their coach didn’t have to play the bad guy very often.
“I feel like I did it early, and now there’s times when you maybe have to bring the hammer down,” Boyle said. “But the one thing about this team is we’ve had great leadership. And when you have great leadership in the locker room, it makes your job as a coach a lot easier when you have guys like Josh Scott and Xavier Talton as seniors we’ve had this year.
“They understand how hard they have to practice and how hard they have to play every night. I look at the resiliency of this team. Pretty much every disappointment we’ve had, we’ve bounced back pretty quick. We just had a disappointment in the Pac-12 tournament against Arizona, and hopefully we can bounce back from that as well.”
Certainly there have been bumps in the road on the way to Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against UConn, complete with the sort of pratfalls that might have derailed last year’s team.
When the Buffs squandered a late lead against Utah in the Pac-12 opener at home, they recovered to top Oregon and Oregon State the following week — wins that ultimately proved critical on CU’s tournament resume.
Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Josh Scott in a home series against the Washington schools, the Buffs outlasted Washington State in double overtime before edging Washington.
And when an overabundance of turnovers culminated in a late meltdown at USC and a one-game absence from the starting lineup for point guard Dom Collier the following game against UCLA, the Buffs returned home to upset then-No. 9 Arizona. They also have shown those turnover issues might finally be in the past, as they have committed 12 or fewer in the six games since the disaster at USC.
“I’ve seen him be stronger when he needs to be,” Scott said of his coach. “But also I think this group has changed to the point where he doesn’t really need to be because I think we take care of issues even before he has to. Have there been moments? Yes, there has been. But credit our guys. Our guys really changed how we went about things so he didn’t have to.”
Steady leadership and improved focus might be the biggest factors in CU’s return to the Big Dance, but they aren’t the only ones.
Exterminating the injury bug
The Buffs had been plagued in recent seasons by injuries, from Spencer Dinwiddie’s devastating knee injury in January 2014 to Scott’s bad back last year to Xavier Johnson’s torn Achilles last summer. The law of averages turned back CU’s way this year as they avoided significant injuries.
Overall, the regulars in the Buffs’ rotation missed only a total of 4½ games due to injury. Reserve forward Tory Miller missed the Jan. 3 game at Stanford due to a head injury. Freshman guard Thomas Akyazili sat out the Feb. 4 game at Oregon with an ankle injury. And Scott missed the Washington and Washington State home games (plus the second half at Oregon State) with an ankle injury.
“Injuries are a big part of college basketball, and to overcome them is critical,” Boyle said. “We’ve done so, relatively. Our guys are healthy now as a group and our guys are feeling good about themselves. That’s important heading into the tournament.”
How would Scott recover from his 2014-15 back issues?
How would Josh Fortune fit in after sitting out a season following his transfer from Providence?
What sort of player would George King be after being asked to hone his game in a redshirt season?
Fortunately for the Buffs, these three critical issues all were met with positive answers. Scott has more than gamely endured the rigors of his nightly interior battles. Fortune has suffered some ups and downs, but he is the team’s third-leading scorer and has posed a consistent threat from 3-point range. And King could be a star in the making, a player who compiled the top 3-point percentage in the Pac-12 (.456) while showing glimpses there could be a much higher ceiling for the athletic, 6-foot-6 wing.
It was easy to wonder if the Buffs could return to this level after Johnson’s devastating injury last summer. Yet Boyle’s faith never wavered.
“XJ would have made us that much better, that much deeper, but again it shows the resiliency this group has to lose a guy like XJ with the experience he has, the physicality,” Boyle said. “A two-year starter coming back for his senior year, and we can still get back to this point. This team is resilient and they’re tough. Overcoming XJ’s injury in June is a testament to that.”