Much of the experience dotting the roster of the Colorado Buffaloes’ basketball team arrived by happenstance, not design.
Among the college basketball equivalent of graybeards that make up the Buffs’ seasoned senior class is a player few had ever heard of when he was coming out of high school as an under-sized, overlooked Division II prospect. Another was a transfer, while yet another had his senior season ripped away last year by an injury.
Call them coincidences or twists of fate, it was a series of unpredictable events that has given the Buffs the luxury of featuring four fifth-year seniors — Wesley Gordon, Xavier Johnson, Josh Fortune and Derrick White — as they begin a journey they hope leads to a fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons.
Despite the annual mass exodus of underclassmen for the NBA draft that has become the game’s norm, experience still matters in college basketball. And few, if any, opponents will be more experienced than the Buffs.
“Obviously we love redshirting. It’s the way we can compete at Colorado at the highest level of college basketball,” head coach Tad Boyle said. “I think this has the makings of a top-25 basketball team. I really do. Talent-wise, experience-wise. Hopefully in the seventh year of your program the pipeline is full and recruiting has gone well.”
Boyle has succeeded in the daunting task of building a consistent winner that boasts experience at the top of the roster with a promising level of talent ready to assume those roles in the coming years. Much like the CU football team, which has enjoyed its “Rise” behind a club touted as one of the most experienced in program history, the elder Buffs have weathered their share of adversity along the journey toward making the CU program a consistent force in the Pac-12 Conference.
Fortune and White arrived as transfers, with Fortune making an NCAA Tournament appearance at Providence before moving to Boulder. White is a transfer player as well, though CU’s Nov. 11 opener against Sacramento State will mark the first Division I game of his career after a record-setting run at Division II UCCS.
Johnson missed last season due to a torn Achilles tendon, leaving Gordon as the only member of the five-year club who took a traditional redshirt season during his true freshman season. The Buffs, of course, also will lean heavily on George King, a fourth-year junior who took a redshirt season in what would have been his true sophomore season two years ago.
It remains to be seen if the Buffs can turn experience into performance as the CU football team has. Yet despite the run of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years, this is not a group that assumes success will come easily. Many players still recall the 16-18 debacle two seasons ago that ended not in the Big Dance, but in the lame consolation prize known as the College Basketball Invitational.
None of the Buffs want to repeat that part of their shared history.
“(Experience) will help us through adversity, and we’re going to have adversity at some point,” Gordon said. “All of have been through it and that’s going to help a lot with going through tough times. Mentally, (experience) plays a lot into it. Our experience is going to help when tough times come. A lot of guys on this team have the experience of going through the CBI and what that was like.”
While five-star recruits who generally leave school early to roll the dice with the NBA draft still garner the bulk of college basketball headlines — 29 of the 60 picks in this year’s NBA draft were college underclassmen, including 14 freshmen — rare is the school not named Kentucky that can reach the Final Four without strong senior leadership.
Among last year’s Final Four entrants — Villanova, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Syracuse — nine of the 20 starters in the national semifinals were seniors. That list doesn’t include one fourth-year junior in Syracuse’s DaJuan Coleman.
Come crunch time, the Buffs should be as battle-tested as any team in the nation.
“You’d like to think in close game that we’re the team that can execute,” Boyle said. “You’d like to think in close games we’re the team that’s got guys that aren’t afraid to take and make tough shots, and make the plays that will win us games whether it’s at the offensive end or defensive end. Again, our guys know what it takes. They know what needs to be done. Now we’ve got to go out and do it and know it’s not just going to be handed to us. Just because we’re older doesn’t mean some freshman is going to be intimidated by us.”