It was less than a week from the beginning of official workouts for the 2017-18 basketball season, and the walls in the office of Colorado coach Tad Boyle were completely bare. A blank canvas of white paint devoid of decoration or any memorabilia from his two and a half decades as a collegiate coach.
The CU basketball offices are going through a makeover, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. His program is enduring the same.
Since a four-win year at Northern Colorado during his first season as a Division I head coach in the 2006-07 season, Boyle’s star generally has remained on the rise, albeit with a couple of stub-your-toe seasons more recently in Boulder. One of those, of course, occurred last year, when a team coming off its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, a team with four fifth-year seniors, a fourth-year junior who previously won the Pac-12 Conference’s Most Improved Player award, and a future first-round NBA draft pick could do no better than a first-round exit in the NIT.
The offseason witnessed the most significant roster turnover of Boyle’s tenure. A staff once known for its stability has been forced to replace pieces after each of the past two years. The program sits at a crossroads, and the Buffs will be relying on new batch of youngsters to keep them in the NCAA Tournament picture in the years to come … and to make sure the best days of the Boyle era remain ahead, and not fading further behind.
“The more I coach college basketball, the more I realize it is about managing expectations,” Boyle said. “As a coach I’m usually a glass-half-full guy. I’m an optimistic guy. I’m a believer in Colorado and Colorado basketball and what we’ve built.
“Last year’s team won 19 games and went to the NIT. In the history of Colorado basketball, that’s not a bad year. It’s not a disappointing year. In terms of what that team’s expectations were, it was a disappointing year. I try to put things in perspective. What I learned last year is that little things make a difference. Not that I didn’t know that before, but it was exposed to a T. That’s the thing I learned from last year. We know there’s a fine line between winning and losing. Everybody knows that. It’s a cliché. But last year was the epitome of that fine line.”
Boyle went on to list the shortcomings that led to a crippling 0-7 start in Pac-12 play. A missed box-out on the final play at Arizona State. Turnovers at Washington State. Lazy transition defense in the final minute at Washington. That list goes on, a ledger that turned Boyle’s preseason warning his team was overrated into prophecy.
In the glass-half-full outlook, Boyle remains by far the most successful coach in the 117-year history of the program, the owner of four NCAA Tournament berths, a Pac-12 tournament title, two NIT appearances, and five 20-win seasons. Before his arrival, you had to count backward almost 50 years to review the Buffs’ previous four NCAA tourney appearances.
Yet with success, expectations inevitably heighten. As Boyle noted, there have been plenty of dismal basketball seasons in which CU fans might have been popping champagne bottles over 19 wins and an NIT berth. That’s not the case anymore.
The glass-half-empty outlook is the Buffs have suffered two disappointing years out of the past three seasons, sandwiched on either side of a third straight first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament in 2016. The Buffs can probably be forgiven for missing the NCAA Tournament in 2017-18 if the youngsters display a reasonable level of promise. Beyond that, in a college game where freshmen and sophomores regularly are key components of the nation’s best programs (and, it should be noted, in a Pac-12 in which Arizona and USC might soon fall closer to the pack thanks to the diligence of the FBI) a group that includes 7-foot redshirt freshman Dallas Walton alongside true freshmen McKinley Wright, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Evan Battey, and Lazar Nikolic will be tasked with restoring the magic of Boyle’s first four seasons, a run that featured a Final Four appearance in the NIT followed by the Pac-12 tourney title and three straight trips to the Big Dance.
Boyle certainly isn’t trying to put undue pressure on his rookie class. At the same time, he appears ready to hand the point guard spot to Wright, and on several occasions he already has compared Bey’s rebounding skills with those of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Andre Roberson, who posted the top two single-season rebounding totals in CU history under Boyle’s watch.
No pressure there.
“Quite frankly, the freshmen we have? I’m coaching them a little harder than I normally do,” Boyle said. “Usually freshmen, I let them kind of find their own way and figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. But this year, we’re going to need some freshmen to step up and play some minutes.”
If anything, the 2017-18 season certainly should be more interesting than a year ago. How promising it proves to be will be reliant on a group of young men growing up in a hurry.
Pat Rooney: firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/prooney07