Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle admitted early in the 2017-18 preseason that, given the bulk of his expected rotation was barely old enough to vote, he would take a different mental approach into his eighth season at the helm of the Colorado men’s basketball team.
Year eight would be a new Year One.
Sure, it perhaps was a subliminal way of tempering expectations. What realistic fan expects miracles in Year One? Yet it also seemingly offered a new template put forth by Boyle that, if successful, will allow the Buffaloes to harbor realistic expectations of being more than spectators on weekends like this, when the best of the best in the college basketball world takes center stage, and these days best of the best can include programs like Loyola Chicago, Kansas State, and Texas Tech.
If they can reach the Elite Eight, there’s no reason Colorado can’t, too.
In 2018-19, Boyle admits it will be Year Two. And we all know what happened at the end of Boyle’s first Year Two in 2011-12. The Buffs crashed the party in their first appearance at the Pac-12 Conference tournament, becoming what remains the only league team to win four games in four days to win the conference tournament and earn the first of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
Expecting a similar once-in-a-lifetime postseason run is a lofty and ambitious goal. Yet with a young core on the rise in a conference on the brink of regime change, anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth next year will be difficult to swallow for fans of a program that heightened their expectations during the first half of Boyle’s tenure only to have them tempered by the close-but-not-quite results of the second half of his tenure.
For his part, Boyle embraces that challenge.
“I look at it from Colorado’s perspective, and we have to get back on the horse,” Boyle said. “We expect to be in the tournament. We want to be in the tournament. And we want to advance in the tournament. There’s still a lot of work to do for everybody.”
Since the Buffs joined the Pac-12, the only league teams to reach the NCAA Tournament more than the four appearances by CU are Arizona (6), Oregon (5), and UCLA (5). Since Boyle took over CU’s program, the Buffs’ .507 winning percentage in conference play ranks fifth among Pac-12 teams. In the big picture, it’s a solid resume.
However, that body of work remains front-loaded during the early portion of Boyle’s tenure. Two of the most frustrating seasons of his regime have occurred in the past four years, including the only under-.500 season of Boyle’s tenure in 2014-15 and the early NIT exit authored by a veteran team in 2016-17 that expected to make another NCAA Tournament run.
Analyzing Boyle’s coaching performance for the 2017-18 season is difficult to do solely by the final 17-15 mark. On one hand, the Buffs did not play in a postseason game for the first time since Boyle took over. On the other, the highly-touted freshman class generally acquitted itself well, with McKinley Wright displaying the look of a budding star and an array of players showing marked improvement throughout the season — including Tyler Bey, Dallas Walton, and Lucas Siewert. The youthful Buffs offered a tantalizing look at their potential with home wins against Arizona and Arizona State and an impressive road win at UCLA. Yet they also lost all nine of their other true road games, including a combined 0-3 mark against lightweights Colorado State, Oregon State, and Washington State.
The new Year Two must flip that script. The pieces are in place to repeat the Buffs’ run of three tournament appearances in a row and four in five seasons from 2011-12 through 2015-16, a cast that will be fortified if freshman big man Evan Battey is finally cleared after his midseason medical scare. It’s not often a coach at a major university can suffer a dropoff from four tourney appearances in five years to none in three straight years and counting and maintain a reasonable level of job security. Yet at the very least Boyle has earned the right to sink or swim with the best recruiting class he has ever brought to Boulder.
Two years ago the Buffs’ most recent NCAA Tournament berth ended with the wasting of a nine-point halftime lead in a first-round loss against UConn. Maybe there is a faction of CU fans that would gladly take an NCAA title regardless of the price. But UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who led the Huskies to the title in 2014, has been fired from his post amid an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. His national championship will likely forever bear an asterisk, and he leaves his job with the program in shambles.
Granted, UConn made a coaching splash by luring Dan Hurley away from Rhode Island. Yet two years after UConn eliminated the Buffs, which team’s fans are facing a more promising future?