Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
His team had just trudged off the CU Events Center floor on the heels of another lost opportunity, this time a 77-70 loss last week in a very winnable game against Washington, one of the few squads roundly considered a favorite in the struggling Pac-12 Conference.
The loss last weekend for the Colorado basketball team was the Buffaloes’ fifth in seven games, and their third in four Pac-12 games. For a team that still can be considered young, which also is facing an opening stretch of five road games out of the first seven in league play, it has been a frustrating but hardly crippling start.
That said, for any postseason goal to become reality, a turnaround has to occur sooner than later. That’s why head coach Tad Boyle circled this past week — a longer week of focused practice ahead of a Sunday afternoon date at Utah — as a critical juncture in his Buffs’ quest to make noise in the Pac-12 and land a postseason berth.
“I told our team in the locker room that this week of practice is the most important week of practice we’re going to have all year long,” Boyle said shortly after the loss against UW. “Because we’re going to have to get better during this stretch before we play Utah.”
On Sunday, we’ll see just how much the Buffs took advantage of that elongated week of practice.
It has been a trying season so far for Boyle and the Buffs, who entered the year expecting to take a step forward with its talented-but-young roster yet has nonetheless mired in a month-long struggle that has opened the potential of derailing those goals.
Boyle has been careful not to use youth or injuries as an excuse for his team’s inconsistencies, though both factors have played a role in the Buffs’ downslide.
The injury hurdles, which have been scant in recent seasons, began in the preseason, with the loss of 7-footer Dallas Walton to a season-ending torn knee ligament. Like the rest of his teammates, Walton still was a work in progress, with the Arvada West product charged with making a significant improvement on the 3.4 rebounds per game he produced last year as a redshirt freshman. Still, had Walton been in the mix it’s easy to wonder if San Diego would have managed to record the 15 offensive rebounds that led to 18 second-chance points for the Toreros in a six-point win on Nov. 20.
Walton also would have given Boyle more flexibility in the paint when foul trouble hit his other frontcourt players. A case in point was two weeks ago at Arizona, when the Wildcats immediately started attacking the basket (and pulling away) when Tyler Bey went to the bench with his second foul midway through the first half. Having a 7-footer at the back of the defense easily could have altered that scenario.
Injuries continue to be an issue, though sophomore point guard McKinley Wright appears on the comeback trail from his left shoulder injury, whether it’s Sunday at Utah or next week in northern California. Namon Wright, CU’s only senior, has missed the past three games with a foot injury. Those injury setbacks have been compounded by the loss of junior guard Deleon Brown, who has been ruled academically ineligible for the remainder of the season.
The manpower issues have forced Boyle to fit inexperienced pieces into prominent roles. Still-improving redshirt freshman Evan Battey will play just his 17th Division I game at Utah. It’s a similar situation for Shane Gatling, the junior college transfer who has struggled with his shot (.323 on 3-pointers) yet who will be counted on to run the offense if McKinley Wright’s shoulder remains untrustworthy the remainder of the year.
From this corner, I believed this unit had the potential to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. At this point that would be a lofty goal, as the opportunities to improve NET rankings in the watered-down Pac-12 will be sparse. While an NIT bid might not be the step forward fans hoped for, it nonetheless would give the still-young, injury-depleted Buffs of 2018-19 something tangible to build upon.
The latest road swing offers a winnable game at Utah, though in a venue that has given the Buffs headaches, followed by arguably the least-daunting two-game road swing in the league next week at Cal and Stanford. While McKinley Wright’s injury situation remains an x-factor, there remains plenty of opportunities for the Buffs to get rolling again.
It just has to happen before the hole they dig becomes too deep.