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Rooney: Amid Football Fever, Tad Boyle hopes 2019-20 brings March Madness to CU Buffs

Tenth season at CU could be memorable one for Boyle’s Buffs

Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle and the Buffs have high expectations this season.

Give Tad Boyle credit. The man knows an opportunity when he sees one.

With football filling the air Thursday at the Front Range Media Huddle at the Blake Street Tavern in LoDo, Boyle perhaps was easy to overlook. The leading men from five football programs — CU’s Mel Tucker, CSU’s Mike Bobo, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, Northern Colorado’s Ernest Collins, and Colorado Mines’ Gregg Brandon, a former two-year assistant at CU under Gary Barnett — brought hope-springs-eternal outlooks to a late summer gathering meant to hype the fortunes of fall.

None of those football coaches had anything more optimistic to talk about than Boyle.

The leader of the CU men’s basketball program took advantage of the opportunity, jumping in on a pair of radio shows and regaling a wide-ranging scrum of Colorado scribes beyond yours truly about the possibilities of the 2019-20 Buffaloes. Like Boyle working the room Thursday, there is an opportunity at hand for the Buffs.

Classes begin Monday, and Boyle said the team would reconvene shortly after Labor Day weekend. From there, a squad that displayed great promise down the stretch of the 2018-19 season will hone in on the start of a journey it hopes will lead to the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016.

“I said it last year — I love coaching this team,” Boyle said. “They always came to practice trying to get better. There wasn’t any entitlement issues. There wasn’t laziness issues. I liked how hard we worked this summer, how hard the guys worked this summer. A lot of them got in the gym on their own. If I sense for a minute our guys are letting up or expecting that the world owes them something, then I’ve got to bring the hammer down. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“We can’t listen to the outside noise. Easier said than done, but it’s something I’m going to have to really be consistent with and on top of.”

Boyle said when the team meets once again one of the first things he will ask the assembled Buffs is for anyone to raise their hand if they have played in the NCAA Tournament. No one in the room will budge.

Even during CU’s run to four tournament appearances in five years, including the 2011-12 Pac-12 Conference tournament championship season, the Buffs arguably have not gone into any season under Boyle with a more valid belief they can challenge for a conference crown. Part of that notion is relative to expectations around the league — the Pac-12 certainly doesn’t boast a bona fide preseason Final Four contender this year — yet it also is in large part to the veteran makeup of Boyle’s roster.

Tyler Bey is projected as a first-round pick in the 2020 NBA draft, should he chose to go, and if he plays the entire season the way he performed during CU’s season-ending 12-4 run that pushed them into the NIT quarterfinals, he will be in the mix for Pac-12’s Player of the Year. McKinley Wright has the potential to be a top-15 point guard in the nation. Not only is Wright unafraid of taking the big shot late in games, but he’s building a track record as someone who knocks them down. An NCAA Tournament berth would cement long-lasting CU legacies for both players.

In the month-plus before preseason practice begins, Boyle’s biggest challenge will be to recapture, or perhaps continue stoking, the hunger to prove themselves that fueled the Buffs down the stretch.  Boyle is getting ready for his 10th season at CU. The first two-thirds of those previous nine seasons featured the greatest run in CU basketball history, with the 2012 Pac-12 tourney title, four NCAA Tournament berths, and an appearance in the NIT Final Four.

The last three seasons have been marked mostly by frustration, including a 2016-17 year that should be considered the most disappointing of Boyle’s tenure followed by a roster overhaul that finally showed signs of meaningful traction in February and March.

Football Fever will reign for the next few months. But anything short of eventually bringing a little March Madness to Boulder will be a disappointment for the 2019-20 Buffs.

“I’m going to challenge these guys that every day, that’s what we’re fighting for. That’s what we’re expecting of ourselves,” Boyle said. “In order to do that, we’d better take care of business on a day-to-day basis. Just reinforcing that the confidence is there, but we’ve got to keep that hunger and humbleness. Because we’ve got nothing to be cocky about. It’s just chatter.”