Rooney: Managing CU basketball’s roles, minutes the challenge for Tad Boyle in 2019-20

Buffs’ leader tasked with turning potential into production

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle and the Buffs are expected to compete for a Pac-12 Conference crown and a tourney berth.

The company line always is the same.

When you set a high standard, that line is exactly as it always should be. In the case of the Colorado men’s basketball team, head coach Tad Boyle expects his Buffaloes to compete for Pac-12 Conference championships and berths in the NCAA Tournament. Every year.

It’s a commendable standard to set. Yet the reality is some years those goals are more realistic than others. At this stage two years ago, when McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey and D’Shawn Schwartz and Evan Battey were going through their first practices at Colorado while just a few months removed from their high school graduations.

Certainly the Buffs wanted to compete for a conference crown and an NCAA tourney berth that year. It simply wasn’t a realistic goal.

Such is not the case now. The Buffs are expected to compete for a Pac-12 Conference crown and a tourney berth, realistically for the first time since a 2016-17 squad fell short of those expectations. Barring any unexpected injury setbacks, head coach Tad Boyle and his Buffs will go into the season with a wealth of weapons at their disposal.

Balancing those roles and, in turn, perhaps being willing to bruise a few egos in terms of minutes for the greater good, might turn into the most important aspect of the job ahead of Boyle in his 10th season at CU.

“Understanding roles. Understanding that the strength of our team is our team. There’s no one guy we have that can do it by himself,” Boyle said. “Understanding and appreciating your teammates I think is going to be critical for this team. If we can do that, we have enough talent and enough depth to weather some storms. But we have to be willing to trust, and rely on, the guy to our right and the guy to our left. And if our guys can do that — and I think the connective-ness of this team is I think pretty strong — that’s only going to get tested in times of adversity. We’ll see how we handle it when the waters get rough. And given our schedule, we know that’s going to happen in various places.”

Boyle has admitted previously he pressed the wrong buttons with that 2016-17 bunch, believing their experience — CU’s starting lineup typically featured four fifth-year seniors in Derrick White, Wesley Gordon, Josh Fortune, and Xavier Johnson in addition to fourth-year junior George King — would allow the group to police themselves, so to speak.

Yet while those players indeed had played plenty of college basketball, they had played very little of it together. While King, Fortune, and Gordon all were key figures on the NCAA Tournament team the previous year, neither King nor Fortune had ever played meaningful minutes with Johnson, who missed the 2015-16 campaign with an injury. And none of them had previously played a single minute with White.

Despite the talent, that lack of cohesion was evident quickly on the floor. At the very least, cohesion shouldn’t be an issue for Boyle this season. The Buffs’ core group — McKinley Wright, D’Shawn Schwartz, Tyler Bey, and Lucas Siewert — have played together two full seasons. Evan Battey practiced alongside them for a year before getting into the action last year. It was the reverse for 7-footer Dallas Walton, who played alongside that core group two years ago before missing last season with a knee injury. Guards Shane Gatling and Daylen Kountz joined the rotation a year ago.

The Buffs don’t just have experience. They have experience together. It will be Boyle’s challenge to manage those roles and minutes.

“I think the other part of managing expectations with a team like this, where internally we think we’re pretty good and externally people believe we’re pretty good, is not putting too much pressure on ourselves,” Boyle said. “Play the game and don’t worry about all the other stuff that comes with this job or being a Division I basketball player. Because the spotlight is pretty bright at times. We’re going to maybe stub our toes at times, but how we handle that will be the key.”