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Rooney: Turnovers threatening to derail CU basketball’s season of promise

Not yet time to panic, but Buffs not instilling confidence

Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer
Colorado’s McKinley Wright and the Buffs have been struggling with turnovers since returning from Las Vegas.

It’s not just one person. And it’s not as simple as trying to eliminate one bad habit from the routine.

The Colorado men’s basketball team is getting turnovers from everyone, with the giveaways arriving in all forms. Every night features a new grab-bag of miscues, from shot clock violations and offensive fouls to bad decisions and errant passes.

It’s not the collective team effort the Buffs envisioned going into a 2019-20 season while harboring NCAA Tournament expectations. Yet it’s one that is threatening to derail that goal before the tournament drive truly begins in earnest.

On display Friday night in Fort Collins was a brand of basketball that won’t have the Buffs dancin’ in March. And unfortunately for the Buffs and their fans eager to latch on to a likeable and talented mix of players, that sort of ugly display has more often than not been the norm this season.

Certainly the Buffs aren’t yet clicking on all cylinders on offense or defense, yet they are more than capable enough on both ends of the floor to consistently win games. But not if they continue to gift-wrap extra possessions for opponents all too happy to take advantage of CU’s holiday spirit of giving.

“We’re not playing great but we’re figuring out a way to win games, and that is the sign of a tough, gritty basketball team,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said after his team’s 56-48 win at CSU. “And I’m not going to say we’re a good team right now, because we’re not playing like a good team. But we’re a tough and gritty team. I can say that with 100 percent confidence. I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. I love our team.”

Since returning from Las Vegas, where they capped the MGM Resorts Main Event with a win against Clemson that featured the second-lowest turnover mark of the season (12), the Buffs have been their own worst enemies.

Against Colorado State, the Buffs committed a turnover just 11 seconds into the game and had as many turnovers (six) as points six minutes into the game. Four different players compiled those six turnovers.

Against Northern Iowa, CU’s first two possessions ended in turnovers on a shot clock violation and an offensive foul. Against Kansas, three different players recorded turnovers before the Buffs scored a point.

Against Loyola Marymount, there were turnovers by Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright IV before CU dented the scoreboard. There were three turnovers before a point was scored against Sacramento State.

There is no magic-wand solution that will eradicate the problem. But it begins at the top, and for the Buffs that’s Wright.

The preseason belief in this corner was that a good season from Wright would feature an assist-to-turnover rate around 2-to-1. Elite point guards often are in the 3-to-1 range, yet given Wright’s domination of the ball-handling duties for the Buffs, and the fact his season-best assist-to-turnover rate was a 1.86 during his freshman season, jumping to a 2-to-1 mark after posting a 1.55 last year seemed a reasonable expectation.

Instead, Wright’s three-assist, four-turnover showing at CSU dropped the junior’s assist-to-turnover rate to 1.37 through 10 games.The Buffs need Wright to produce more like Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, the senior point guard who scored 23 points with only three turnovers in 40 minutes in the Ducks’ huge overtime win Saturday at No. 5 Michigan.

No doubt, though, Wright isn’t alone in the Buffs’ frustration. Bey averaged 1.97 turnovers per game last year but is giving the ball away 3.1 times per game this year. Three regular rotation players — Daylen Kountz, Shane Gatling, and Evan Battey — who recorded more assists than turnovers last year are well behind that pace so far this season.

Still, the sky isn’t falling yet. One good win, be it against No. 14 Dayton next week in Chicago, or in the Pac-12 Conference opener at home on Jan. 2 against No. 10 Oregon, will erase much of the ugliness Buffs fans have witnessed in recent weeks. But right now the Buffs aren’t playing anywhere near that level, and turnovers are the primary culprit.

CSU took 17 more shots from the field against CU. No matter how good the Buffs’ defense can be on any given night, that won’t allow CU to survive Washington State, let alone Dayton and the Pac-12’s best.

“I think we just have to calm down and get back to ourselves,” Wright said. “We know there’s a lot of expectations on us. We’ve got the guys that want to live up to those expectations. We just have to calm down and stop thinking so much about the outside world. And stop thinking about AP polls and who’s watching us, and just stay together and play together. Right now, we haven’t been showcasing that as much. I still have 100 percent confidence that it will turn for us. We’ll be better. We’re 10 games in right now and haven’t played our best ball.”