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Rooney: Despite forgettable finish, future still bright for CU hoops

Return of McKinley Wright IV would keep Buffs in NCAA tourney mix

BOULDER, CO - DECEMBER 29, 2019:  Colorado's  Evan Battey rebounds over  Iona's  Asante Gist in Boulder on December 29, 2019.
 (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – DECEMBER 29, 2019: Colorado’s Evan Battey rebounds over Iona’s Asante Gist in Boulder on December 29, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Right now, there’s not much more to do but look ahead.

Eventually (hopefully), we’ll be able to leave our homes again. Eventually (hopefully) we’ll again be able to gather at arenas to back our favorite teams. And if your favorite team happens to be the Colorado men’s basketball squad, the future remains bright.

Entering the mass quarantine due to the ongoing fears of the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) forced CU hoops fans to stew a little bit deeper in their misery. A Buffs team that had an opportunity to be remembered as perhaps the best in program history stumbled big-time down the stretch, suffering a season-ending five-game losing streak that culminated with a loss against Washington State in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament — the Buffs’ first first-round ouster at a league tournament in coach Tad Boyle’s 10 years at the helm.

No doubt, it was a brutal finish compounded by the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, which would have at least offered the reeling Buffs a shot at redemption. Yet even with the news that Jakub Dombek and Daylen Kountz are entering the transfer portal, the 2020-21 season, assuming we all get to October and November happy and healthy, should be another strong one for the Buffs.

While taking a peek at the potential roster makeup for next season, let’s work with two assumptions. First, that Tyler Bey has played his last game at CU. And also that point guard McKinley Wright IV will be back for his senior season. Bear in mind, neither scenario is a given. The possible scuttling of the pre-draft workout routing might force Bey, a projected second-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, to return to CU. Wright, though, told the Pac-12 Networks this past week, “I don’t plan to sign with an agent or anything like that. I plan to keep my option open to come back.”

With Wright still running the point, the Buffs should still be a contender in the Pac-12 Conference and in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. He will be one of the top point guards in the nation, and he still will have plenty of weapons at his disposal in Evan Battey, D’Shawn Schwartz, and incoming freshman Dominique Clifford. Keeshawn Barthelemy, coming off his redshirt season, will give Boyle a bona fide backup at point guard and perhaps relieve some of the pressure on Wright.

Of course, the Buffs still will have to replace Bey’s 13.8 points and nine rebounds per game. Add the production from CU’s two seniors, Lucas Siewert and Shane Gatling, and it’s 28 points and about 15 rebounds off the ledger next season.

From this vantage, the points shouldn’t be an issue, and could be replaced with the classic team effort. Schwartz has the potential to average more than 9.8 points per game, and likely will do so with a little more consistency while avoiding prolonged slumps like the one that marred the end of his season. Battey averaged 8.9 points while shooting .526 from the floor, and he should get more opportunities in the post without Bey commanding the bulk of the paint touches. Even slight scoring improvement from guards Maddox Daniels and Eli Parquet, along with the addition of Clifford, Barthelemy, and Luke O’Brien, should cover the scoring.

The rebounding might be a bigger issue. Battey (5.9 rpg) once again will he counted upon to pick up some of that slack. One year further removed from his ACL surgery should allow 7-footer Dallas Walton to play a bigger role. And with at least two open scholarships for Boyle to work with this spring, expect one of them to go to a player with the potential to help the Buffs’ frontcourt immediately. The other open scholarship, plus the one possibly available with Bey’s spot, will allow Boyle a chance to start padding the depth of the 2021-22 roster.

Even without Bey, the Buffs should be an NCAA tourney contender next year. And if Bey returns? Well, maybe those visions can provide Buffs fans with a few top-20, quarantine daydreams to pass the time in the coming weeks.