Rooney: Aggressive moves show NCAA tourney goals unchanged for CU Buffs

Tad Boyle and staff uncover key recruits in spring cycle

Colorado’s Evan Battey drives on USC’s Onyeka Okongwu during the February 20, 2020 game in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It has only been one month since Colorado’s expected return to the NCAA Tournament was denied when it was canceled for the first time in college basketball history due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

Head coach Tad Boyle and his staff have not sat idly by while the world has been locked in their homes. In the wake of the departure of star forward Tyler Bey for the NBA draft, the Buffaloes’ aggressive approach to the spring recruiting cycle has revealed the program’s short-term goals.

Simply put, assuming, as expected, point guard McKinley Wright IV returns for his senior season, the Buffs have every intention of being part of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field in 2021.

While that certainly has been the stated goal for the Buffs throughout Boyle’s 10-season tenure, the reality is some years going to the Big Dance is far more feasible than others. Yet with a talented core still intact, and with a sizeable but probably manageable Bey-sized hole to fill in the rotation, Boyle and his staff understand a tournament window remains open for the current roster. The recent additions only reinforce that notion.

This past week, the Buffs received verbal commitments from a pair of talented forwards in 2020 four-star recruit Jabari Walker and Jeriah Horne, a graduate transfer from Tulsa. Both players, along with a possible third recruit, are expected to sign letters of intent when the spring signing period begins on Wednesday.

In the 6-foot-8 Walker, the Buffs add to an impressive 2020 rookie class already set to include Luke O’Brien, Dominique Clifford, and redshirt freshman Keeshawn Barthelemy. In Horne, the Buffs add a player who has been productive consistently for a winning team in a strong conference. Taken together, the Buffs may have landed a pair of players capable of immediately filling that Bey-sized hole.

It might be difficult to quantify what Bey, the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year, meant to the Buffs on defense, and certainly CU will be challenged to replace his versatile and athletic presence. Offensively, Bey accounted for 13.8 and 9.0 rebounds per game. Add to the equation the production of graduating seniors Lucas Siewert and Shane Gatling, and the Buffs will need to replace 28 points and about 15 rebounds from its rotation.

It might be a tall order for Horne and Walker to fill those numbers on their own, but they certainly have the potential to account for most of that void. Beyond the frontcourt additions, the Buffs still have a core more than capable of competing in a Pac-12 Conference that, at this juncture of the spring, features no clear-cut favorite. Wright should be the top point guard in the league and perhaps one of the best in the nation, and given he has never posted an assist-to-turnover rate better than 1.86 in his career, there remains a ceiling Wright still can reach.

The same can be said of fellow senior-to-be D’Shawn Schwartz, who showed he can be a huge difference-maker before he was beset by a crippling late-season slump. CU still will feature the rugged, emotional post play of Evan Battey. Eli Parquet once again looks to be part of a three-player rotation at the two-guard spot — with Clifford and Barthelemy replacing Gatling and Daylen Kountz — that should be more productive than the 2019-20 trio. It’s also not a stretch to think 7-footer Dallas Walton and bench shooter Maddox Daniels can produce more efficient seasons as well.

The Buffs eyed a run at the 2020 NCAA Tournament the minute the 2018-19 season ended in the quarterfinals of the NIT. Though that opportunity was denied the Buffs by forces beyond their control, this week’s moves show the goal remains unchanged.

“That’s why it was so disappointing to not have that opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament this year,” Boyle recently told BuffZone. “We just felt like this was a team that had the potential to do some damage and make a run, but we’ll never know that. We move on.”