The Colorado men’s basketball team makes its official return to the floor on Wednesday. No doubt, the Buffaloes expect to be a team on a mission.
When CU fans last saw coach Tad Boyle’s club, a frustrating finish to the 2019-20 season had abruptly magnified. On March 11, the Buffs lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament for the first time, suffering a listless 14-point setback against Washington State that was CU’s fifth defeat in a row.
The Buffs still were on track for an opportunity at redemption with a likely NCAA Tournament berth, but when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament, the Buffs could do little more than simmer in disappointment and second-guess all that went wrong down the stretch.
On Wednesday, the Buffs will go through their first preseason practice for the 2020-21 season as a much different team. Gone are steady senior Lucas Siewert, possible 2020 NBA first-round pick Tyler Bey, and two rotation guards in Shane Gatling (graduated) and Daylen Kountz (transferred to Northern Colorado). In their place are four true freshmen in addition to Tulsa graduate transfer Jeriah Horne and redshirt freshman guard Keeshawn Barthelemy.
There will be new faces in pivotal roles, and like any team the Buffs’ postseason fortunes will be bolstered by consistent contributions from role players like Horne, Barthelemy, Eli Parquet, Maddox Daniels, and Dallas Walton. However, it is the Buffs’ three most experienced players — McKinley Wright IV, D’Shawn Schwartz, and Evan Battey, the remaining pieces from CU’s solid 2017 freshman class — who must lead the way if CU hopes to erase last spring’s forgettable ending.
Boyle often says good teams need seniors to play like seniors. Here is how CU’s leading trio can get that done.
Battey on the block
With Bey getting ready for the NBA draft, Battey becomes the primary option when the Buffs look to get the ball down low. Battey alone will not be able to replace Bey’s nine rebounds per game, but he could take a big chunk out of that void by challenging for a rebounding total closer to double figures than the 5.9 per game he averaged last year. More scoring opportunities for Battey won’t be a bad thing for the Buffs if he can maintain the .526 shooting percentage he posted last year. A fourth-year junior, Battey was an improved interior defender last year and is the Buffs’ emotional sparkplug. He needs to be a double-double threat every night.
No individual player epitomized the up-and-down fortunes of the Buffs last year more than Schwartz. Through the start of Pac-12 play, Schwartz was threatening to make a run at CU’s single-season 3-point percentage record, and his buzzer-beater in overtime that toppled Dayton was the Buffs’ shot of the year. But Schwartz cooled off in February and struggled mightily down the stretch, going 2-for-19 on 3-pointers over the final five games.
Boyle likely will be able to live with some of the hot-and-cold shooting if Schwartz can fine-tune other aspects of his game. Schwartz is an excellent free throw shooter but attempted only six over the final seven games last season. Schwartz has posted a solid assist-to-turnover rate of 1.25 over the past two seasons but has averaged just 1.3 assists per game during that span. Boyle has always implored the 6-foot-7 Schwartz to be a bigger factor on the glass, yet he enters his senior season with a career rebounding average of just 3.1 per game.
The shots will fall for Schwartz. If he becomes a more consistent presence on the glass and more proficient on offense, the Colorado Springs native will leave CU on the heels of a career year.
Raising a new ceiling
Wright has evolved from good to great. It always is a bigger hurdle to grow from great into superstar status.
Wright’s challenge is unique, as he essentially has been the same player for three seasons. That’s not a knock on the 6-foot point guard, as that level has been good enough to collect two first team All-Pac-12 honors while becoming just the second player in CU history (after Donnie Boyce) to collect at least 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, and 400 assists in his career. He is on pace to shatter Jay Humphries’ career assists record.
Yet Wright has never posted an assist-to-turnover rate of 2.0 (his best was a 1.86 mark as a freshman) and is a career .337 shooter from 3-point range. Former Oregon guard Payton Pritchard found a way to elevate his game last year as a senior. If Wright can challenge for a 2-to-1 mark on assists-to-turnovers while keeping his 3-point percentage over 35 percent, he will do the same and, more importantly, the Buffs will be primed for an NCAA tourney run.