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Rooney: NCAA tourney should be final destination for 2020-21 CU Buffs

Program on solid foundation going into Tad Boyle’s 11th season

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Although it hasn’t arrived in the manner anyone would have preferred, it is a uniquely exciting time for Colorado Buffaloes fans.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Pac-12 Conference’s delayed-then off-then on again approach to the football season, CU will kick off its season less than three weeks before the Buffs’ basketball teams do the same.

BOULDER, CO – October 14, 2020: Junior forward Evan Battey during Colorado’s first men’s basketball practice of the 2020-21 season (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

We’re already more than halfway through October, and still it will be another three weeks until the Karl Dorrell era begins against UCLA at Folsom Field. Yet with the football program facing a year of transition even in a best-case scenario this fall, and the women’s basketball team still attempting to set foundational traction under coach JR Payne, and with the Olympic sports programs facing a national asterisk season with some leagues competing right now and others (like the Buffs) waiting until January, there is only one CU program in position to make a splash nationally.

That would be coach Tad Boyle’s men’s basketball program.

Going into his 11th season with the Buffs — only Sox Walseth has coached more games at CU — there have been memorable seasons as well as disappointing ones. Yet perhaps none of those previous 10 seasons featured the swing of emotions authored by last season’s team, which spent more time in the AP top 25 than any team in CU history but left a tremendously sour taste amongst fans and within the program with a season-ending five-game losing streak. That slide was magnified when the Buffs, still in line for an NCAA Tournament bid, were denied that opportunity when the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the tournament.

The quest for redemption began this week as the Buffs opened preseason workouts. When asked about his decade-long tenure this week, Boyle was somewhat wistful in his recollections but remained enthusiastic about the state of the program. Particularly the prospects of an overdue NCAA tourney run come March.

“Now that I’ve been here 10 years, going into year 11, I look back, there’s obviously been some things you’re really, really proud of. But I just feel like there’s so much unfinished business to do,” Boyle said. “We’ve only won one NCAA Tournament game. I look at it like we’ve been to five of them. I know technically we’ve only been to four. But I feel like there’s so much room for improvement, not just getting to the NCAA Tournament but advancing once we get there. That’s really the next step for the program and that’s something I’m focused on. I’d like that to start this year.

“But I also know that the foundation of this program moving forward…when I look at that freshman class out on the floor and I see the guys that are coming in next year, the foundation is set for the foreseeable future of a lot more hopefully tournaments, and deep runs in tournaments.”

To be clear, this is not a tourney-or-bust season for Boyle. In the cash-strapped, pandemic world of college athletics, the stability, general competitiveness, and relative affordability Boyle provides have become even greater assets. Never mind how this year’s freshman class, combined with the prospects set to arrive next season, has the Buffs on track to be competitive even after the McKinley Wright IV-led 2017 class finally filters through Boulder.

However, barring catastrophic injuries, falling short of an NCAA tourney bid would be as disappointing for this group as last year’s late-season swoon. Granted, Tyler Bey is gone and likely to hear his name in next month’s NBA draft. Yet Wright remains one of the top point guards in college basketball while still having room for improvement. Evan Battey should be able to pick up some of Bey’s scoring and rebounding void as the new primary option in the post. Dallas Walton is another year removed from his latest ACL surgery, and senior D’Shawn Schwartz has something to prove after a rough finish to what otherwise was a strong season.

Moreover, the Buffs should be deeper than ever. In a normal year, CU’s four true freshmen — Dominique Clifford, Luke O’Brien, Jabari Walker, and Tristan da Silva — would have to battle for minutes in a rotation that might be eight-deep without them. Strictly from a numbers standpoint, one or more might have been forced into a redshirt situation. Yet thanks to the eligibility relief approved by the NCAA this week for winter sports athletes, Boyle can use any of them at his discretion without burning an entire year of eligibility.

Get excited for that Nov. 7 football kickoff. I am. But for Buffs fans wanting to see one of their teams compete for national attention, that date to circle is Nov. 25 when CU opens its 2020-21 slate against South Dakota State.