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Mental toughness a key component of turbulent season for CU men’s basketball

Buffs rolling with punches with season three weeks away

Colorado's Evan Battey during men's basketball practice. (Courtesy photo/Colorado Sports Information)
Colorado’s Evan Battey during men’s basketball practice. (Courtesy photo/Colorado Sports Information)

The Colorado Buffaloes aren’t the only team in college basketball that has dealt with an improbable, and certainly unpredictable, level of off-court adversity since March.

Exactly how well coach Tad Boyle’s Buffs handle the mental toughness factor off the floor in 2020-21 might define the team’s success as much anything they achieve on the floor.

“We’ve definitely been tested,” CU fourth-year junior Evan Battey said. “But I feel like we’ve done an unbelievable job being mentally tough already. Staying focused, staying locked-in on the end goal. I think we’ve been able to stay mentally tough.”

The Buffs have been forced to remain mentally tough since March.

Not only was an otherwise memorable season derailed by a late five-game losing streak, culminating in the program’s first first-round loss in nine appearances at the Pac-12 tournament, but any chance of redemption ended when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, the Buffs, like everyone else, have had to roll with the coronavirus punches. For Boyle’s club, that meant limited small-group summer workouts and a two-week spell in late September and early October during which Boulder County Public Health ordered all 18 to 22 year-olds in Boulder to avoid group gatherings. The Buffs still are trying to do their part to make sure the season unfolds as seamlessly as possible, with Battey saying there have been plenty of stay-at-home battles in cards and dominoes amongst the Buffs of late.

Yet the hits kept coming this week. The Buffs still are tentatively scheduled to open the season on college basketball’s opening night on Nov. 25, but as of now CU has no opponent, with South Dakota State dropping out of the multi-team event set for Kansas State.

“One thing I don’t ever want to do is take our players for granted in how they’ve handled themselves during this pandemic,” Boyle said. “How resilient they have been. How disciplined they have been and how much they’ve sacrificed with their social lives. Just being a college student. It’s not as much fun as it normally is for them. I just go back to this summer when we couldn’t be together and how devastating that was for our players. This is something that they love to do and they’ve been doing their whole lives. They’ve been preparing themselves for this opportunity. To show the resilience and the grit and the toughness says a lot about them as young men.”

Battey already has established himself as perhaps the biggest emotional leader on the team, yet his voice might become even more important as the Buffs continue navigating the unsettled waters of the 2020-21 season. Battey, of course, has endured far more travails than his teammates, from missing his senior season of high school in California due to an eligibility ruling to the stroke he suffered as a true freshman that nearly ended his CU career before it truly began. By his own admission, Battey’s energy level was not at peak level during Wednesday’s practice, and it offered the 6-foot-8 forward another reminder of just how critical it is for him to set the proper tone on a roster full of impressionable youngsters.

“I can see it manifesting in multiple ways. (Wednesday) I had a not-so energetic day on the floor and it really affected my team,” Battey said. “It’s my responsibility to bring that same energy everyday and to bring that level of toughness. I’ll have it tomorrow. I see my energy affect all other people’s energy on the floor. When I have that high energy, I see it manifest into our team having high energy.”

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