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Regaining defensive edge a key priority of CU men’s basketball preseason

Buffs’ defense faltered alongside shooting touch down the stretch last season

Colorado’s Jabari Walker

When reviewing the season-ending losing streak that derailed an otherwise promising season for the Colorado men’s basketball team in February and March, the focus often centers on the Buffaloes’ floundering offense.

And with good reason, as the Buffs’ shooting touch went ice cold down the stretch. Yet after performing as one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12 Conference throughout much of the 2019-20 season, the Buffs’ defensive prowess also abandoned them over the final weeks of the season.

Defense always has been a pillar of coach Tad Boyle’s program as he gets set to enter his 11th season at CU. Given the defensive lapses that exposed the Buffs at crunch time last season and the glut of newcomers experiencing Boyle’s defense-first approach for the first time, it has taken an even greater priority during the preseason.

“I think last year we had some guys that were feeling sorry for themselves on offense and it was affecting their defense,” Boyle said. Then you get into what I call the ‘toilet swirl.’ There ain’t no way out, you’re going down.”

Indeed, the Buffs went down the tubes late last season. Yet while CU’s shooting woes certainly were a culprit during the culminating slide — CU shot .231 (27-for-117) on 3-pointers during the five-game losing streak after posting a .375 mark from the arc to that point — the defense also failed to pick up the slack.

In the deflating loss against UCLA in the home finale that began CU’s losing streak, the Bruins shot .563 in the second half to turn the Buffs’ three-point halftime lead into a seven-point loss. In a loss at Cal, a Bears team that finished with a season mark of just .335 on 3-pointers went 9-for-20 (.450) against the Buffs. The losing streak was capped by perhaps the most frustrating defensive effort of them all in the Pac-12 tournament against Washington State, which shot 70 percent in the second half and finished with a 10-for-21 mark on 3-pointers.

“We just preach it every day. We work on it every day,” Boyle said. “We work on guarding the ball every day. We work on our ball-screen defense every day. We’re just emphasizing it and, again, it comes back to a mindset. The mindset is ‘What can you do to help your team win when you’re not scoring the ball?’ Last year, we had a lot of guys that weren’t shooting the ball in the basket at the end of the year. It puts a lot of pressure on your defense. And if your defense isn’t able or ready to pick up that load, it’s not a good sign for your team.

“We’re not necessarily a pressing team, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be an aggressive half-court defensive team and create offense with our defense. And the only way you do that is by dictating your will on the game, putting pressure on the ball and causing the other team to turn the ball over and maybe create some stuff with your defense. We weren’t able to do that last year. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that at times this year. But it really gets back to a mindset.”

Although the Buffs lost Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Bey, who was picked in the second round (36th overall) of Wednesday’s NBA draft, point guard McKinley Wright IV has earned consecutive Pac-12 All-Defensive team accolades. Veterans Evan Battey and D’Shawn Schwartz have improved each season as individual defenders, and junior guard Eli Parquet boasts all-defensive team potential.

The challenge will be to turn all that defensive potential into results.

“I think that’s the aspect of connectedness and communication that we’ve really been working on this year,” Schwartz said. “That’s been one of our issues in the past, the lack of communication on the floor. A lot of breakdowns we’d have, guys missing assignments, things like that. But everybody is kind of stepping into more of an ownership and leadership role, telling guys where they need to be. It’s really helped us on the defensive end.”