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Rooney: Vegas trip could provide solid gauge to state of CU Buffs men’s basketball

Buffs struggled against only ranked foe so far, but also have been shorthanded

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BOULDER, CO - Dec. 16, 2020:Colorado's ...
BOULDER, CO – December 16, 2020:Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV looks for room on Omaha’s Matt Pile. The Colorado Buffaloes played the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks in Boulder on December 16, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The Colorado football team was rewarded for its unexpectedly outstanding season by being unceremoniously sidelined by the Pac-12 Conference during the league’s climactic week.

The Buffaloes’ men’s basketball team, meanwhile, in many ways is just getting started. And despite the somewhat uneven results through the bulk of the Buffs’ nonconference schedule, there remains a very viable chance coach Tad Boyle’s club can keep the good vibes rolling for Buffs fans well after the football team’s likely bowl date is filed in the CU history book.

On Sunday, CU takes on Washington in Las Vegas in what will be the de facto start of the Pac-12 Conference schedule. While it will be played as a nonconference contest, the Buffs’ second Vegas date on Tuesday against Grand Canyon is the final scheduled nonconference game of the season. After Christmas, the Buffs dive headlong into the league schedule with three demanding road dates — at Arizona, USC, and UCLA — in six days.

The Las Vegas sojourn offers a timely, if imperfect, time to assess the state of Boyle’s Buffs with Pac-12 play on the horizon. And, as always with these Buffs, it begins with senior point guard McKinley Wright IV.

Through five games in which the Buffs have persevered through unexpected coronavirus-spurred personnel issues, Wright has been the glue.

In the extremely early sample size, CU’s floor general is on pace for a career year in his final season with the Buffs. A career 13.8 points-per-game scorer entering the season, Wright goes into the Washington game averaging 17.6 points while setting a career-high shooting pace from the field (.648), 3-point range (.467), and free throw line (.846).

It has been stated in this corner before that a point guard of Wright’s caliber can most help the Buffs if he keeps his assist-to-turnover rate at 2.0 or above. Yet that has been an elusive marker for Wright, whose best single-season assist-to-turnover rate was the 1.86 mark he recorded as a freshman. He is setting a torrid pace in that category so far this year, going into the UW game with 29 assists against 10 turnovers. In the Buffs’ home wins against Northern Colorado and Omaha this past week, he totaled 15 assists with only one turnover.

Of course, UNC and Omaha aren’t Arizona, USC, and UCLA. Or even Washington and Grand Canyon, for that matter. The only game in which Wright suffered more turnovers than assists — four assists with five turnovers in a Dec. 8 loss at then-No. 12 Tennessee — more closely resembled the sort of competition the Buffs will face regularly in Pac-12 play. But CU also was shorthanded in that game in Knoxville, and therein lies the reason it is difficult to assess the Buffs.

The migraine issue that kept freshman Tristan da Silva sidelined against Omaha notwithstanding, the Buffs’ home wins against UNC and the Mavericks marked the first time CU has been at full strength this season. In early December the Buffs suffered a 48-hour program shutdown, and practice time (along with participants) was compromised for the better part of a week. During that loss at Tennessee, the Buffs played without starting guard Eli Parquet while senior D’Shawn Schwartz had a rusty season debut after missing the first two games due to a positive COVID-19 test. Schwartz provided an encouraging return to form against Omaha, going 2-for-2 on 3-pointers with 11 points.

In the season’s first three games, the Buffs played shorthanded. With the full complement of players available against UNC and Omaha, CU looked like the team that was ranked for more weeks last year in the AP Top 25 than any other Buffs team in program history.

The jury, obviously, still is out on this Buffs team. Will they struggle against better competition, as they did at Tennessee? Or is it a team still meshing on the floor after the early personnel matters?

That’s why the Vegas trip might provide a great measuring stick for CU. Washington and Grand Canyon are better than UNC and Omaha, but still a few steps below the top squads in the Pac-12. Assuming there are no further unexpected coronavirus setbacks, Buffs fans should have a better gauge of what this team might be when that trio of tough road dates arrives on the other side of Christmas.