It took only a few practices for Tad Boyle to realize his program had stumbled upon a pretty good point guard in McKinley Wright IV.
By the time the Buffaloes played their first game with Wright running the show, Boyle also understood his Buffaloes program had just added a unique sort of leader.
Wright had been 19-years old for only 16 days when he made his first start for CU on Nov. 10, 2017. One hundred and 28 games and more than 1,800 points later, Wright has left an indelible mark on the Buffs program during his four seasons in Boulder.
However, one milestone, perhaps the most significant in all of college basketball, has eluded Wright and his teammates.
As a freshman and sophomore, CU simply wasn’t ready, though an encouraging run at the end of that sophomore season offered hope the Wright-led Buffs soon would get over the hump. And indeed they did a year ago, but college basketball’s biggest stage was denied the Buffs when that stage vanished amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, the opportunity Wright has coveted since joining Colorado as a late signee four years ago is at hand, as he and his teammates will make their NCAA Tournament debuts on Saturday in Indianapolis as the fifth-seeded Buffs face 12th-seeded Georgetown (10:15 a.m. MT, CBS).
“I’m just so excited. Excited for me and my guys and the coaching staff,” Wright said. “We worked so hard this year. We had a chance to go dancing last year and that was ended because of COVID. This year, we sacrificed so much. We sacrificed all our free time, all the time hanging out with our friends at CU, just so we could play ball this season. And it’s paying off.
“We got a chance to play in our conference championship. Obviously that didn’t go our way. We didn’t play our best ball. We talked about it. We moved on past it. And we’re ready to make a run in the tournament.”
A star is born
The Buffs signed Wright in late April of 2017, just a few weeks shy of his high school graduation. Boyle was in need of a point guard after one season of having first-round NBA draft pick Derrick White running the show. Wright was in need of a new home after he was released from the letter of intent at Dayton in the wake of coach Archie Miller leaving for Indiana.
Boyle handed the keys to the offense to Wright immediately, yet even as he turned 19 during that first preseason, Wright displayed a knack for leadership beyond his experience. Earlier this year, Boyle recounted a story of how Wright came to his office during that preseason to express his willingness to accept his role if Boyle instead wanted to start then-senior Dom Collier at point guard.
On the floor, it took all of three games for Wright to show Buffs Nation his will to win. Playing Quinnipiac in the third game of the season and the opening game of the Paradise Jam in Virginia, the Buffs were trailing by two points in the waning seconds when Wright collected the defensive rebound off a missed Quinnipiac free throw, brought the ball up the floor, and calmly knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer.
That shot caromed up over the front of the rim, hanging in midair as the buzzer sounded before falling through. These days barely surviving for a win against Quinnipiac would be cause for concern, not jubilation. Yet in retrospect, the celebration that swarmed Wright on that floor at Liberty University might have been as much about securing a dramatic win as saying hello to a new era of Buffs basketball.
“I think the first big game of his was at the (Paradise Jam) tournament. That’s when I first noticed that McKinley Wright is the real deal,” said senior center Dallas Walton. “Ever since then, as everybody has seen, he’s improved and he’s gotten so much better. Playing alongside a guy like that, who can get points himself but also looks to get his teammates involved and make them better. It’s rare you get to play with guys like that.
“Spending so much time with him on and off the court I’ve gotten to know him really well. He’s a class act guy. I can’t say enough positive things about him. Not only does he help guys on the court, but off the court, when we’re talking basketball or after a game, he’ll tell you ‘Hey you can finish that,’ or tell you you’re a good player and you have to have confidence. He’ll build confidence. It gives you confidence to step up and hit a big shot when he’s diming guys out. He’s just a special, special player.”
And with that shot against Quinnipiac, the legend of McKinley Wright IV began.
Wright is the Buffs’ all-time assists leader. He ranks sixth in scoring and will finish among the all-time top 10 in games played, games started, field goals, and made 3-pointers. He has a chance to do the same in steals and career free throw percentage.
That’s a well-rounded list. The missing piece is that NCAA Tournament appearance, which finally happens Saturday. It’s the moment Wright has been waiting for since Boyle abandoned a quick vacation in Mexico to fly to Minnesota to court a suddenly available point guard. If there is any pressure in finally having the opportunity to fulfill the vision shared by coach and player in that fateful meeting, Wright is confident he won’t feel it when the ball is tipped at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“For me, there’s no nerves and no jitters. I’m accustomed to being in big games,” Wright said. “I like playing in big games. It’s nothing really new for me. I’ve been thrown in the spotlight at a young age, always playing in the state championships and conference championships and stuff like that. It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.
“So there’s no nerves for me. I’m just going to go out there and be me. Try to make plays for my teammates and myself. Be aggressive on the defensive end. And just accept the challenge. This opportunity is here, and I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m going to leave it all out there.”