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Rooney: Tad Boyle has CU Buffs reaching new plateaus

In program-defining win, CU coach leaves party to players

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 20: Head coach Tad Boyle of the Colorado Buffaloes calls to his team in the first round game against the Colorado Buffaloes in the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 20, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – MARCH 20: Head coach Tad Boyle of the Colorado Buffaloes calls to his team in the first round game against the Colorado Buffaloes in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 20, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — With a wave to the loud and jubilant Colorado faithful, Buffaloes men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle sauntered off to the locker room and left the partying to everyone else.

While his players celebrated, waiting for team leader McKinley Wright IV to complete his network TV interview while getting serenaded with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” from those same giddy Buffs fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Boyle looked as if CU had just posted a ho-hum early nonconference win instead of one that should shut the mouths of his most fervent critics permanently.

Eleven seasons into a tenure that eventually will be remembered as the greatest era in the history of Colorado basketball, Boyle collected arguably the most important win of the 233 he has earned on the Buffs’ sideline with CU’s thorough 96-73 dismantling of Georgetown on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

In Boyle’s fifth NCAA Tournament appearance as CU’s leader, the Buffs are in the second round for the second time, and the first time since the initial tourney appearance of 2012. They are one win from the program’s first appearance in the Sweet 16. And if they play anywhere close to how they played against Georgetown — even assuming Florida State won’t provide D’Shawn Schwartz and Jabari Walker looks from the arc like a Hoyas defense content to let the Buffs fire away as if it was a shoot-around — CU’s long road trip that began when they set out for Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament will be extended at least another week.

In six seasons covering this program, I’ve noticed one consistent theme. Judging by my Twitter feed and email inbox, there hasn’t been a single loss during that span that can be attributed to anything else but the coaching of Boyle. News flash: Sometimes you lose to better teams. Sometimes shots don’t go down. And sometimes, like during Saturday’s thumping of Georgetown, everything just clicks.

Recently I was asked on a local radio show if this Buffs program had reached a plateau under Boyle. It’s been the common debate in recent seasons as that most recent tourney season of 2016 fades further into the background. For all the 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances recorded at an unprecedented pace under Boyle, critics point to the lack of a top-four finish in the Pac-12 and the accompanying bye in the league tournament. That drought ended this year. Critics point to three first-round NCAA Tournament losses as if Colorado is Duke or Kansas. Never mind how the 2014 team went into the tournament without its best player, Spencer Dinwiddie. Or how the 2016 team simply didn’t have the guard play of this year’s Buffs. Yet that drought ended Saturday.

And before anyone points out the Buffs lost that Pac-12 title game last week, please stop. Did the Buffs play their best that night? Certainly not. But Oregon State was (is) hot. And if forward Jeriah Horne goes 1-for-5 on 3-pointers instead of a completely uncharacteristic 0-for-5 from 3-point range, or if a team that led the nation in free throw shooting at a record-setting pace for much of the season doesn’t suddenly go 12-for-20, it would’ve been the Buffs cutting down the nets in Vegas.

That’s not coaching. That’s basketball.

Boyle’s impressive coaching moves this postseason have run the gamut. There have been subtle Xs-and-Os maneuvers, like the sequence coming out of a late timeout in the first round of the Pac-12 tourney that saw Schwartz posting up Cal star Matt Bradley, recording a key 3-point play that also got the Bears’ best player fouled out of the game. There have been insightful philosophical directives as well. How many coaches advise their team to loosen up the intensity and have a little more fun, as Boyle implored his troops between that Pac-12 title game loss and Saturday’s rout?

This is not a program that has hit a plateau. There is a talented freshman class that, beyond the explosive Walker, has barely gotten off the bench this year. A recruiting class that has the talent to replace the 2017 class (Schwartz, McKinley Wright IV, Evan Battey, Tyler Bey) as the best in program history arrives this summer.

And the Buffs still have a chance to reach a new plateau on Monday.