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Rooney: Senior departures not a sign of turmoil within CU Buffs men’s basketball

Wealth of young talent needs opportunity to grow

BOULDER, CO - Jan. 14, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – January 14, 2021: Colorado’s D’Shawn Schwartz shoots over Cal’s Joel Brown during the January 14, 2021 game in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

D’Shawn Schwartz put together the best CU Buffs careers this side of Josh Scott among the many native Coloradoans recruited during the 11-season tenure of head coach Tad Boyle.

Jeriah Horne made the program’s long wait for a graduate transfer extremely beneficial, ingratiating himself immediately with a veteran Buffs team while hitting countless big shots during an NCAA Tournament season.

And it was impossible not to root for Dallas Walton, the 7-footer from Arvada who overcame a world of injury adversity to provide a consistent post presence for the Buffs.

Schwartz was a 1,000-point scorer and one of the top 3-point shooters in program history. It will be difficult for fans to see him launching threes for one final season at George Mason. Same with Horne, who posted the seventh-best single-season 3-point mark in team history but will finish his nomadic career back at Tulsa, and Walton, who also is seeking a new home for his sixth and final season.

It’s tough to say farewell, but I’ll be honest. Some of the feedback I’ve received has been puzzling. A faction of Buffs fans seemingly believe this is a sign of some sort of inner turmoil within a program that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been stated in this corner before: The future is bright for the program, and the recent emotional departures simply are matters of the unique circumstances swirling around college basketball in 2021.

First of all, bear in mind the only reason Schwartz, Horne and Walton even have an opportunity to play another season is because the NCAA offered eligibility relief (essentially, a free year) for the pandemic season of 2020-21. Walton had hinted in previous years he might appeal for a sixth season of eligibility given his injury history, but the eligibility relief rendered that process unnecessary. In other years, Schwartz and Horne would be prepping for whatever pro opportunities awaited.

No one but Boyle and the players involved know exactly how the year-end meetings unfolded with CU’s leader, but having covered the program for six seasons it’s not difficult to surmise the gist of those conversations. Boyle certainly didn’t push anyone out of the program. But it’s unlikely Schwartz, Horne, and Walton would have been guaranteed the same roles if they opted to return.

Much of the future of the Buffs program was shackled to the bench this season in freshmen Jabari Walker, who turned in a few enticingly explosive performances as a rookie, Tristan da Silva, Nique Clifford, and Luke O’Brien. In particular, O’Brien and Clifford, bigger wings like Schwartz, enjoyed scant playing time.

The rest of the future of the program arrives this summer with a recruiting class currently ranked 13th in the nation by 247Sports.com. Among that class is a ready-made replacement for Schwartz in 6-foot-7, four-star wing Quincy Allen. It also includes Lawson Lovering, a sturdier, more polished 7-footer than Walton was when he arrived at CU.

If Boyle had bestowed the same roles next season upon the departing trio as they had in 2020-21, would the Buffs be a better team next year? Probably. But it would come with a price.

One needs to look no further than the roughly 1,100 basketball players currently seeking new homes in the transfer portal to understand how easily it is to alienate young talent. If Schwartz and Horne returned for their 24-plus minutes per game next year, O’Brien and Clifford likely would suffer the same lonely views from the bench. Same with Allen, who certainly was offered a chance to compete for a rotation spot as soon as he steps into the CU Events Center.

Recruits pay attention. If competition and playing time promises are broken, word will spread. CU’s recruiting is in a fantastic place at the moment, with a four-star commitment on the books for 2022 in 6-foot-10 Joe Hurlburt and two open scholarships still to work with this spring to bolster the 2021-22 team. Squeezing one more year out of the likes of Schwartz and Horne for what probably would be a marginal difference in the win column would be a heavy cost in terms of potentially turning off the young players aiming to keep CU Buffs basketball in the race for NCAA Tournament berths for years to come.

Goodbyes are never easy. Some are more difficult than others. Native Coloradoans Schwartz and Walton represented their state proudly. But the Buffs will march on just fine without them.