A packed house at the CU Events Center witnessed a turning point for the Colorado men’s basketball team on Feb. 22, 2020. And for the most part, it’s a day Buffaloes fans don’t remember fondly.
The 18th-ranked Buffs were in the midst of one of the most successful seasons in program history when it all went awry against UCLA. A nine-point CU lead evaporated over the final 12-plus minutes, silencing that fervent, sold-out crowd in a defeat that began a five-game, season-ending losing streak.
Once the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament that late slide, fairly or not, became the lasting impression of coach Tad Boyle’s program until the Buffs put together a 2021 postseason run that included a berth in the Pac-12 Conference championship game and a first-round thumping of Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet that date might prove to be a momentous turning point for Boyle’s program that stretches well beyond an ill-timed losing streak. Taking advantage of a tweak to NCAA recruiting visit rules enacted that year, in the crowd that day were two high school juniors checking out CU’s campus just ahead of the pandemic shutdown — Wyoming 7-footer Lawson Lovering, and a talented wing from Washington D.C., Quincy Allen.
Both prospects soon committed to a 2021 CU recruiting class now ranked among the best in the nation. If all goes as planned, it’s a class that will eventually, and finally, lead the Buffs into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“Any time something new pops up, you’re not really sure how it’s going to play out, or how it’s going to help you,” CU associate head coach Mike Rohn said. “In that specific situation, it did help us. Getting them here is key. Getting them here at the right time is key. With Quincy, he could feel the fans and he could see the level of play. That helped a lot.”
It’s not often a program can replace a senior class featuring three 1,000-point scorers — McKinley Wright IV, D’Shawn Schwartz, and Tyler Bey, whose senior year scholarship ultimately still was used by another 1,000-point senior in graduate transfer Jeriah Horne — with a recruiting class expected to surpass those departing achievements. Yet that’s exactly what Boyle and his staff have managed with the Buffs’ incoming 2021 class.
Lovering (No. 61) and Allen (78) are top-100 recruits in the nation, according to 247Sports.com. So is KJ Simpson (87), the final piece of the class added last week after Simpson was released from his letter of intent at Arizona following the firing of Sean Miller. Rounding out the class are a pair of talented, three-star combo guards in 6-foot-5 Javon Ruffin, the son of former Cherry Creek star and NBA veteran Michael Ruffin, and current Cherry Creek two-sport star Julian Hammond.
Collectively, the Buffs’ 2021 recruiting class ended this week ranked at the top of the heap in the Pac-12 and No. 8 in the nation, two spots ahead of national champion Baylor. For a program like CU — featuring sustained success under Boyle, yet still off the beaten recruiting trail when compared to college basketball’s perennial blue bloods — expanding the recruiting horizons has provided an unexpected boost to Boyle’s foundational approach of developing young talent over multiple seasons.
“We just came up with the idea of, let’s use three to four visits per year on juniors, and let’s swing for the fences,” Boyle said. “A lot of schools right now, they’re looking at filling next year’s team. Well, next year’s team is pretty well set for us. So we can spend time on (2022) and even the following year. In the fall or even during the season, we can try to get juniors on campus and you’re kind of working a year ahead. And by working a year ahead, you might be able to get a guy like Quincy Allen interested in Colorado. Whereas if you wait until he’s a senior and you try to get involved with Quincy Allen, he might already be too far down the line in his recruitment where he doesn’t want to take a trip here.
“But as a junior it’s, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ That was kind of the idea. We’re not going to have 10 guys visit as juniors. It’s going to be three or four guys, and you’ve got to really vet them to make sure they’re really interested.”
Depending how one views the 2020 NCAA Tournament bid that was pending but never became reality, CU has earned an NCAA Tournament berth either six times in Boyle’s 11 seasons or five times in the 10 seasons in which tournaments were held. Bey, George King, Derrick White, Spencer Dinwiddie, Andre Roberson, and Alec Burks have become NBA draft picks under Boyle’s watch. Fans might be starved to see a deeper tournament run, and perhaps rightly so, but the track record is difficult to ignore when young prospects dig deeper into what the Buffs’ program has to offer.
“There’s more years of a trend there than it was when we first got here. It was a little tougher at that point than it is now,” Rohn said. “It’s still not easy by any means, but it has definitely helped us. Coach just has done such a good job in being consistent in how we recruit and who we recruit. There’s a lot to be said for carryover and sticking to your guns. You can tell when you talk to certain kids now they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys have been really good.’ The more they research, they see Derrick White and Spencer Dinwiddie and Alec Burks. They see the 20-win seasons and tournament berths.”
On June 1, the NCAA’s year-plus moratorium on recruiting trips and on-campus visits spurred by the coronavirus pandemic finally will expire. Boyle’s program has thrived while recruiting virtually, and the first key piece of the 2022 class already is in place with a verbal commitment from four-star forward Joe Hurlburt. Once the season rolls around, and the 2021 class is setting the foundation for its run together in Boulder, expect a few highly-touted high school juniors in the stands at key home games.
“Before the pandemic, I didn’t know what Zoom was. I think there’s a lot of people that can say that,” Boyle said. “It’s going to make us more efficient. We have to be smarter in how we’re using our recruiting dollars. Visits — official visits, unofficial visits, when they’re allowed — that’s not going to change and that’s always going to be important. I think there’s a pent-up demand from the prospects’ viewpoint. They want to be on campus. They want to go see universities. They want to see facilities. So that’s going to be back to normal.
“What’s going to change is that for me, instead of going to L.A. to see two or three kids, then fly to Dallas and see two or three more kids, then go to Kansas City to see two or three more, hopefully we’ll be able to do that partially virtually. But if you’re trying to do virtual recruiting, and your competition is recruiting in-person, you might be forced to do that. That’s going to be the interesting part of that equation.”