After top-15 losses, time to regroup for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Tennessee, UCLA expose flaws on both ends of floor

University of Colorado Boulder's Luke O'Brien ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado Boulder’s Luke O’Brien plays defense on Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi on Dec. 4, 2021.
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The past week was billed as an early litmus test for the new-look Colorado men’s basketball team.

It began with a home date against Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference opener, followed by tests against two top-15 teams — first on the road at No. 5 UCLA, then at home against No. 13 Tennessee.

If the goal was to set out and learn just what this Buffaloes team is all about, the result wasn’t encouraging. And after Saturday’s humbling 69-54 loss against the Volunteers, it became clear the Buffs aren’t yet ready to make a possible NCAA Tournament push.

That can change quickly, of course. Particularly with an 18-game ledger still remaining in Pac-12 play along with another shot at a nationally-ranked foe at home on Dec. 21 against Kansas. But nearly a full month into the season, the 2021-22 Buffs have yet to form an identity, or develop even one consistent strength the team can lean upon from game to game.

When the Buffs reconvene for practice on Monday ahead of a Wednesday home game against Eastern Washington (6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), there will be no shortage of talking points for head coach Tad Boyle and his staff.

“We’ve got to get better,” CU senior forward Evan Battey said. “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get tougher. We’ve got to get more team oriented, share the ball. It’s both sides, offense and defense. Be more team defenders and share the ball on offense and not turn it over. It’s little things. I don’t think we’re so far away. I think we’re just a little bit away.

“We play good in stretches. I need us, this program…to play for all 40 minutes. Not just there and there. All 40. We’re going to try and do that this week.”

A program that has prided itself on defense has rarely put the clamps down through the season’s first nine games.

Tennessee posted a .475 overall mark against the Buffs despite going 6-for-24 from 3-point range. That was due in large part to Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler getting to the rim with ease and finishing 13-for-20. Junior guard Santiago Vescovi also took advantage of wide-open looks in a 5-for-5 showing.

Two of the top three shooting performances by a CU opponent have occurred over the past three games (Stanford’s .500 mark was the best this season by a Buffs’ foe; UCLA’s .466 was fourth, behind Montana State’s .478 in the opener and the Vols). Even with Tennessee’s struggles from long range on Saturday, CU’s past six opponents still have shot .357 from the arc.

The Buffs have struggled offensively as well. CU shot a season-low .345 against Tennessee and has reached the 45% mark just once over the past five games (.491 against Stanford). Developing a consistent threat from 3-point range was one of the preseason challenges for CU after losing D’Shawn Schwartz and Jeriah Horne, and no one has filled the void yet.

After lighting it up from the arc in the season’s first three games, all at home (23-for-50, .460), CU has shot just .253 on 3-pointers (25-for-99) in the six games since. Those have been equal-opportunity 3-point struggles, with the Buffs shooting errantly on neutral floors (.214 in three games at the Paradise Jam) on the road (5-for-21 at UCLA), and at home (.305 against Stanford and Tennessee).

“The last six times a ranked team has been in this building, they’ve gone away with a loss. So it’s not like we expect something of ourselves we haven’t done before,” Boyle said. “But this group hasn’t done it before. And this group has to understand their offense is not going to win us games. It won us a game against Stanford. But it didn’t win us a game (against Tennessee) and it wasn’t even close. So you’d better hang your hat on something else.

“We’ve got no identity right now and that’s an issue. That’s a problem. We better figure that out over the next two and a half, three weeks.”