Rooney: Finals lull offers chance to examine hot-and-cold CU Buffs men’s basketball

Mixed results shouldn’t deter Buffs from big-picture goals

University of Colorado Boulder's Keeshawn Barthelemy ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado Boulder’s Keeshawn Barthelemy drives on Milwaukee’s Donovan Newby during the Dec. 10, 2021 game in Boulder.
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Given the beating his team has leveled upon the rims from 3-point range this year, Tad Boyle offered a premonition of sorts.

The only consistent production for the Colorado men’s basketball team is coming from the inside tandem of Jabari Walker and Evan Battey. Right now, no one else is shooting straight from beyond 15 feet. For Boyle, it’s easy to see what’s coming.

“It’s just a matter of time before the zone is coming to us,” Boyle said after his team was able to hold off Milwaukee on Friday night. “Somebody’s going to look at our 3-point numbers and say, OK, let’s zone these guys and make them make shots.”

Boyle applauded his team’s ability to win a game through its defense and rebounding. It’s the sort of blueprint that might count as the perfect early Christmas gift for Boyle. Yet with Friday’s victory, the Buffs officially passed the one-third mark of the schedule. Maybe it feels like more, since 18 of the 20 games remaining will be in a Pac-12 Conference race looking as if it might be a cluttered mess for teams not residing in Los Angeles or Tucson. But with finals week offering a lull, it’s a timely moment to examine a new-look Buffaloes squad that essentially has settled into a familiar rotation.

I reviewed my “things to watch” reports at the beginning of the preseason and the updated version published following the Buffs’ two preseason exhibition games. A common theme between them? CU’s need for a dependable 3-point shooter to emerge.

Obviously, that hasn’t happened. As Boyle noted in his postgame remarks on Friday, the Buffs have been wildly inconsistent across the board. Has CU played defense well enough to compete in the Pac-12? Yes, in spurts. Until the last three games the Buffs were vulnerable to opposing 3-point shooters, with four of their first seven foes making at least 10. In the past three games, though, including a loss against No. 13 Tennessee, CU has held its opponents to a .270 mark (20-for-74) from the arc.

Has the rebounding been strong enough? Most of the time, but the two games in which the Buffs were outrebounded were their two early Pac-12 games.

Offensively, the results offer the same vibe of tempered optimism. The Buffs’ overall turnover rate of 12.9 per game was tied for the 10th-most in the Pac-12 through Friday’s games, but more debilitating than the grand total has been CU’s habit of committing them in bunches, often scuttling the flow of an offense that already isn’t shooting well.

Even if the Buffs grow more consistent in all of the above — certainly a reasonable notion for a still-young rotation — none of it will matter if the Buffs can’t start finding the mark on 3-pointers. Given the Buffs’ abysmal 3-point mark of .299, their overall field goal percentage of .451 becomes all the more impressive.

That said, the idea the Buffs should simply punch the ball inside more frequently doesn’t add up. CU will have to connect from long range to keep defenses from collapsing. And, as Boyle predicted, it’s only a matter of time before a few zone defenses force the cold-shooting Buffs to fire away from three. If there is a sign of hope for Buffs fans watching their team lay a maddening succession of long-range bricks (3-for-15 against Milwaukee, 4-for-20 against Eastern Washington, 4-for-17 against Tennessee, 5-for-21 at UCLA) is that the team has run hot and cold before.

CU shot just (5-for-36) on 3-pointers in two preseason games, but roared out of the gate with a .460 mark (23-for-50) on 3s through the season’s first three games, all at home. Amid the recent slide was a reasonable 7-for-19 3-point showing in a home win against Stanford. The guess here is the Buffs will start finding the range again at home, even if there inevitably will be more rough nights on the road.

Boyle has pleaded patience with this team since the outset of the preseason. Yes, the Buffs fell short in recent top-15 games against UCLA and Tennessee, looking like a team nowhere near ready to compete against top national competition. So while an NIT bid feels like a far more reasonable goal, CU doesn’t have to be a top 15 team to get in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament.

Continued improvement was the big-picture goal for the Buffs. That hasn’t changed. Stick with that plan, and despite the uneven results of the season’s first five weeks, CU still very much can make things interesting in January and February.