It is a story Tad Boyle has recounted a few times in the past 11 or so months. Yet at no point did it it seem as relevant as the past few days.
Not long after the 2020-21 season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with the exodus of program mainstays like McKinley Wright IV, D’Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton approaching, Boyle met with the players slated to return in 2021-22.
It wasn’t a large gathering. Current seniors Evan Battey and Elijah Parquet suddenly were the elder statesmen. Surrounding them was a cast of extremely talented young players with little experience — Keeshawn Barthelemy, Jabari Walker, Tristan da Silva, Nique Clifford and Luke O’Brien.
Boyle understood the following season — this season — wouldn’t arrive with NCAA Tournament expectations. So CU’s leader offered a challenge disguised as an offer. Did they want to resign themselves to a rebuilding season? Or did they want to maintain and uphold the program’s competitive standards set by their predecessors?
The answer, overwhelmingly, was the latter. This past week, Boyle reminded his club of that meeting on the heels of a three-game losing streak that elicited adjectives like “pathetic” and “embarrassed” during Boyle’s postgame media sessions. It wasn’t the results that were as bothersome as how they went down, mistake-prone affairs filled with turnovers, poor shot selection, and a glaring lack of energy.
The Buffs ended the losing streak, and reset the tone, with a thorough all-around victory on Saturday, albeit against a short-handed Oregon State squad suffering through a nightmare season. CU gets an opportunity to regroup ahead of its next game at home on Saturday against Utah (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Boyle, who missed the first game of his career against Oregon due to COVID, admitted it was a challenge finding the right buttons to push upon returning to practice on Friday.
“I watched that (Oregon) game on TV last night, and I came in the next day in the office and talked to the staff…they said, ‘You know, we’re really fragile mentally right now.’ I said I understand that,” Boyle said after Saturday’s win, his 399th game as CU’s coach. “I think there’s a balance you’ve got to strike between not coming down on them too hard, because they’re a fragile group, but also challenging them.
“I told them after practice (Friday) they had not been doing that (upholding the standards). Just flat-out. The truth is something that you have to live in. If you live in a fantasy world, you don’t get any better. I wasn’t going to live in a fantasy world, so I did challenge them…it means something to wear this Colorado uniform now. It means something this program has standards and expectations that we have not been meeting here in the last two or three weeks. The guys responded to it.”
While an NCAA tournament bid at this point will likely require a stunning hot streak, or a championship run at the league tourney in Las Vegas, an NIT bid would be a commendable landing spot for a club that lost two talented freshmen in the preseason to season-ending injuries (Quincy Allen, Javon Ruffin), and lost two rotation players to season-ending injuries in the past few weeks in freshman Lawson Lovering and Parquet, who was a particularly jarring loss.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, CU (14-9, 6-7 Pac-12) still has work to do to land in the NIT field, but there are a number of favorable matchups down the stretch. At home, the Buffs face the Utes and Arizona State, as well as taking one final shot at a ranked foe in Arizona. Among the four road games, the date at Stanford will be a challenge, but the others are against the bottom three teams in the Pac-12 — Oregon State, Cal and Utah.
“We’re going to take two days off, which unusual obviously in the midst of a conference season,” Boyle said. “You’ve got to use it as a time to regroup mentally, physically. Guys who are dinged up, get in the training room. Get some rest, catch up on some sleep, get your academics in order. And we’ll come back on Tuesday and kind of get back to basics.”