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Potential wasted: The most disappointing CU Buffs men’s basketball squads under Tad Boyle

Colorado head coach Tad Boyle will have to author a stunning turnaround for the Buffaloes to flip the script on the 2022-23 season. (AP Photo/John Hefti)
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle will have to author a stunning turnaround for the Buffaloes to flip the script on the 2022-23 season. (AP Photo/John Hefti)

The Colorado men’s basketball team is limping to the finish line.

That isn’t breaking news to anyone who has followed the Buffaloes this season. Yet for a program that has improved between November and February more often than not in 13 seasons under head coach Tad Boyle, the idea that Buffs fans are playing out the string in order to turn their attention to spring football seemed inconceivable when the season tipped off on Nov. 7.

Certainly, there is time, and opportunity, to rewrite the script on 2022-23. CU faces two Quad 1 road games this week, first at Arizona State on Thursday (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network) and again on Saturday at No. 11 Arizona. CU generally has played much better at home, and a team that usually rises up to knock off at least one ranked foe in Boulder nearly every year still gets a shot at No. 4 UCLA on Feb. 26 at the Events Center.

Still, the writing on the wall is starting to set. A Buffs team that is just 1-8 in true road games and that has won more than two games in a row just once all season will have to completely break the trends formed through the first 26 games in order to make a run.

Falling short of the NCAA Tournament is one thing. Being so far beyond NIT consideration at this point is quite another. This year’s bunch isn’t the most disappointing team in the Boyle era. But, being on track to be just the third Boyle team to fall short of both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, it’s in the conversation.

A look at the five most disappointing teams of the Boyle era:

1. 2016-17 (19-15, 8-10 Pac-12; No. 7 seed Pac-12 tournament)

The Derrick White team had all the ingredients in the starting five. A dynamic point guard in White. A sturdy small forward who could rebound and shoot in George King, winner of the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player award a season earlier. A defensive presence in the middle in Wesley Gordon. An experienced wing who could do a little of everything in Xavier Johnson. A 3-point shooter in Josh Fortune.

Overall, CU started four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior. White and King eventually were NBA draft picks. Yet the group never got on the same page, and was unable to win close games during a disastrous 0-7 start in Pac-12 play. Two of those losses occurred in overtime. Three others were by a combined eight points. The Buffs rallied enough to land an NIT berth but exited quickly in the first round at Central Florida.

2. 2014-15 (16-18, 7-11 Pac-12; No. 10 seed Pac-12 tournament)

Even this year’s team still has a chance to surpass the Boyle-era-low of 14 regular season wins posted by this group. Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson failed to fill Spencer Dinwiddie’s leadership void. Josh Scott missed eight games due to a back injury that limited him significantly when he did play. A run of six losses in seven games in the middle of league play doomed the Buffs to an appearance in the third-tier CBI postseason tournament.

3. 2022-23 (14-12, 6-9 Pac-12)

Maybe an NCAA Tournament run was too much to ask. But there is only one first-year player in the rotation (Javon Ruffin, a redshirt freshman) and there is far too much talent on the roster to reconcile what appears to be a likely bottom-third finish in the standings, barring a late and sudden turnaround. The Buffs have been dreadful at the free throw line for much of the season, hasn’t been able to win close games, and too many players counted on to make developmental steps have failed to do so. Early wins against Tennessee and Texas A&M stirred hope from a program that generally has improved from November to February under Boyle’s watch. This one has not.

4. 2017-18 (17-15, 8-10 Pac-12; No. 8 seed Pac-12 tournament)

This squad didn’t necessarily under-perform to expectations, but it also is one of only two Boyle-led CU teams prior to this season that fell short of at least the NIT. In this case, the lack of a postseason berth was balanced by a rookie class — McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton, with Evan Battey waiting in the wings in a redshirt season — that stirred confidence better seasons weren’t too far in the future.

5. 2013-14 (23-12, 10-8 Pac-12; No. 5 seed Pac-12 tournament)

The disappointing finish for this squad was more about circumstance than performance. A midseason knee injury robbed the Buffs of their best player in Dinwiddie, and twin blowouts to close the campaign  —  63-43 against Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals, then 77-48 against Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament — exposed a Buffs team that put up a good fight down the stretch but was unable to stop the momentum from slowly fizzling without Dinwiddie.