When you hear talk of the Pac-12 heading into the 2013-14 season, you hear about Arizona and Oregon for good reason as Sean Miller and Dana Altman have their respective on the nation’s conscience. Then people talk about the changes that have taken place in Los Angeles. UCLA was able to lure Steve Alford out a shiny new 10-year contract at New Mexico to replace Ben Howland. The Trojans of USC also hired a new head man and if you watched any of the NCAA Tournament you surely heard all about him (and his supermodel wife) and his Florida Gulf Coast Eagles as they were the talk of the tournament. Andy Enfield has taken his talents to LA to try and turnaround the Trojans.
But much like I wrote about Virginia earlier this month, there is a team that is flying under the radar that deserves some attention when talking about the Pac-12. In two years in the conference this team has 45 wins, 2 NCAA bids and a Pac-12 Tournament title but yet the Colorado Buffaloes seem like they are the kid on the playground trying to squeeze their way into the “cool kids” inner circle.
Colorado’s rise to not just a good basketball team but a good basketball program begins with 4th-year head coach Tad Boyle. Boyle, who resurrected the Northern Colorado program and led the Bears to the school’s first-ever post season appearance in 2010 was named to take the reins in Boulder in April of that year. In his first year (and the team’s final year in the Big 12) Boyle led the team to a school record 24 wins and a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals where the fell to Alabama 62-61.
In 2011-12 Colorado moved to the Pac-12. Facing a new set of foes and the challenges of adjusting to a new league Boyle and the Buffaloes put their new counterparts on notice by matching the prior season’s 24 wins and capturing the Pac-12 Conference Tournament Championship in the process. The Buffs then upset UNLV in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to #3 Baylor in the 3rd round.
Last season the team finished 21-12 earning themselves a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament making Boyle the first Colorado coach to lead his team to three consecutive post season appearances. The Buffs once again proved they were no afterthought in the league sweeping Oregon and splitting with California and Arizona in the regular season.
Boyle had also produced two NBA first-round draft picks in his short time at Colorado. Andre Roberson was drafted by Minnesota and then traded to Oklahoma City. The junior forward finished the season 2nd in the country in rebounding, grabbing 11.2 boards per gam and Alec Burks led the team with 20.5 points per game during their run to the NIT semifinals.
Despite all that success and Boyle turning Boulder into a basketball school, 26 of the school’s 45 wins during the last two years have come at home the team still isn’t mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA.
Ask junior guard Askia Booker about all that talk and he says, “to be honest, it wouldn’t even matter to me, once you get out on that court none of that matters, all that goes out the window. We are taking it day by day, practice by practice.”
Boyle has been a huge part of Colorado’s resurgence as a basketball school. Booker says, “You could say he’s meant everything really. He’s shared his philosophies with the players and they’ve bought in and I think he’s changed the program all the way around.”
So entering their third campaign in the Pac-12 Colorado feels they have the right mix of experience, youth and depth to break through and look to be a perennial contender in the league. Replacing the production of Roberson on the boards might be the Buffs biggest task but Boyle has plenty of options, and young ones at that available to him. Sophomores Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson combined for over 19 points and 10.5 rebounds per game as freshmen. Redshirt freshmen Wesley Gordon and Chris Jenkins add some depth to the frontcourt. In addition to that quartet freshmen George King, Dustin Thomas and talented wingman Tre’Shaun Fletcher could all make contributions up front.
Booker says the two guys he is most excited to see are the redshirt freshmen Gordon and Jenkins. “They’re both very athletic very talented basketball players that are going to balance and stretch the floor. They can also go get the ball at the rim and dunk it.”
One of the most important dynamics in having a good team is a strong backcourt, and in a league loaded with good guards Colorado boasts a junior duo as good as any. Spencer Dinwiddie and Booker are not only returning as the team’s leading scorers they are also the most experienced Buffs to see the floor for Tad Boyle. As freshmen the guards were thrown right into the fire in Boulder both averaging over 20 minutes a game while combining for over 19 points, six rebounds and three assists. Last season they were given the keys to the car and Colorado was rewarded for it getting 27.7 points and 5.2 assists from Booker and Dinwiddie.
Booker calls Dinwiddie, “one of the best guards in the country, at least from my perspective. We don’t butt heads too much, we’re always usually on the same page, which is really good for our team, and that’s something we’ve been working on day-by-day since we got back to school.”
This season Colorado is not backing down during the non-conference portion of their schedule. They kick off the season with a game against Baylor in Dallas, they host a very good Harvard team and have battles with former Big XII foes Kansas and Oklahoma State, all before Christmas.
The Buffaloes will have their mettle tested before conference play, but that is just the first step in having another successful season for Booker and his teammates. The key to another successful season for Colorado is simple for Booker , “defend and rebound” he said succinctly.