Hoops fans, basketball season is rapidly approaching and the motto of the 2009 Colorado Buffaloes men’s team is simple: Rebound the basketball.
After a 9-22 campaign in 2008 in which the team went 1-15 in Big 12 Conference play, it became more apparent with each passing game that the inability of the undersized Buffs to outrebound their opponent hurt them in close games.
“We lost 11 games by an average of four-and-a-half points per game,” said CU head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who’s entering his third season with the program. “In those 11 games when the game was in the balance, one more rebound or one more basket or one more defensive stop makes the difference.”
Bzdelik hammered home the fact Colorado was a young team last year, fielding only one senior and three juniors. He said their record was a poor indicator on the team’s performance.
“If we win six of those 11 games, then we have 15 wins last year with a team of basically all freshmen and sophomores,” Bzdelik said.
Anyone who paid attention to CU’s struggles a year ago knows Bzdelik is speaking the truth about his team’s rebounding, or lack thereof. Many of those close losses could’ve gone the other way for the Buffaloes. In the end, though, the size and strength of big bruisers such as Blake Griffin (Oklahoma), Cole Aldrich (Kansas), and Dexter Pittman (Texas) were too much to overcome.
To try and counter their Big 12 rivals, the Buffs have some new and old faces in the low post to try and win the rebounding battle. Sophomore Austin Dufault (6-foot-9, 230 pounds) and junior Casey Crawford (6-9, 245), who said he added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, are two returning players who will be counted on to play a big role down low.
“We’ve been working a lot in the offseason on strength,” Crawford said. “With me, I’m able to move people a lot easier to go and get that rebound whereas last year, I was in a jumping competition.”
Also in the mix is freshman Shane Harris-Tunks, a 6-11, 225-pound freshman from Australia. Harris-Tunks should see some action at center. Needless to say, the tallest man on the team knows what his top priority is.
“Coach talks about [rebounding] every day at practice,” Harris-Tunks said.
But hitting the boards isn’t the only thing the Aussie can do.
“We run a lot of back door cuts, so my passing ability really suits the offense,” he said. “And defensively, I can help this team a lot. I’m used to playing against some really big bodies.”
Another new and possibly key addition to the team is junior college transfer Marcus Relphorde, a 6-7, 220-pound forward who can also play at guard. Relphorde’s expected contributions to the team are more on the scoreboard than the glass.
“He’s the one that I expect the most out of and he knows that,” Bzdelik said.
Relphorde played his freshman season at Saint Louis University under head coach Rick Majerus. He spent last year at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, where he helped them to a 30-3 record and averaged 14 points per game in 12 of the team’s last 13 games. Putting up those kinds of numbers in the Big 12 will be a more difficult task, but the coaches and players brag that Relphorde has the skills to do it.
“He can make a three or he can drive it off the dribble and finish both ways,” Bzdelik said.
Senior guard Dwight Thorne II and junior guard Cory Higgins, the two leading scorers from last year, has been impressed by Relphorde as well.
“He’s a matchup problem,” Thorne said. “He causes havoc. If you put someone small on him, he can body them. If you put someone big on him, he can go around them.”
Higgins added, “He’s strong and physical, but I guarantee that their forwards won’t be able to guard him because he plays like another guard out there.”
Relphorde will need to put up big numbers to help out Thorne and Higgins, who at times were CU’s only offense. Bzdelik said it forced him to play the duo 36-to-38 minutes a game, something the coach doesn’t want to happen this year.
Another interesting position battle will be at point guard. Incumbent starter Nate Tomlinson will be splitting time with freshman Shannon Sharpe, who will be wearing No. 2 in black and gold and not No. 84 in blue and orange.
Tomlinson, a sophomore who averaged seven points and three assists last season, and Sharpe will be counted on to be more efficient with the basketball. Colorado was 7-6 last year when Tomlinson had more assists than turnovers, which again goes to show how good the team can be if they play well consistently.
Despite all the talk about rebounding, a third scorer, better interior defense and more efficiency, it still remains talk. Talk doesn’t equate to wins, which is something the players on the team and the fans in the stands have been waiting for.
“I feel like this has to be the year,” said Higgins, who was named All-Big 12 Conference third team last season. “The last couple of years there have been a few excuses and this year, we have no excuses.”
Thorne, in his final year at Boulder, is done waiting for success to come.
“I was telling coach the other day that my time here has been fun,” Thorne said. “But it hasn’t been very fulfilling. I want to get into postseason play.”
As for the coach’s take on putting together a winning season, something he has yet to do in his tenure in Boulder, he shined a somewhat harsh light on himself.
“The bottom-line is to win and we’ve got to start turning the corner,” Bzdelik said. “I’ve been around a long time and I understand what is expected of me.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer David Starcer at David.Starcer@colorado.edu.