Tad Boyle keeps it real.
That’s what Colorado’s fifth-year head coach, sitting before the assembled press for media day Wednesday, said of his job. And this is the reality Boyle lays out for his basketball team:
“Last year, with Spencer Dinwiddie, we were 14-2,” he said. “Without him, we were 9-10.”
The Buffs will keep every member of that post-Dinwiddie team and should field the same starting five, but will they still be the 9-10 group that was blown out three times by Arizona and obliterated by Pitt?
Colorado will be better; four sophomores who played significant minutes as freshmen (minus swingman George King, who Boyle announced will redshirt) are returning. Those sophomores’ potential improvements give the Buffs a high ceiling — higher, Boyle said, than any of his previous Colorado teams.
But if they don’t take a step forward, the floor could fall out from under them. The NCAA Tournament is an expectation, not a goal, in Boulder now, and after three straight berths in the dance, Boyle is striving to keep the Buffs from becoming complacent.
“There’s not one player in our locker room who was at my house four years ago when we didn’t get [make the tournament],” Boyle said. “Our coaches understand that pit in the bottom of their stomach and that feeling of disappointment and disgust. Our players don’t understand it.”
If Colorado does make a fourth consecutive tournament, it will be with a reworked offense and a renewed commitment to defense.
The Buffs’ one-in, four-out motion offense stagnated last season after Dinwiddie’s injury. Opponents double-teamed Josh Scott in the post and trapped pick-and-rolls, and Colorado struggled to move the ball and pass out of traps. The Buffs finished with more turnovers than assists.
To help make Colorado a more efficient unit, Boyle turned to two fellow coaches: former Boston College head coach Steve Donahue and former Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl.
Donahue worked with Colorado on its post play — the Buffs are still an inside-out team. Now, though, they want to get their bigs the ball in more unpredictable ways.
“We want to get them the ball facing the basket, you know, 10 to 12 feet, where it’s harder for them to be double-teamed,” Boyle said. “Rather than traditionally catching the ball with their back to the basket where it’s predictable and where the ball screens are coming at predictable spots on the floor.”
Colorado will work its bigs, particularly Scott, through the elbow much more than in previous seasons. Opponents won’t be able to double-team him at will there, because the help defender will have to come from under the basket or from the wings — leaving a man open for a layup or a three. That will also allow the Buffs to use Scott as more of a distributor, with wing players cutting around him, and elbow pick-and-rolls will maximize Scott’s versatility by allowing him to cut to the basket or pop for a midrange jumper.
Boyle is also placing a greater emphasis on transition offense; Karl, whose Nuggets teams were famous for running in any situation, gave Colorado tips on spacing and running an interchangeable fast break.
The Buffs want to play a fast-paced, high-possession game that takes advantage of their athleticism and depth. That might seem at odds with a post-centric half court offense, but Boyle thinks he has found a balance that plays to his team’s strengths.
“We expect our players in the offseason to get better,” he said. “I think it’s imperative as coaches that we make an effort to get better in the offseason. We tried to do that offensively this year.”
As confident as Boyle is about Colorado’s offense, he is less sure about the Buffs’ defense. Last year produced, by all statistical measures, his worst defensive team at Colorado. The team has recommitted to the fundamentals and has become better as a unit at rotating and defending ball screens, but it lacks a true lockdown defender.
“I don’t know if we have one,” Boyle said when asked who the team’s best perimeter defender is. “Every year I’ve been here, we’ve had that perimeter stopper — first it was Carlon Brown, then it was Andre Roberson, then it was Spencer Dinwiddie.”
The Buffs have wing players with the length and athleticism to be consistent perimeter defenders — Xavier Johnson, Tre’Shaun Fletcher and Jaron Hopkins, especially — but Boyle is worried that none have stepped up yet. It is, he said, his one major concern with this team.
“If a player came into my office and said they wanted to be that guy, they’d start and play 30 minutes a game,” he said. “But no one has.”
That is one more unknown Colorado faces in these last eight days before its season starts. Uncertainty is frightening, but remember — the Buffs’ 2011-12 Pac-12 championship team was just as young and untested. Boyle keeps it real for Colorado, and knows the reality is that until the Buffs sort out this multitude of unknowns, expectations for the NCAA Tournament and advancement in it will remain out of reach.
Colorado women’s basketball had their media day Wednesday as well. Keep an eye out for Sam Routhier’s break down of coach Linda Lappe’s press conference tomorrow, and check back next week for position-by-position breakdowns for the men’s and women’s teams, profiles of the coaching staffs and our experts’ season predictions.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Thomas.C.Wood@colorado.edu.