Who would have thought we’d be here again? Colorado’s basketball season died last Thursday, and it was slain by Joseph Young’s quick shot and his slick handles. That was it. No NCAA Tournament. Even the NIT was a pipe dream. The Buffs’ nightmare ended in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Then along came the College Basketball Invitational to drag it out for one more game.
So here we are: the floor of the Coors Event Center. Tad Boyle stood in the tunnel, in front of a camera and recorders, his face brightened by a lighting kit. As he spoke, his players walked past intermittently to shoot around before the practice that no one thought they would hold.
“I’m as excited today for practice as any day of the year,” he said. “I feel like…”
The coach’s voice trailed off. Boyle is blunt, honest and rarely at a loss for words. Monday, though, there were several moments where he paused to find the right words.
“I feel like… I’ve been born again.”
The coach is reborn and his team resurrected. But, like Ser Beric Dondarrion every time Thoros of Myr breathed life back into his lungs, the Buffs are revived but not quite whole.
Colorado is without Askia Booker, who decided that he will not play in the CBI. And is also without Dustin Thomas, who decided that he will transfer. Booker has yet to speak publicly about his choice but his reasoning isn’t difficult to fathom. Anyone who has watched him for four years should understand why he wouldn’t want his career to end in this tournament that few have heard of and fewer follow.
“I just said, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’, and he said, ‘Coach, I don’t wanna play,'” Boyle said. “I said, ‘Ok.'”
Booker took heat on social media as soon as he announced his decision. He knew he would. Boyle knew he would. Those who say that he quit on his team fundamentally misunderstand who Askia Booker is. I don’t claim to understand him, either, but I know he isn’t a quitter. He will explain this, or he won’t, but he doesn’t need to.
Thomas’ logic is easier to grasp. He wants to play on the perimeter. Boyle wanted him inside. Thomas can play the two through four positions but in the Buffs’ rotation would never start at any of those.
“Dustin and I have talked, and it didn’t come out of left field,” Boyle said. “It’s hard to quantify why that decision was…”
Again, Boyle paused and measured himself.
“…what the deciding factor was. But I think if you had to put it in a simple sentence, it’d be playing time.”
Thomas and Colorado never clicked in the two years he played in Boulder. There were flashes — the outbursts of energy, the that he took and his silky jumper. There were also the fumbled passes, the chest-high dribbles and that jumper looked nice but it rarely found the net. At times he felt like a walking turnover.
The best teams tailor their system to their players and give each player a defined role that maximizes strengths and masks weaknesses. That’s how Mareese Speights became a candidate for NBA Sixth Man of the Year for the Golden State Warriors. That’s how Notre Dame won the ACC despite starting Pat Connaughton, a 6-foot-4 minor-league baseball pitcher, at power forward. The Buffs don’t have much of a system. That’s not an indictment of Thomas or of Boyle. That’s reality.
So Thomas is gone, though for whatever reason, he practiced with the team on Monday afternoon. To hear Boyle tell it, the split is amicable. Thomas’ departure and Booker’s decision not to play open more minutes for Dom Collier and Tory Miller, the freshmen who will shepherd the program’s future. The Colorado team that steps onto the court against Garder-Webb Wednesday night will be more of an omen than a memory.
And, oh yeah, that game. It’s been obscured by the news of the early week. You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of the 5,000-person liberal-arts school in Boiling Springs, S.C. The Runnin’ Bulldogs are led by Tim Craft, 37, a graduate of Florida, late of Auburn and East Carolina. They don’t have a rotation player taller than 6-foot-7 but they score 75 points per game largely because they bomb it from deep — they are 15th in the country in threes attempted and 20th in threes made.
“Our bigs are gonna have to get out on the floor and guard a little bit, which is something they’re capable of doing,” Boyle said.
Gardner-Webb played five major-conference teams this year- it lost to LSU, Seton Hall and Arizona and beat Clemson and NCAA Tournament nine-seed Purdue. It also competed against such luminaries as Toccoa Falls and Hiwassee. This is not where Colorado wants or expects to be: playing the fourth-place team in the Big South as Boise State and Dayton match up in the First Four of the Big Dance.
Wednesday, we may divine a glimpse of the Buffs’ future — will they return to the team that made three straight NCAA Tournaments, or has that foundation eroded? Boyle, standing before the media in the mouth of the arena that he has made home, is already convinced of his team’s trajectory. He was asked if the sky is falling.
“Oh God no,” he said. “No. No, no, no. Absolutely not. No. I, I…no.”
This is a coach who is born again, baptized in the holy water of optimism, sanctified by the prospect of another game. If the sky falls he will brace it on his shoulders and comment on how pretty the clouds are. Perhaps this program needs him to be Atlas right now. But no one ever asked Atlas if he wanted to share his burden.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at email@example.com