BOULDER - For a couple of months now, the questions have been mounting for Tad Boyle and his third Colorado basketball team. Here are five to ponder before Pac-12 Conference play opens this week:
1. Are the Buffaloes too young to contend in the Pac-12?
2. Who among the newcomers will make the most immediate and biggest impact in the conference?
3. Did the front end of a rugged non-conference schedule wear the Buffs down or build them up?
4. Will they slip up on anyone this season or did last season's run to the Pac-12 tournament championship foil any chance of that?
5. Come March in Las Vegas - the site of this season's men's tournament - will the Buffs have matured and addressed their November/December shortcomings enough to make a run?
After raising the questions, providing answers would be fitting:
1. Granted, the Buffs will be among the Pac-12's youngest teams - Boyle starts one senior, a junior, two sophomores and a freshman - but he won't lean on youth as a reason for anything that has occurred in any scenario thus far. Privately, he might tell you that the 90-54 loss at then-No. 9 Kansas had a little to do with a young team going into shock and awe on most of his players' first trip to Allen Fieldhouse. Boyle had been there many times before (remember, he played at KU), but he told me later that "the hair on the back of my neck stood up" when KU showed its historical pregame highlight video. But know this: Boyle's younger players are improving by the minute; by March (or before) this team will be seasoned.
2. Start with freshman post Josh Scott. He's started every game (12) of his college career and is third in scoring (13.2 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.9 rpg) among the Buffs. Boyle loves Scott's "coachability;" so far he's been a 6-10 sponge, soaking up everything Boyle and his assistants have offered. A trio of others in the six-member freshmen class - forward Xavier Johnson, guards Xavier Talton and Eli Stalzer (freshmen Wes Gordon and Chris Jenkins are redshirting) - has contributed but haven't had the statistical impact of Scott. Stats are never the whole story, but Boyle needs more contribution from that trio (and his bench in general) to compete in a conference he says is much improved over last season: "It's not even close, and it starts at the bottom. Washington State is solid, Utah is much improved, Arizona State is 11-2 . . . USC is struggling, but you look at their schedule; it's crazy hard, the toughest in the league."
3. The Buffs went 10-2 through their non-conference schedule, marching through a rugged field - Dayton, then-No. 16 Baylor, Murray State - to win the Charleston Classic and later defeating rival Colorado State. Losses were at KU and at Wyoming. When non-league play ended, Boyle was pleased but not content. What pleased him was how the November-December schedule came together - the overall difficulty and home/road balance it offered - and how his team coped. Said Boyle: "When you look at our schedule, the strength of our schedule, and the fact that we're 10-2, we feel good about ourselves. We're not satisfied with ourselves, but we feel good about where we are at this point." Bottom line: the non-conference schedule contributed to his team's growth and maturation while teaching valuable lessons.
4. CU's role as a hoops unknown to the rest of the Pac-12 schools is over. It took all of one season - in truth, less than half a season - for Boyle's Buffs to make themselves apparent in their new conference. They opened 3-0 last season, lost a couple, then won three more to stand at 6-2 entering January's final game. "I think people respect us now," Boyle said. "I don't know if they'd consider us a challenger now . . . but we've definitely earned some respect and people aren't going to be looking past Colorado now. We know that." When CU appeared on their schedules, visiting the Coors Events Center didn't make any Pac-12 schools shudder. That's not true anymore. Leaving the CEC with a 'W' is as difficult as leaving Vegas with a fat wallet. Boyle's home record is 38-4. The Buffs' days of surprising anyone are history.
5. Vegas, baby. By the time CU fans are thinking in those terms, their team should be a couple of stages beyond the one that travels to Tucson on Thursday (6 p.m. MST, ESPNU) to open at No. 3 Arizona. The Buffs won two of three from the Wildcats last season - 64-63 in Boulder, 53-51 in the Pac-12 championship game - and don't think those two losses don't linger like a dust storm in Arizona. But before hitting Vegas, CU has issues that must be addressed if the Buffs are going to go deep into their league tourney and advance to the Dance. They are No. 11 in the conference in free throw percentage (66.3) and No. 12 in both assists (10.8 a game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (10.8 assists to 15.3 turnovers). Boyle, his staff and players know their needs and haven't stopped working on them.
CU closed non-conference play with dominant wins against Northern Arizona (98-51) and Hartford (80-52), and Boyle wasn't surprised by those ridiculous margins. "We should dominate Northern Arizona and Hartford," he said after the Hartford blowout. "Our guys are bigger and stronger and better athletes. Now the test becomes, 'Can we dominate Arizona?'
"I'm not sure we can dominate them, but we can neutralize their size and strength and athleticism . . . they've got men, they've got animals in there and it's a different deal than what we've faced in the last two games. Arizona has a great blend of youth, experience, depth, size, outside shooting . . . they've got it all. They're a top five team in the country."
But, Boyle added, if he's learned anything about his team over the past two months, it's that it takes on challenges, plays competitively and shares a collective belief in itself. He has pointed to how much the Buffs' summer European trip helped in those areas, as well as the two days of SEALS conditioning the Buffs went through before opening play.
He's also reminding the Buffs that as conference play begins and the intensity rises, there are 18 games, each is important and any team making an unblemished run through the Pac-12 is doubtful. Said Boyle: "We have to make sure we don't get too high after a win, don't get too full of ourselves, and we don't get too down if we drop a game . . . no matter who it's against."
The Buffs' goals for the next three months: Keep their mood balanced, keep improving on a game-by-game basis, keep believing and see how far it takes them.
Previewing the Pac-12 (schools listed in predicted order of finish):
Coach: Sean Miller (4th season at Arizona, 48-18 record)
2011-12 record: 23-12 overall, 12-6 Pac-12 (4th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 12-0
Best non-conference win: 65-64 against then-No. 5 Florida
Leading scorer: Mark Lyons, 13.4
Leading rebounder: Brandon Ashley, 6.5
Pac-12 outlook: The Wildcats were the media's preseason choice to win the conference, and there's no disagreement here. Miller's team is loaded; it leads the Pac-12 in scoring margin (+17.4) and is second in rebounding margin (+10.2). Lyons, a senior transfer from Xavier, joins a cast of top-tier recruits.
Coach: Ben Howland (10th season at UCLA, 218-100 record)
2011-12 record: 19-14 overall, 11-7 Pac-12)
2012-13 non-conference record: 10-3
Best non-conference win: 97-94 (OT) against then-No. 7 Missouri
Leading scorer: Shabazz Muhammad, 19.6
Leading rebounder: Kyle Anderson, 8.5
Pac-12 outlook: Mountainous center Josh Smith left Howland's squad last month, but the Bruins' chemistry might prosper because of it. More than enough talent - Muhammad was the nation's top high school prospect - remains to make UCLA a contender. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in scoring (80.9 ppg) and field goal percentage (48.6).
Coach: Mike Montgomery (5th season at Cal, 96-51 record)
2011-12 record: 24-10 overall, 13-5 Pac-12 (T-2nd)
2012-13 non-conference record: 8-4
Best non-conference win: 73-70 against Drake
Leading scorer: Allen Crabbe, 20.9
Leading rebounder: David Kravish, 7.9
Pac-12 outlook: The Golden Bears hit an early December rough patch, losing three straight - including two at home - to Wisconsin, UNLV and Creighton. They really don't have a marquee non-conference win, and their final tune-up for league play was a 67-62 home loss to Harvard. But Montgomery is a good coach and he's got good players; Crabbe is the conference's scoring leader. Look for Cal to snap out of its doldrums and be a Pac-12 factor.
Coach: Tad Boyle (3rd season at CU, 58-28 record)
2011-12 record: 24-12 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 (T-5th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 10-2
Best non-conference win: 60-58 against then-No. 16 Baylor
Leading scorer: Askia Booker, 14.8
Leading rebounder: Andre Roberson, 12.1
Pac-12 outlook: The Buffs appear to be hitting their stride at the right time, but they face the toughest possible conference opener - Thursday at No. 3 Arizona. Still, Boyle's young team is talented and has developed a tough edge. Freshman Josh Scott's development might be ahead of schedule, and Roberson's offense appears to be on the upswing. He's averaging 12.1 points with his 12.1 boards. Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie form an effective backcourt, but the Buffs need more productivity from their bench and their assist-to-turnover ratio (0.7, 12th in league) needs correcting.
Coach: Johnny Dawkins (5th season at Stanford, 84-63 record)
2011-12 record: 26-11 overall, 10-8 Pac-12 (7th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 9-4
Best non-conference win: 70-68 at Northwestern
Leading scorer: Dwight Powell, 14.5
Leading rebounder: Josh Huestis, 8.5
Pac-12 outlook: Two of the Cardinal's four non-conference losses were to ranked teams (Missouri, North Carolina State), but a third was a puzzling home loss against Belmont. Stanford is last in the conference in field goal percentage (40.9) and tenth in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9). Upgrades are in order in both areas early in the Pac-12 schedule.
Coach: Dana Altman (3rd season at Oregon, 55-30 record)
2011-12 record: 24-10 overall, 13-5 Pac-12 (3rd)
2012-13 non-conference record: 10-2
Best non-conference win: 83-79 at then-No. 18 UNLV
Leading scorer: Damyean Dotson, 11.7
Leading rebounder: Dominic Artis, 10.4
Pac-12 outlook: The Ducks have five players averaging in double figures, all of them bunched in the 10.1-11.7 ppg range. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi is just out of that pack (9.2), but averages 26.8 minutes, making Altman's team one of the league's deepest. Oregon averages 79.2 points (second to UCLA) and is No. 2 in scoring margin (+17.3), trailing only Arizona (+17.4). The Ducks will be among the league's toughest draws.
Coach: Lorenzo Romar (11th season at UW, 227-118 record)
2011-12 record: 24-11 overall, 14-4 Pac-12 (1st)
2012-13 non-conference record: 8-5
Best non-conference win: 84-73 (OT) against Seton Hall
Leading scorer: C.J Wilcox, 18.5
Leading rebounder: Aziz N'Diaye, 9.2
Pac-12 outlook: The Huskies are puzzle; nine of their 13 non-conference games were in Seattle and they were 6-3 at home (Colorado State beat them 73-55). Defense (10th, 67.6) and rebounding (10th, +2.8) have been areas of concern for Romar, whose 10-year tenure makes him the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Wilcox (4th in scoring) is a genuine offensive threat and has a decent supporting cast. The 7-0 N'Diaye is near a double-double, averaging 10.7 points with his 9.2 boards.
•8. Oregon State
Coach: Craig Robinson (5th season at OSU, 73-74 record)
2011-12 record: 21-15 overall, 7-11 Pac-12 (T-7th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 9-3
Best non-conference win: 66-58 against Purdue
Leading scorer: Roberto Nelson, 16.3
Leading rebounder: Eric Moreland, 11.3
Pac-12 outlook: The Beavers have a bona fide board guy in Moreland (second in the league to CU's Roberson), but they lack consistency in other areas. They're in the bottom half of the conference in most defensive categories, even with a relatively soft non-conference schedule. But Robinson's team returns four starters; that experience should be a factor once Pac-12 play begins.
•9. Southern California
Coach: Kevin O'Neill (4th season at USC, 46-63 record)
2011-12 record: 6-26 overall, 1-17 Pac-12 (12th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 5-8
Best non-conference win: 59-53 (OT) against Texas
Leading scorer: Eric Wise, 11.4
Leading rebounder: Dewayne Dedmon, 7.1
Pac-12 outlook: Wise, one of six transfers on O'Neill's roster, is the only player averaging in double figures for a team that's last in the conference in scoring (62.6). USC also is last in scoring margin (-0.9) as well as rebounding margin (+0.6). The Trojans' non-conference schedule might have been the Pac-12's most demanding - and USC wasn't up to the demands. On the bright side, unless injuries ravage the roster again this season, the Trojans should win more than one league game. Maybe.
•10. Arizona State
Coach: Herb Sendek (7th season at ASU, 109-98 record)
2011-12 record: 10-21 overall, 6-12 Pac-12 (9th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 11-2
Best non-conference win: 83-68 against Arkansas
Leading scorer: Jahii Carson, 17.7
Leading rebounder: Carrick Felix, 7.5
Pac-12 outlook: The Sun Devils are improved, but the question is how much? The media picked them to finish 11th, but that might be a slight. ASU is fifth in the league in scoring (75.2) and scoring margin (+10.7).Their non-conference schedule wasn't a soft-serve dessert and Sendek is a proven coach who could have ASU climbing by mid-February. But after back-to-back losing seasons, this one will be telling for him.
Coach: Larry Krystowiak (2nd season at Utah, 14-29 record)
2011-12 record: 6-25 overall, 3-15 Pac-12 (11th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 8-4
Best non-conference win: 62-53 against SMU
Leading scorer: Jarred DuBois, 13.5
Leading rebounder: Jordan Loveridge, 7.5
Pac-12 outlook: After the Utes' six-win season in 2011-12 - the worst in school history - Krystowiak at least has his team playing better defense. For now, Utah leads the conference in field goal percentage defense (35.2) and is third in scoring margin (+12.2). On the flip side, the Utes' non-conference schedule was a jelly roll - and they still lost four times. But DuBois, a transfer from Loyola-Marymount, is a good get.
•12. Washington State
Coach: Ken Bone (4th season at WSU, 66-50 record)
2011-12 record: 19-18 overall, 7-11 Pac-12 (T-7th)
2012-13 non-conference record: 9-4
Best non-conference win: 59-50 against Fresno State
Leading scorer: Brock Motum, 19.7
Leading rebounder: Brock Motum, 7.0
Pac-12 outlook: The media says the Cougars are the conference's 10th best team, but it doesn't look that way from here. The 6-10 Motum is the league's No. 2 scorer but his team is averaging only 64 points - next to last in the conference. Conversely, WSU's 55.2 points allowed leads the Pac-12. But realistically gauging either of those stats is difficult; the Cougars' non-conference schedule was cookie dough soft and they didn't have a meaningful win. Put WSU, ASU and Utah in a sack, shake them up and out falls bad hoops. Take your pick for a No. 12.