BOULDER – Tad Boyle “really likes” – later it was “loves” – his 2013-14 Colorado men’s basketball team, and not more than 15 seconds into Wednesday’s SRO media day he publicly declared his feelings.
A lot of other folks out there also like/love the 2013-14 Buffs – or perhaps more accurately, they like/love what Boyle’s program has become and where it’s headed. It’s, ah, heady stuff.
The Buffs’ good vibes have gone viral. CU hoops is Boulder’s biggest buzz, and peddling it is perfectly legal.
For the first time in school history, CU sold out its season-ticket allotment (7,160). And for one of the few times in their mostly inglorious hoops history, the Buffs are showing up in preseason Top 25 rankings (No. 23 by Dick Vitale/ESPN) or just on the fringes (No. 27 by USA Today/Coaches). The Associated Press poll will be out before CU tips it off against Baylor in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 8.
On the conference scene, media covering the Pac-12 recently picked CU No. 3, behind Arizona and UCLA – a ranking Buffs guard Spencer Dinwiddie is yet to warm up to. Dinwiddie, aka The Mayor, believes the rest of the P12 – that includes Arizona and UCLA – should be gazing upward at the Buffs, and he said so when the media gathered in LA last week specifically to hear the kind of things Dinwiddie offered.
“It was spontaneous,” he explained Wednesday. “Sometimes the media asks me loaded questions and initially I took the approach of being politically correct. But now I’m like, if you’re going to serve it up to me, I’m going to knock out of the park.”
Boyle doesn’t mind Dinwiddie swinging (or in this case, chirping) for the fences – as long as Dinwiddie backs it up. Confidence, said Boyle, is immeasurable and he wants every guy in a CU uniform to reek of it while at the same time staying “humble and hungry.” (And, yes, you can be both.) Being supremely confident, Boyle noted, doesn’t mean talking smack, and in Dinwiddie’s case, “If Spencer is talking and not walking, then we’ve got issues.”
These are all good “problems” to have as October oozes toward November. Long-time CU hoops watchers (and I include myself in that long-suffering bunch) remember years upon years when the beginning of basketball seasons in Boulder tipped off winters of irrelevance. Boyle has changed that, and now he is dealing with a classic blessing/curse scenario, although it leans heavily toward the blessing side.
High expectations, particularly internally, can be a marvelous thing . . . underachieving, well not so much. Even with the most talented roster he’s had in his four years at CU, Boyle of course faces challenges – and it’s because he’s overseeing his most talented roster in four years at CU.
“What I worry about day-to-day is not handling the outside expectations, but handling the internal expectations, which is coming to practice every day ready to hook it up and compete, not making excuses, staying humble and staying hungry, challenging each other every day, and just trying to get better every single day,” he said. “If we do that, with the talent we have on this team, success will take care of itself. I’m not into managing expectations, but I am into trying to hold our players and our staff, and everybody involved in our program accountable to our internal standards.”
That means keeping this talent-rich bunch grounded. Yes, he said, he’s “seen signs that players have bought into the hype . . . people are blowing smoke up these guys’ rear ends every day – on campus, every time they pick up a paper, listen to the radio, or get on Twitter.”
Know this: Boyle and his staff are there to make certain when that smoke reaches their guys’ craniums, it clears quickly. “It’s my job to make sure they don’t buy into that hype and I feel like I am the bad guy right now, but that’s OK,” he said. “We’ve watched more film of practices early in the season this year than any team we’ve had since we’ve been here because I want to show them they’re not running the floor. We have freshman that we are trying to teach and they’re trying to learn. I’m not saying it’s been all bad, because it hasn’t. They know what’s ahead of them. But it’s my job as a coach this year to keep these guys a little bit on edge.”
Guys like Dinwiddie and Askia Booker – a pair of juniors expected to comprise the Buffs’ starting backcourt – might be the perceived leaders on this team, but Boyle wants that responsibility shared. Leadership, he said, “emerges” and right now it’s being done by committee, which is not a bad thing.
Boyle isn’t into naming captains in November or before: “What I don’t want to do is give a kid a label of captain (early) and feel like in January they aren’t worthy of it and I have to take it away from them,” he said. “If I name Spencer and Askia, the two most experienced players, captains, I don’t want Josh Scott or Xavier Johnson, any of our freshmen, or (senior) Ben Mills to feel that since they aren’t captains they can’t say anything. I want everybody to have ownership in our program and everybody to have leadership opportunities in our program.
“Sometimes I think as a coach, when you name captains, you stunt that and you automatically limit kids as leaders. Leaders are going to emerge as the season progresses. When things get tough, who is going to step up and take control and be vocal? That has to emerge. But I think early, Spencer and Askia are our most experienced guys and they are two very vocal guys right now, which is good.”
Dinwiddie’s summer role with Team USA was priceless in the areas of leadership and beyond. And Booker appears to have matured in his approach to the game as well as in his understanding of what his coaches need from him. In the team’s second go-around earlier this month with “The Program” – a crash course in team building and leadership largely conducted by former Navy SEALS – Booker was awarded a T-shirt recognizing him as the player who has power to influence others, be a difference-maker and one who creates/sustains game-day energy.
He told me later he was humbled by the recognition and the responsibility it carries. On Wednesday when I asked if he believed it falls upon him and Dinwiddie to be the load-bearers in keeping the Buffs grounded, he responded, “Oh, without a doubt. Sometimes we have to put guys in check, whether it is verbally or setting an example physically on the court. Either way it goes, Spencer and I, are going to have to set the tempo for this team, and keep everybody grounded and on accord.”
Boyle and his team will find out quickly if their heads have swelled or are on straight. Baylor, like CU, was just outside the USA Today/Coaches preseason Top 25, checking in one spot ahead of the Buffs at No. 26. Boyle calls the Bears typically “long, athletic and talented. They’ll be a real test for us.”
But wait, as they say in the late-night info-mercials . . .
Also showing up on the Buffs’ non-conference schedule are Front Range foes Wyoming, Air Force and Colorado State. Toss in Harvard, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Georgia, and you see why Boyle says, “I love our team, but then I look at our non-conference schedule. It’s why I get bags under my eyes and I lose sleep at night. I may have over-scheduled; time will tell and we will find out.”
Then comes the Pac-12 schedule . . .
But look at it like this: Boyle’s no dummy. He wouldn’t have booked the Buffs on a trail of tears with no escape route. This team can/will be good; it just needs to be good early. Late, too – and that’s what will keep those bags under Boyle’s eyes from being put away until maybe early April. By then, whatever the 2013-14 Buffs have achieved will have been earned – and that’s exactly how Boyle wants it.