BOULDER – With three 20-win seasons in his first three years on the job at Colorado, Tad Boyle has set the bar higher than it’s ever been in Buffs basketball. Maybe even ridiculously high. Coaches never wish for less, but season No. 4 at CU might find Boyle privately wondering how best to nurture the monster he’s created.
Actually, it’s a fine problem to have, and Boyle has been very good in dealing with it. He and his staff have scouted well, coached to match their recruiting, and made CU hoops a rare hot ticket in Boulder. Boyle acknowledges his team’s talent and its potential, but here’s the question that nags at him as the 2013-14 season looms: Did he overmatch his young Buffs in November and December?
An early, but far from definitive, answer will come Friday night in Dallas when CU plays No. 25 Baylor in the Tip-Off Showcase at the American Airlines Arena (8 p.m. MST, Root Sports/Fox Sports Southwest). The night's three-game schedule also features Oklahoma vs. Alabama and Texas Christian vs. Southern Methodist.
Boyle’s well-stocked but youthful team landed among “others receiving votes” – essentially tied at No. 29 – in the Associated Press’ preseason balloting. But expectations are running much higher than that among the CU fan base and Boyle’s players.
“We can be excellent,” junior guard Askia Booker said. “We can be in the top 25, we can most definitely make the NCAA Tournament, possibly win the Pac-12 tournament. But we have to take it practice by practice, game by game, one at a time and win them one at a time. If we can do that we’ll be just fine down the road.”
And it’s down that road that Boyle believes this team’s progress will begin to show. CU’s eight- or nine-player rotation could feature three or four true freshmen, and it will definitely include redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon. Due to that youth and its development, Boyle is fairly certain the Buffs of November won’t resemble the Buffs of February and March.
“This team’s going to improve as the year goes on,” he said. “That’s why I talk about overscheduling; I don’t know if I did or didn’t. Our non-conference schedule doesn’t afford us the opportunity to take our time.”
At the very least, it doesn’t allow the Buffs to take opening night off. After Friday, they return to the Coors Events Center, where season tickets are sold out for the first time in school history, for a six-game homestand that begins this Sunday and runs through Sunday, Nov. 24. Sunday’s home opener is against UT-Martin (4 p.m., Pac-12 Network). Among those six games, the headliners are Wyoming (Nov. 13), Santa Barbara (Nov. 21) and Harvard (Nov. 24).
But first comes Baylor – a long, athletic, talented and familiar opponent. The Buffs have played the Bears in each of the past three seasons and hold a 5-2 series edge on neutral courts, including a 60-58 win in last November’s Charleston Classic. In March of the previous season, Baylor eliminated CU (80-63) from the NCAA Tournament. And in their former conference – the Big 12 – the Buffs and Bears played routinely.
A rivalry has been rekindled, and Booker says, “I’m a part of it, 100 percent. My freshman year they beat us pretty bad and I played well (15 points). Last year we beat them by one or two points and I played pretty well (19 points). I think this is a team I love to play against. I love to go against them because they’re so athletic, so talented. When you play against better competition your energy level rises and you rise to the occasion. So hopefully our team is prepared to do that and I think we will.”
Both Boyle and Booker, who will start in the backcourt with junior Spencer Dinwiddie, claim that opening with a challenge rather than a cupcake is preferable even for a young team like the Buffs.
“These freshmen came here I think . . . to play for a winning basketball program and they wanted to play against programs like Baylor,” Boyle said. “So players like that; I think they’d rather be playing Baylor than Coppin State or Alcorn State.”
“You can look at it two ways,” added Booker, who averaged 12.4 points last season to Dinwiddie’s team-high 15.3. “You wish you could ease into it, but then it’s an excitement to play somebody as talented as (Baylor) . . . I think we’ll be just fine. As long as we compete – and defend and rebound – there’s no question that we can beat Baylor.”
Minus leading rebounder Andre Roberson, an early entry into last summer’s NBA Draft, Boyle says the Buffs must counter with “gang-rebounding” that needs to include virtually all five players in the gang. But foremost on the boards must 6-10 sophomore Josh Scott, 6-7 sophomore Xavier Johnson, 6-7 freshman Dustin Thomas and the 6-9 Gordon, whom Boyle expects to match up with 7-1 Baylor sophomore Isaiah Austin. Scott will check 6-9 senior Cory Jefferson, like Austin a preseason All-Big 12 selection.
“Wesley will have a big-time challenge,” Boyle said. “He’s going from his last competitive basketball game at Sierra High School to guarding an NBA prospect. It’s going to be a challenge but Wes will be ready for it.”
The Buffs are familiar with one member of the Bears’ starting backcourt – senior shooting guard Brady Heslip, who scorched CU for 27 points on 9-of-12 three-point shooting in Baylor’s 2012 NCAA Tournament win. Boyle called Heslip “a quality player” who has broadened his game into more than “catch-and-shoot . . . now he can come off the dribble and pull up.”
Baylor replaced graduated point guard Pierre Jackson with junior college transfer Kenny Chery, the No. 15 national JUCO prospect. Plus, the Bears landed a consensus top-75 national high school recruit in 6-5 Ish Wainwright. In addition to Austin in Baylor’s talented sophomore class, there’s 6-8, 270-pound Rico Gathers.
“When they take the floor in an NBA arena, they’re going to look like an NBA team physically,” Boyle said. “We can’t be intimidated by that and we won’t be. But we’re going to have to definitely rebound the basketball – gang-rebound.”
Baylor, which finished 23-14 last season and won the postseason NIT, traditionally has played zone defense. But the Bears transitioned to man-to-man in 2012-13. The Buffs have prepared for both, but Boyle believes with new rules in place pertaining to hand-checking, “You’re going to see more zone (generally) early in the season.” To combat zones, he added, “You have to have players with great instincts, they have to be in the right spots and make the plays. You need great spacing, ball movement, ball fakes, penetration . . . we’ve got guys with great instincts; it’s a matter of them making plays.”
It’s also imperative, said Boyle, for the Buffs to neutralize Baylor’s length by being more physical and getting an edge in long rebounds and loose balls. “When you play a team like Baylor you’ve got to come up with those things,” he said. “We’d better be the tougher team. I don’t know if the more talented team will win this game, but I think the tougher team will win it.”
The Buffs believe they're capable of making a strong opening night statement, and Baylor offers them that chance.