BOULDER – It has been 23 days – or six games – since Tad Boyle was forced to cope with a pair of key injuries, reconfigure his Colorado men’s basketball starting lineup and rethink his rotation.
Boyle used most of those six games, four of which were losses, to sort out the emotional side of losing Spencer Dinwiddie and Tre’Shaun Fletcher and identify for a second time who starts, who comes off the bench and when.
And that doesn’t preclude more changes and experimentation during the second half of the Pac-12 schedule, which begins Wednesday (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network) at the Coors Events Center against Washington State. In fact, on such a young team, more change and experimentation in the final nine regular-season games is all but guaranteed as he continues a quest for consistency.
The hope is that last weekend’s overtime win (79-75) over Utah offered a preview of what Boyle can expect from basically a nine-man rotation through the first week in March. Against the Utes, the Buffs got consistent minutes off the bench from sophomore guards Xavier Talton and Eli Stalzer, who played 22 minutes each. Freshman guard Jaron Hopkins made his ninth start but played just 5 minutes – his fewest of the season.
Still, the athletic Hopkins figures prominently in Boyle’s backcourt plans, as does freshman Dustin Thomas in the frontcourt strategy. Those four – Talton, Stalzer, Hopkins and Thomas – will get the first look(s) from Boyle. But the looks’ lengths depend on the players and their productivity.
“In terms of perimeter substitutions and sixth and seventh men, absolutely, it will be combination of those three and it may be a different guy on a different night,” Boyle said. “We’d like to develop some consistency in that. The more consistent they are, the easier my job is. The more inconsistent they play, it makes it a little tougher for me to figure who do you go with on this night, who do you not go with. Those are hard decisions as a coach. They help me make those decisions.”
AGAINST UTAH, TALTON AND STALZER made the decision nearly a no-brainer, with Talton scoring a career-high 14 points, including four-of-five from beyond the arc. Stalzer attempted only four shots but hit two of them and, like Talton, committed only one turnover. Each player had a steal, and Talton contributed a pair of blocked shots.
Talton is tireless. On Sunday night following the Super Bowl – he’s an in-state guy (Sterling) so maybe he was trying to relieve his angst – he went to the CEC and spent an hour shooting about 300 jump shots and 200 free throws. He’s in the gym shooting whenever his schedule permits and he credits that regimen with what he, his teammates and Boyle hope was a breakout Saturday last weekend.
“I’ve learned that you stay in the gym, keep getting shots up and be consistent with what we do – that’s pretty much it,” Talton said, adding that the Utah game was “a big confidence boost . . . but coach always says, ‘You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.’ You’ve got to keep a level head and be composed.”
Talton won’t guess whether last Saturday earns him more minutes or even a starting role, leaving that up to Boyle and his staff. “That’s a tough one to say,” he said. “I think coach is looking for effort, complete effort, and consistency. He’s going to play who’s the most consistent.”
But Talton believes he's capable of that kind of production on a regular basis: “I think so, but it comes back to the guys I’m on the court with. It’s a testament to them finding me and getting me open looks.”
Junior guard Askia Booker, whose stat line against the Utes featured 18 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and a steal, called Talton’s backcourt productivity “big – something we’ve been looking for. It’s hard when your scoring is coming from myself, Josh (Scott) and maybe one of the other guys. Xavier Johnson is now starting to pick it up, but it’s good to get (scoring) from another guard because the ball is in our hands most of the time. To be stuck with the ball late in the shot clock and he’s able to make plays, it helps us that much more.”
It might not be realistic to think Talton can hit four treys in five attempts (5-of-8 from the field overall) on a nightly basis, but is in agreement that a game of that kind does wonders for the psyche. “He may not be as efficient as he was in every game; he shot the ball extremely well,” Boyle said. “But I think it gave him great confidence and gave us as coaches great confidence in him. I think it’ll be a great springboard for him and us.”
ALTHOUGH THEIR PRESENCE IS undoubtedly missed, the Buffs are beginning to blend more minus Dinwiddie and Fletcher. Not only does Talton see more confidence developing, he notices an increase in players’ on-court enjoyment. “When Spencer and ‘Tre’ first went down, we stopped having fun when we were playing,” Talton said. “I think that’s what it was. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. Now, I think we’re getting back to having fun playing with each other and sharing the ball.”
Added Booker: “Coach has instilled in our minds there is no more sorrow – there’s none of that. We’re going to go out and play with what we have. As of right now, we’re making adjustments day-by-day, game-by-game. Against Utah we made a lot of good adjustments that allowed us to win the game – and that’s a credit to coach Boyle.”
Wednesday night’s game is the second in a three-game home stand that – provided they capitalize – could be hugely beneficial for the Buffs. At 5-4, they’re in a five-way tie for third in the Pac-12 with Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington – which visits the CEC on Sunday night (6 p.m., ESPNU). Arizona (8-1) is atop the standings, trailed by UCLA and California (6-3 each).
Boyle is aware of the Pac-12’s pile up at third, but he isn’t concerning himself with it. “You just worry about the next game,” he said. “I don’t look at the big picture . . . I know where things are; we see the standings. But at the end of the day it’s about winning the next game.”
The Buffs are 13-1 at the CEC this season, and a 14th home win would mark only the fourth time in program history that’s happened. Booker likes the Buffs’ chances. “We’re at home and we don’t lose too many games at home,” he said. “It’s always good to play here and we’ll be very comfortable. We’ll be prepared because we have played these two teams (WSU, UW) before.
“We’re familiar with what they’re going to run and who they have. There’ll be nothing we haven’t seen before. I think the new guys – the freshmen and even ‘XT’ and Eli – those guys know what to expect now, know what to bring. Hopefully, Xavier Talton can keep playing the way he’s playing and that will be a great boost for us.”
When Talton left his TV on Sunday night and headed for his post-Super Bowl hour of shooting, one thought stuck with him. The 43-8 Broncos loss, he said, “was ugly, but it was a testament to (Seattle). Defense wins championships; offense can take you a long ways, but when it comes down to it you need to get stops.”
He’s heard that somewhere before . . .
“Oh, yeah, I think it translates completely,” Talton said with a chuckle. “In any sport, if you can’t stop the other team from scoring, you’ve got trouble.”