BOULDER - As the 2012-13 basketball season approaches, Tad Boyle isn't into circling important days on his calendar. Instead, he's circling weeks, and the next three can't be accentuated boldly enough for his cradle-to-the-court Colorado basketball team.
If you haven't been paying attention, there's no preseason buzz around Buffs hoops. It's gone w-a-a-a-y beyond that. The chatter has become a roar; picture a 747 taxiing across your lawn.
Blame Boyle and his staff for the ruckus. All they've done is direct two CU teams to consecutive 24-win seasons. And last winter while in "rebuilding" mode, the Buffs claimed the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship and the accompanying automatic NCAA Tournament berth. Oh, and along the way, they've been steady lights-out recruiters and maybe the best ambassadors ever for hoops in Boulder.
At some point in the school's history, anticipation for a CU basketball season might have been more fervent, but the best answer anyone can come up with is, "Not recently." Boyle and his guys are genuinely tickled about that . . . when they're not cringing just a little.
It's tough to tamp down expectations, especially those at a school where basketball success historically seems to occur every couple of decades. That pattern appears to be changing, and in reality Boyle isn't trying to tone down the masses' exuberance.
But he is asking for some honest perspective while the Buffs go about finding themselves, identifying their new leaders (the roster features one senior, five juniors, three sophomores and six freshmen) and preparing for one of the school's most difficult non-conference schedules.
That's why Boyle has circled the next three weeks as extremely critical for his third CU team. Common sense tells you the young Buffs will be better in late February than in early November, but the early going is what's nibbling at Boyle.
"I look at the next three weeks in this team's life and how critical it is to strip away all the fluff and concentrate on what's important - which is having our guys focus mentally, physically, emotionally and limit the distractions that come with the start of a season," he said. "All the adulation, the excitement that's going around the periphery of the program, we've got to insulate ourselves from that. If we get caught up in that, we've got no chance.
"And that's going to be the challenge, especially with these young guys. They have no idea of what they're in store for, no idea going forward. And there's no way for us to explain it to them. That's where the leadership comes in from their teammates who have been through it. The length, the grind, the physicality of the season and what it entails is like nothing they've been through before. But that's the exciting part of what we do - be a part of that journey with them and watch them grow and develop."
Leaders can't be appointed; they emerge and mature. Boyle's lone senior is Sabatino Chen, the kind of "glue guy" that Boyle wanted on his roster when he took the CU job. Chen knows what's expected of him, but he and Boyle also know it's more than a one-man job. Other leaders will surface, with junior Andre Roberson and sophomores Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker "having those capabilities," according to Boyle.
In his first two CU seasons, a transitional time for any coach, Boyle admits that strong leadership helped smooth out the rough edges. "That's the whole key to our success," he said. "We've had guys step up. Every team that I look back on being a part of as a player or coach, I always look at the seniors.
"Our first team here - Levi (Knutson), Cory (Higgins), Marcus (Relphorde) - that was their team. We've had strong senior leadership. Last year it was Nate (Tomlinson), Austin (Dufault), Carlon (Brown), Trey (Eckloff). It was their team. This year it's Sabatino's team. Now, one guy can't do it all. So that's where we need other guys to step up."
That's also where Boyle and his coaches step in. A solid, on-point staff recognizes its emerging leaders and fosters that growth. "I encourage every player in our program to take ownership," Boyle said. "That's Step No. 1. Step No. 2 is you have to empower your players and encourage them to send a message that the coaching staff is trying to relay to the rest of the team.
"That's done when the coaches aren't around - in the locker room, in the back of the bus on road trips . . . and it's usually done in times of adversity. Leadership is pretty easy when everything's going well and you're winning games. But when the adversity hits and you've had a tough stretch - maybe it's in the game, the huddle, out on the court - there's a lot of different ways to define it."
Last season as a freshman, Dinwiddie was wise - not to mention talented - beyond his years and should be better in both areas this season. He will play more point guard - Boyle calls it "his natural position" - and it's a spot that demands a leadership presence. "He's always been comfortable with the ball in his hands," Boyle said. "I don't get caught up in putting guys in boxes as far as positions are concerned."
Evidence of that comes from Boyle's first two CU teams. "We've had multiple point guards - Cory, Alec, Nate . . . we've played them together," Boyle said. "And this year, 'Ski' (Booker) will have the ball a lot, too."
Boyle's team had its first official practice on Friday morning, then participated in that night's Buffs Madness - more or less a late-night pizza party/pep rally at the Coors Events Center designed to tip off the season if not tip the excitement a little further over the edge.
"The good news is that there's a lot of excitement and anticipation around this team," Boyle said. "But that's a result of what previous teams have done. This team is totally different . . . certainly the trajectory of the program is on the rise and pointed in the right direction.
"People need to understand this year's team is a totally different animal. Six freshmen, one senior and a lot of unanswered questions out there . . . it makes it all a little uneasy as a coach. You add that to the fact that we have our toughest preseason schedule that we've ever had since we've been here."
After the Buffs open on Nov. 9 at home against Wofford College, things quickly get prickly. The Charleston Classic awaits, and the field includes Dayton, Baylor, Boston College, Murray State, St. John's, Auburn and Charleston. After Thanksgiving come consecutive games against Air Force, Texas Southern, Wyoming, Colorado State and Kansas (at Allen Fieldhouse). Growing up in a hurry is all but guaranteed for the kid Buffs.
"The hard thing about scheduling is you do it a year or two in advance . . . you don't always know what you're going to have a year or two out," Boyle said. "Ninety percent of the time you either over-schedule or under-schedule. Very rarely do you ever hit it right in the middle. The only time you know that is when you look at it in the rearview mirror. The one thing I know about this year's schedule is that our players are excited about it. They want to be challenged and play against the best."
With a laugh, Boyle added, "The coaches are really, really concerned about winning games . . . but for our program to get to where we want to get, we want to be able to play this kind of schedule and have success with it. We want to put ourselves in a position where we don't have to win the Pac-12 to get an NCAA bid. This will be a great test for that. Our league's going to be better and if we can handle this preseason schedule . . .
"You know it's been since 1976 that any Division I basketball team has gone undefeated. That's a long time ago. But I think if we can continue to develop and learn from our successes and our failures, that's the whole key."
The Buffs won last season's Pac-12 tournament with a remarkable four-wins-in-four-days run in LA. But Boyle doesn't believe his team will begin conference play on Jan. 3 at Arizona wearing a target.
"I think we opened some people's eyes," he said. "But there's so much more respect that we need to earn on a national scale, even on a regional scale. People know about Colorado basketball now; we've made it relevant certainly locally and in the state, but now the challenge becomes making it relevant nationally. The only way you do that is to play the kind of schedule we're playing and have some success along the way."
Success already is happening. Listen closely - or even not that closely - and you'll hear it.