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Why is Colorado’s offense struggling?

The Buffs have not been scoring at all lately.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Iowa at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This 2019-20 team is Tad Boyle’s dream. They have all kinds of experience, everyone knows the defensive rotations, and everyone knows to defend the paint and box out. They have multi-year starters at every position, starter-caliber depth on the bench, and clear cut emotional leaders. They even have the star point guard who can create for himself and his teammates in Boyle’s extremely player-centric offense.

For all their strengths — and this defense is elite, save for three-point defense — the Buffs have struggled mightily on offense during non-conference play. Defense will win them lots of games, but as we learned against Kansas, defense alone cannot compete with great teams. That was the first game CU lost because of their woeful offense, although they needed late surges to pick up close wins over San Diego, Wyoming, Sacramento State and Loyola Marymount, all at home.

Colorado’s offensive struggles start with the turnovers. They turn the ball over 22 times per 100 possessions, which according to KenPom.com is 297th out of 353 Division-I teams. What’s even worse is that Colorado loses the ball on a steal on 12.4% of possessions (341st), so the opposing team can turn those turnovers into transition opportunities, which then bypasses CU’s great defense for easy buckets.

Tyler Bey has turned into a star this season. His advanced stats are off the charts. He has a 29.1 PER (peak Josh Scott territory), a 31.3% defensive rebounding rate (7th best in the nation), a 10.6 defensive box plus/minus (Matisse Thybulle territory), and is picking 3.6 combined blocks and steals per game. That is an amazing player, especially when you add in all the foul shots he draws. But Bey has a significant weakness, and it’s turnovers. He’s averaging 3.1 turnovers per game, often on lazy passes, lost dribbles and dropped passes. If he’s in the post and the defense throws another body at him, it’s very likely to result in a turnover.

Bey isn’t alone in being sloppy with the ball. Maddox Daniels telegraphs every pass he throws. Eli Parquet and Daylen Kountz are still learning basic guard skills. Evan Battey, bless his heart, picks up a lot of offensive fouls. Lucas Siewert and Shane Gatling have kept the turnovers in check, but they’re really just spot-up shooters. McKinley Wright and D’Shawn Schwartz are the only heavy-usage players who haven’t turned it over much.

When everyone struggles with turnovers, it’s systemic. This team doesn’t focus on passing, catching or even dribbling. You can blame Tad Boyle for that — he notoriously doesn’t use practice time for free throws or offensive fundamentals — but he has said this season that he’s tired of seeing players throwing one-handed passes and making one-handed catches. These are just bad habits that CU has to expel.

More so than giving the ball away, this sloppy play hurts everything offensively. It’s impossible to get into any offensive flow if you can’t even get off a shot. Evan Battey and Tyler Bey can’t post up if only Wright and Gatling know how to throw entry passes. You can’t have any ball movement if those passes are bobbled. Against tougher competition, open shots are only open for a second, and if you waste that second trying to catch a bad pass, you’re done for. Clean passes mean clean shots, and Colorado isn’t getting anything right now.

There are other issues for Colorado right now, although not as serious as their ball security. McKinley Wright will need to step up, both in productively and in volume. He’s having his worst season of his CU career as he’s at career-lows in usage, shooting efficiency and assist percentage. The best version of CU is with him taking over the offense, and he has at times this season, but it’s usually too late into the game and too infrequently. He’s a confidence/volume scorer, so his efficiency should improve once he realizes how vital he is to a functional CU offense.

I have no idea why Bey isn’t a better finisher inside. It’s been an issue for 2+ seasons now, but for someone as athletic and physical as him, he’s not a strong finisher. That becomes a larger issue when he is swallowed whole by teams that can match or exceed his athleticism and length, like Kansas. It’s great that he’s drawing so many fouls and making threes at a high clip, but his turnovers and interior finishing have been major weaknesses that have undone most of his offensive contributions.

Finally, it goes without saying that the Buffs’ role players have to step up. Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey and D’Shawn Schwartz are the only non-stars who have been as good as expected. Even then, Battey struggles with foul trouble and Siewert and Schwartz are prone to disappearing. The 2-guard position has been an unmitigated disaster, mostly because Daylen Kountz has taken a major step backward after his mini-breakout late last season. Boyle has called on Eli Parquet to start, but Parquet’s entire offensive game is cutting. Shane Gatling has yet to get hot and Maddox Daniels has been disastrous with turnovers. Colorado needs help offensively, so if those three offensive-minded wings struggle to stay on the floor, things aren’t going to get any better.