There is no hiding from expectations, not now and not later. The Colorado Buffaloes are expected to contend for the Pac-12 in 2019-20 and that might just be the beginning.
The Buffs’ success will be inevitably tied to the 2017 recruiting class, which might be the best recruiting class in program history. The crown jewel of that class at the time was D’Shawn Schwartz, the four-star recruit from Colorado Springs who has ironically been the least valuable member of that squad, although he’s poised to break out in 2019-20. After him, Evan Battey and Tyler Bey committed to CU on the same day, and though they’re polar opposites of how power forwards can look and play, they might be the best frontcourt combo in the Pac-12. The last commit was McKinley Wright, who came to CU late in the summer after Dayton head coach Archie Miller took the job at Indiana. Wright, of course, has the center of everything at CU since his first day on campus.
The Buffs struggled in 2017-18, but no one cared because of how promising the future looked. Wright showed the two-way ability to be the next great Tad Boyle point guard, all while being the emotional leader of incredible upsets. Bey looked like Andre Roberson with a prettier jumper. Schwartz was inconsistent and Battey was ruled ineligible (typical NCAA b.s.) and suffered a stroke, but their bright futures were still clear to see. Then last year, the Buffs made a fun NIT run that gave everyone even more hope. Battey looked like a mismatch nightmare in the making, Bey improved drastically on offense, and Schwartz continued to flash. Only Wright took a step back, but he improved after realizing he was trying to do too much.
2018-19 also introduced us to Daylen Kountz and Elijah Parquet, two raw but promising guards who could lead the transition between the star-studded 2017 and 2020 classes (more on that soon). Both have a ton of defensive upside as they’re long, athletic and instinctual. Kountz is also interesting to see develop on offense because his quickness and creativity translate on that end; everyone is excited about four-star point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, but Kountz could be a star before him. Even if they don’t turn into stars, they’re terrific culture players who should excel as high-level role players. They’re also the epitome of Tad players, i.e. players who aren’t all that skilled, but are athletic, work hard and focus mostly on defense (plus Kountz is a lefty).
The continued development of Kountz and Parquet (as well as Jakub Dombek, the gangly, athletic Czech forward) will have to be subplots this season. That’s because the future is now for that 2017 recruiting class. This is the year with expectations, and though everyone in that main core is a junior (or redshirt soph.), the Buffs’ realistic floor is an NCAA Tournament appearance. Everyone compliments each other, Dallas Walton is healthy, and the young guys round out a solid bench. If Battey becomes CU’s third star, or if Schwartz or Kountz break out as a legitimate players, the Buffs might be the favorite in the Pac-12. This is mostly projection, but they may have Sweet Sixteen upside.
If 2019-20 has expectations, just wait for 2020-21. Obviously we’re going to enjoy this team one year at a time, but if everyone sticks around — and that’s a huge if, considering Bey is a projected first round pick in 2020 — that team would have ridiculous upside. I don’t even want to say what their upside is because I don’t want to jinx it. (Maybe I’m getting a little too excited. I started following CU hoops during a 9-22 season led by Dwight Thorne, so this is new territory for me.) That team would also have made a run in the NIT, have played on the road at Kansas (Dec. 7, 2019), dealt with high expectations in 2019-20, competed for a Pac-12 title and gained NCAA Tournament experience.
In 2020-21, the lineup would be (assuming everyone stays): McKinley Wright (Sr.), Daylen Kountz (Jr.), D’Shawn Schwartz (Sr.), Tyler Bey (Sr.) and Dallas Walton (r-Sr.); plus Evan Battey (r-Jr.) as the most overqualified sixth man in the Pac-12, Elijah Parquet (Jr.) being a defensive stopper, Maddox Daniels (Sr.) shooting off the bench, Jakub Dombek (r-So.) being a weird 6’11 athletic wing who hopefully weighs more than 200 lbs., and Alex Strating being the most trusted 11th man in basketball. And that’s without talking about the 2020 recruiting class.
The star of the class is the aforementioned Keeshawn Barthelemy (Toronto, Canada). He’s technically part of the 2019 recruiting class after reclassifying from the 2020. Tad Boyle flexed by getting him to reclassify then agree to redshirt in 2019-20. He’s going to be a freshman in 2020-21 with a year under his belt working with coaches Boyle and Nate Tomlinson, plus he’ll go up against McKinley Wright every day in practice. At 6’4 guard with explosiveness and excellent feel for the game, Barthelemy has all the potential and basketball smarts to become the next Wright/White/Dinwiddie. Colorado is already putting him in a position to succeed.
Barthelemy is a great get on his own, but the 2020 class could be another 2017 class. Joining could be Dominique “Nique” Clifford (Colorado Springs), the top in-state recruit per Boyle tradition, and Tari Eason (Federal Way, Washington), a four-star forward with the talent that usually goes to bigger schools. There’s also Luke O’Brien (Littleton), who isn’t a blue chip in any way, but he’s a good shooter who can develop into a solid role player, a la Levi Knutson.
With Dominique Clifford, we’ve seen Colorado guards (with similar names) look dominant against weak in-state competition, but he’s ranked 83rd nationally because he’s long as hell (6’5 with long arms; plus he might grow to 6’7), plays intelligently and smoothly, and has a ton of defensive potential due to his length and athleticism. Just watch his tape and try not to imagine this guy as a fourth option.
Tari Eason, meanwhile, is the 103rd ranked recruit because he’s an explosive athlete at power forward. At 6’8, 210-lbs., Eason is a rim-rocker with the kind of game CU hasn’t had since, I believe, Cliff Meely. He’s raw and has a funky jumper, but if he’s on a team with Battey, Walton and Dombek, he has plenty of time to develop. Boyle has never worked with a player like him before, so it’s going to be interesting. (These recruits are nowhere near guaranteed to go to CU, even if it is likely. Keep that in mind.)
If the 2017 recruiting class set up Colorado for years of success, the 2020 class might continue the program’s ascendance. If Kountz, Battey and Parquet lead the transition between those classes, the Buffs have a great chance to be a contender now and for the next five or so years. That momentum translates to a winning culture and even better recruiting, especially with recruiting stud Anthony Coleman and developmental guru Bill Grier on staff.
Boyle had a chance at a run like this before, as he had recruiting, development and a winning culture from 2011 to 2014, but two bad recruiting classes halted all that momentum. This looks different, as if Boyle has learned his lessons, hired high-level assistants to help and invested in high-character players to lead the program towards a bright future.