The Colorado Buffaloes return tonight as they take on the South Dakota Coyotes (6:00 p.m., ESPN+). The season begins a new set of expectations, a last dance for McKinley Wright IV and an exciting start to the future ahead.
The Buffs were a lock to make the NCAA Tournament last year. They contended for the Pac-12 title, stumbled at the end, but still would have been an 8- or 9-seed in the tournament. They finished 21-11, which is pretty good overall, particularly considering their wins over Dayton and Oregon, and their sweeps over USC and Arizona State (three times!). It was a great season, then that five-game losing streak made it merely a good season.
Of the starters, McKinley Wright is back, as are D’Shawn Schwartz and Evan Battey. All three should be better than last season. Wright and Schwartz might take another step as scorers, while Battey could become more of an interior presence on both ends of the court. That’s a great start to building a team: the point guard who runs everything at a high level, the 3-and-D forward who can become a matchup nightmare if he realizes his abilities, and the savvy big who makes everyone around him better.
The Buffs did lose two veteran players in Shane Gatling and Lucas Siewert, and as valuable as their shooting was over the years, Tad Boyle may have upgraded at their respective positions. At off-ball guard, the Buffs will rotate between Eli Parquet, Keeshawn Barthelemy and Nique Clifford. Parquet is a standout defender who is developing a consistent jumper, Barthelemy is an explosive freshman who should get more than a few buckets, and Clifford is a bit more raw but has tremendous upside as an three-level scorer. One of those guys will pop off this year, while the other two provide better depth than, say, previous slashing guards who never developed.
In replacing Siewert, Boyle brought in graduate transfer Jeriah Horne, the former Nebraska and Tulsa forward who averaged 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds last season. Horne may not shoot quite as well as Siewert, but is a better overall player and should still stretch the defense. His own defense is an unknown for now, but he’s probably just as good or better than the Brazilian. The Buffs also have Jabari Walker in reserve, an athletic forward who has impressed Boyle with his rebounding ability. Those two should play a lot next to centers Evan Battey and a healthier Dallas Walton.
Of course, this is a long way to go without mentioning Tyler Bey. The three-year starter just left for the NBA, so there’s now a Defensive Player of the Year-sized hole at forward. He was an elite rebounder, caused turnovers and blocks with his weakside help, and was Colorado’s most consistent interior scorer. The Buffs aren’t going to replace him one-for-one, nor will they replace him with the sum of these new parts. They will almost surely regress at what Bey was best at, primarily rebounding and finishing. As a result, they won’t be as good of a team without him, even with upgrades elsewhere on the roster.
The Buffs still have scorers, and they still emphasize team rebounding and team defense, but we don’t know who will step up just yet. The Buffs have an easier non-conference schedule — not counting their Pac-12 games at Arizona and against Washington State — in which they can figure out their rotations. This team is experienced enough at the top to take their time with the rest of the rotation, even if Barthelemy and Parquet, for example, continue fighting for a starting position well into conference play.
If the Buffaloes learned from their mistakes last year — namely not holding each other accountable during difficult times — they should compete for a top-4 finish in the Pac-12. At the very least, this team should be better than their projected 7th place finish, and they should surely push for an NCAA Tournament berth. Maybe they don’t finish as a 5-seed like they were on-track last season, but an 8- or 9-seed is very doable with this team.
It should be a fun season yet, certainly with its up and downs, but a great time to appreciate Wright’s career while looking forward to the future of these talented freshmen.