The Colorado Buffaloes begin their season with a home game against Towson on Monday, Nov. 6. The Buffs brings back all of its major contributors from last year, most notably Tristan da Silva and KJ Simpson, and adds five-star freshman Cody Williams and TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin. This looks and feels like an NCAA Tournament team, but there are a few questions to consider before the season begins in two weeks.
1. Who will be the Buffs’ fifth starter?
Tad Boyle has been clear that all of KJ Simpson, Cody Williams, Tristan da Silva and Eddie Lamkpkin, Jr. will be in the starting lineup when healthy. That fifth spot is up for grabs as J’Vonne Hadley, Luke O’Brien and Julian Hammond III compete in pre-season. Each of them provides something different and they should all play 20+ minutes regardless of who is out there for the tip-off.
Hadley was the starter last year before he suffered a season-ending injury at the beginning of Pac-12 play. He does everything you expect from a Colorado Buffalo: he plays excellent team defense, rebounds well for his size, plays unselfish basketball and doesn’t care about his own shots. He’s a valuable rotation player, although there are concerns about his shooting and athleticism. He didn’t attempt a single three-pointer last year, as he’s more of a post-oriented player who has a bag of ambidextrous moves. That playstyle worked in non-con, but he struggled to finish against the bigger and better athletes in the Pac-12.
Luke O’Brien might be the better fit on this roster, as the former Columbine star emerged as a valuable starter thanks to his energy and ability on the boards. LOB was recruited as a shot-making shooting guard, but hasn’t really put it together on the offensive end of the floor. By all accounts, he’s shooting it much better in pre-season and his three-point percentage should be closer to the 46% of his sophomore season than the 29% he shot as a junior, small sample sizes notwithstanding. Maybe you want his energy off the bench, but you also need to space the floor since Williams and Lampkin aren’t great shooters.
If Boyle really wants to push it on offense, Julian Hammond would be the pick. He’s a good shooter and very smart passer, both of which skills play well in the pick-and-roll. Him starting would also ease the playmaking burden on Simpson and allow him to more focus on scoring rather than facilitating the offense, something he struggled with last year. However, a starting backcourt of Hammond and Simpson is a bit undersized, as they’re listed at a generous 6’2 and 6’3, respectively. Hammond probably works better as a sixth man who often plays in two-guard lineups, not dissimilar to the role Dom Collier played during McKinley Wright’s freshman year.
My guess is that LOB is the starter because of his combination of shooting, rebounding and size, even if Hammond is the more complete offensive player and Hadley is the better defender. O’Brien offers the most balance and adds a frenetic energy that could set the tone for a fast-paced offense that wants to pass, cut and screen.
2. What will the Colorado offense look like?
Colorado basketball is all about individual players taking ownership and that usually applies to the style of offense they play. This can be disorganized and stagnant when certain players cough Ski Booker cough insist on getting their shots up instead of playing team basketball. But it also gives allows his lead guards to play to their strengths, like Wright slowing things down to methodically pick apart opposing defenses, or Spencer Dinwiddie pushing the pace and getting downhill.
This offense will be built around KJ Simpson and Cody Williams, as Tad Boyle wants them to attack, attack, attack. Both players are gifted in transition, as KJ plays best when he’s aggressive and Cody is a phenomenal outlet passer and a crafty finisher. It also works with LOB and Hadley running the floor, da Silva isolating against mismatches, and outruns an opposing defense that will want to pack it in against the Buffs’ so-so shooting. Maybe Lampkin struggles with the pace since he’s close to three bills, but Assane Diop can run and this team might play a bit of small-ball anyway.
As fun as this will be, I’m more interested in what the half-court offense will look like. Last year was a slog as the Buffs couldn’t hit anything from deep and had a few players who couldn’t be trusted with the ball in their hands. Lampkin now takes over for Lawson Lovering and Williams starts in place of Nique Clifford. I mean no disrespect to those guys but Lampkin and Williams are vastly better offensive players. Williams is a shaky shooter, but he’s long as hell, has good vision and a bag of moves when he gets downhill. Having him as a secondary ball handler will the help offense flow, particularly when teams try to force the ball out of Simpson’s hands.
Lampkin is also a great playmaker for his size, as Boyle has compared him to Evan Battey in how he processes the floor and makes passes from the high-post. The TCU transfer might not hit 45% from three, but the Buffs will run a number of handoffs, PNRs and high-low actions through him. Him setting on-ball screens will be crucial, as opposing defenses threw hedges at Simpson all year knowing that Lovering wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the 4-on-3 advantage that created. Lampkin will be more reliable in the short roll, as he has good hands and can find the right pass to attack the defense. If that pass isn’t there, he can slow it down and run some DHOs to get the ball back to Simpson or create downhill drives for Williams and da Silva.
The half court offense will also include lots of da Silva, but it won’t be built around him precisely because he’s such a smart and versatile player. Da Silva will get his 15 points per game entirely in the flow of the offense, regardless of the specific scheme. If the Buffs play fast, he’s going to keep the ball moving, hit his open shots and be aggressive on the drive. If the Buffs get bogged down, the offense will try to get him the ball in isolation where he can create his own shot or get to the foul line. (Lots of those open looks and isolations will be created through pindown screens, where Hadley and Lampkin become essential.) The only issue is that sometimes he disappears or takes a back seat to Simpson, but that got better over the season as players and coaches figured out how to get him in attack mode.
3. How will this team improve from last year?
The 2022-23 Buffs didn’t have that high of expectations, but it was disappointing that they struggled in Pac-12 play and only made the NIT after a number of big-name programs turning down invitations. Lots went wrong last year, namely injuries and illnesses, poor shooting, and a few too many minutes going to players who weren’t quite at the level the Buffs were trying to compete at.
As for the injuries and illnesses, that mostly affected Simpson, who struggled with a sprained ankle and then contracted mono towards the end of the season. He looked physically taxed for much of the season, in part because he was overburdened on offense and another because he wasn’t playing at 100%. The Buffs also lost J’Vonne Hadley early in the pre-season, Jalen Gabbidon for different parts, and generally had to rely too much on Nique Clifford, Ethan Wright and Quincy Allen to fill in some gaps. Wright came along as the season wore on, Clifford wasn’t a great fit and didn’t develop in Boulder, and Allen was neither consistent, nor disciplined, nor good.
The Buffs might have some depth issues and injury concerns. Javon Ruffin, my favorite option as that hypothetical fifth starter, is out for the season with yet another leg injury. Lampkin is still getting back into shape after undergoing a minor procedure on his back. Still, the Buffs are better equipped to deal with those above issues. Simpson is physically stronger and will expend less energy with Williams and Hammond playing significant roles in the offense. Hadley is back and might play some minutes at the five if Boyle wants to play hyper-aggressive small-ball lineups like he’s hinted at.
There are also the young guys. There’s a huge difference between Williams and last year’s year wings Clifford, Gabbidon and Wright. RJ Smith is expected to be in the rotation after redshirting last year, partially due to an injury he suffered as a high school senior. The 6’4 combo guard is a physical and disruptive defender who is a solid shooter and driver on the offensive end. Assane Diop also figures to play backup center, as the 6’10 freshman is quick on his feet, shoots it well for his size, and has bulked up his skinny frame in his short time on campus.
Those would be my guesses for the 8th and 9th guys in the rotation, but don’t be surprised if either Courtney Anderson or Bangot Dak see the floor. Anderson is an Eli Parquet-type athlete who might get on the court with hustle and defense while his skills are developing. Dak was expected to redshirt, but the 6’10, 180-lbs. forward does all kinds of interesting things as a passer and cutter that open up shots for his teammates. Both are longer term projects who might not contribute anything this season, but they’re interesting players nonetheless. (I have no idea what Joe Hurlburt will be.)
The last thing here is that the shooting really should improve this season. For various reasons, Simpson, Hammond and O’Brien all shot around 30% from three last season despite being confident shooters. Simpson’s efficiency plummeted due to poor health and worse shot selection, but those should be abated now that he’s healthy and will have a more focused role. Hammond struggled to consistently produce, as the roster tumult meant that he had to fill gaps here and there and couldn’t always play to his strengths. LOB hopefully had a fluky shooting season, as his shot mechanics look good even if he might shoot the ball a bit too hard. Regression should help, as will having a more consistent rotation and a pass-first offense that gets everyone into a steady rhythm.
4. What role will Cody Williams play?
Yes, he’s a consensus five-star recruit, a McDonald’s All-American and a possible lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, but he’s still a work in progress whose reputation is built more on his potential than his current skill set. If you’re expecting Kevin Durant, or even Kevin Knox, you’re going to be disappointed.
Williams will be the third, maybe fourth option on this Colorado Buffaloes team. Da Silva and Simpson are proven Pac-12 players who will have the offense run through them, while Williams plays more of a supporting role. Boyle will play him to his strengths, meaning he will push the tempo when he gets rebounds, attack the rim when he gets the ball in space, and try to keep the ball moving in this up-tempo offense. Maybe they trust him as a PNR facilitator or isolation playmaker, but that will be mixed into the offense rather than a foundation.
There’s also a decent chance Williams is parked in the corner during games where the pace slows down. That’s what Boyle did with Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup, where Williams was often unsure if he should take the open shot, dribble into the teeth of the defense or keep the ball moving. My guess is that Boyle gets him more involved in screens and cuts — Team USA had terrible spacing and no team chemistry — but he’s still developing his jumper and will have to figure out how to punish teams for giving him too much space.
Don’t expect anything crazy from Williams this season. I would guess that his stats look something like 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game, with good team defense, smart passing and a number of plays that flash his long-term potential. He’s going to contribute to winning basketball and improve throughout the season. Just don’t expect him to take over games or become the leading scorer.
5. What are reasonable expectations for this season?
If you want to get excited about this team, you should go on over to KenPom.com and look at Colorado’s schedule. If you don’t have the subscription, well, the Buffs are projected to win 19 of their first 20 games, including a neutral site game against the Miami Hurricanes. Most of those are decisive wins too, as the games against Colorado State, Miami and USC are the only relative toss-ups. This isn’t to say 19-1 is likely, but the Buffs could and maybe should have 16+ wins by the end of January.
The conference schedule gets harder at the end of January. The Buffs visit Washington, Washington State and Utah — all teams CU is better than, but 0-3 is more likely than 3-0 in that tricky stretch. CU will later play at UCLA, USC and Oregon later on, all likely losses, as well as the always annoying trip to Oregon State. Throw in a home game against Arizona and there are potential pitfalls for this team when they should be building their resume.
The good news is that, per yearly tradition, Tad thinks this team will continue to improve and play their best basketball down the stretch. It’s a newish system with some new players, so it makes sense that they would grow together as the season progresses. That end of the season stretch might not be so tough if da Silva and Simpson are legitimate guys, Lampkin and Hadley offer a steady presence, and Hammond and O’Brien become a bit more consistent in their more defined roles. Things look really nice if Williams is a legit contributor and the Buffs find some 20-ish quality minutes from Smith, Diop, Anderson and Dak.
KenPom has this team going 22-8 in the regular season and 13-7 in Pac-12 play. That’s a top-4 seed in the Pac-12 and a clear NCAA Tournament berth, probably in the range of a 6-seed, maybe higher depending on the conference tournament. That seems reasonable. This team could win anywhere from 20 to 24 regular season games depending on their health, team shooting and the in-season growth of the underclassmen. At best, we’re contending for the Pac-12 title and gunning for a Sweet Sixteen appearance. At worst, we lose some frustrating games and sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble.