Known as Tad Ball by both his supporters and detractors, the Colorado Buffaloes under Tad Boyle have played a distinctive brand of basketball that is not always pleasing to the eye. It’s a gritty style that relies on defense and rebounding above all else, often at the expense of rhythm, flow and made shots.
Boyle’s brough his philosophy to a Colorado program that was devoid of success and had little recruiting pull. Him and his staff had to identify a style of play and a type of recruit they wanted to bring to their program. Sometimes they landed skilled guards, but often they had to scout raw talent and develop them into winning players. The idea is that you can teach the George Kings and Elijah Parquets how to shoot, but you can’t teach their physical gifts or work ethic.
The Buffs have proven time and again that if they work hard on defense and crash the boards, they can beat anyone in the country, home or away. It doesn’t matter whether or not they make their own shots as long as they can disrupt their opponent. These rock fights are grueling to play, especially for teams not used to them. It can get ugly, but the Buffs have learned how to win ugly, and win they do.
Boyle is the winningest head coach in Colorado history and has won 20 or more games in nine of his twelve seasons in Boulder. He develops NBA talent and brings in blue-chip recruits with a fraction of the budget that his rivals in Eugene, Los Angeles and Tucson have to throw at recruiting trips and NIL deals. Schools like Texas A&M and Tennessee tried to poach him early in his tenure, but the Greeley-born coach made it clear he’s staying in Colorado until his retirement.
The best basketball team in Colorado isn’t the Buffs, or even the NBA Champion Denver Nuggets, but the Colorado Springs-based Team USA. Boyle doesn’t work with the senior squad, but he’s worked his way up over the years. He was an assistant on the U19 team under John Calipari, then last year became the head coach of the U18 team that won the Americas Championship. Today he’s in Debrecen, Hungary as the Team USA head coach at the FIBA U19 World Cup.
Team USA began training camp on June 11 and whittled down their list of 30 invites to a 12-man squad that includes the Buffs’ own Cody Williams. It’s a hurried process putting the team together, leaving little time to put in a system or even establish roles. It’s also a tough competition where they will face NBA talent and teams that have been playing together for years. The Americans have to play simplified basketball and win with effort, length and athleticism.
“The difference [at this competition],” Boyle says, “is who can really guard and stop other teams from scoring and who can rebound the basketball”
He cited Slovenia as an example of a well-coached, well-disciplined team that gave the Americans trouble. Team USA struggled defending the pick-and-roll, botched defensive assignments and couldn’t get into any offensive flow.
Boyle adjusted and figured out a lineup that could shut down Slovenia’s pick-and-roll and clean up the boards. Team USA pushed the pace after rebounds, leading to easy points on the other end. Led by Kylan Boswell and Tobe Awaka, they ultimately overpowered Slovenia to secure the 77-73 win.
The next day in practice, Boyle spent time going over defensive positioning, where and when to switch, and that none of it mattered if they couldn’t secure the boards. He wanted to emphasize defense and rebounding and reiterate that those were the forces that powered their win over Slovenia. If the Americans are going to win this tournament, they have to play like did down the stretch.
“I would much rather learn from a win than from a loss,” Boyle said. “The way we guarded the last four or five minutes of the game versus how we guarded in the first 36 minutes of the game as a team wasn’t even close.”
Team USA’s next game was against Lebanon. It would have been easy to overlook the Cedars given they had lost their previous game to Madagascar, who the Americans hung 136 points on earlier in the week. But they hounded their opponents and overwhelmed them with their defensive pressure. They turned those stops into 122 points, as they ran in transition, attacked before Lebanon’s defense could get set, and even hit a few three-pointers for good measure.
“That’s why you have to focus on defense because that will create chances for us in transition,” Boyle told his team in the locker room after the win. “Continue to buy in to those things and we’ll be in good shape.”
This is the result you expect from Team USA, but it’s still a credit to the players that they were that focused and had taken to heart what Boyle and his coaching staff had emphasized in practice. They know what they’re here for and it’s going to take hard work, selflessness and accountability.
“We’re not afraid of tell [our teammates] when they mess up,” Cody Williams said after posting 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in just 16 minutes on the floor. “If they have an open shot and they don’t shoot, we tell them to shoot the ball. If they let someone just fly past them on defense, they’re going to have to sit on the bench. It’s nothing personal because we’re all here to win a gold medal.”
Team USA is always at a massive talent advantage but their teams face an uphill battle in terms of team chemistry and having a system in place. The coaches have to utilize their superior length and athleticism while at the same time avoid getting stuck in the halfcourt. It won’t be the most beautiful basketball, but this is what works on the international circuit.
Maybe the Buffs could have a bit more structure and creativity in their own offensive system, but those pillars of Colorado basketball — “Defense, rebounding and sharing the ball,” in the words of the coach — travel well and travel far.
Team USA will begin knockout play on Wednesday, June 28th. They will face China at 7:00 a.m. MT and the game can be streamed for free on FIBA’s website. The Americans remain heavy favorites to win the gold but will face stiff competition from France, Spain and Turkey. The final, should they make it, will be played on Sunday, July 2.