Love it or hate it, Tad Ball works.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Tad Ball” is a sardonic, often pejorative way to talk about Tad Boyle’s basketball philosophy. The staples of Tad Ball are rebounding, defense and effort, traits that mostly translate wherever or whomever you play. The main downside to Tad Ball is a lack of an enjoyable offense, which can be characterized by offensive stagnation and hilariously sloppy basketball. Effort plays well, but there’s not always the skill to make it fun.
Stylistically, Tad Ball is about as far from Pac-12 basketball as you can find this side of the Big Ten. West Coast basketball has always been about putting the ball in the basket, not trying to win rock fights by sheer determination. Teams like UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State want to run up and down the floor, score efficiently with spread offenses, save energy on defense, and play games that are generally fun to watch. Even the more defensively minded teams like Arizona and USC have offensive systems that allow their best players to flourish.
But Colorado wants to zag when everyone else is zigging, and that’s working just fine. If Oregon is looking pretty in those brand new Nikes, Colorado wants to drag them into the mud and fight in their natural habitat. That’s where they’re comfortable fighting and it can be quite effective if that’s the last thing their opponents want to do. All that mud-fighting is why Colorado has pulled off some amazing upsets this season and why they’re poised for an NIT run few were expecting before the year.
According to KenPom.com, Colorado is 47th in the nation in team defense. That places them first in the Pac-12 by quite a distance. By those same advanced stats, Colorado has played the 18th hardest defensive schedule in the country, meaning they’re playing this well against a litany of high-power offenses. (They were rated 8th in that metric before their
shitshow slugfest against Cal on Wednesday night brought them down - Cal is really that bad). Looking at more traditional stats, CU is first in the conference in 2-pt. field goal percentage allowed, first in total rebounds, second in blocks despite having only one true big man, and they’re doing so while having the second fewest fouls committed.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Colorado having the best defense in the Pac-12 is that this team is so young. Defense usually comes with experience, but this team already there. In their upset over Arizona, nearly 60% of the minutes went to freshmen. Arizona isn’t exactly the most experienced team, but they are likely the best and most talented team in the conference and it’s a testament to CU’s talent and maturity (and elevation) that they controlled that game and hung onto the upset. McKinley Wright out-dueled Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Dallas Walton schooled Deandre Ayton in the first half. Tyler Bey showed why he’s going to eventually win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. These kids are really good and they will only get better. As they improve, wins like that Arizona upset will become the norm.
Give credit to the players because they’re the ones out there diving for loose balls, but it cannot be overlooked that as flawed as Tad Ball is, Boyle and his staff have shown the ability to find the best players possible to make that system work. If this offense can only function with an elite playmaker, they will unearth that star whether he’s a 4-star considering Harvard, a three-star who has gone under the radar, or a Division-II All-American. If this defense can only work with lengthy, athletic wings who can space the floor on the other end, that’s exactly who Boyle is getting with 4-star prospects like D’Shawn Schwartz and Tyler Bey, plus 2018 recruits Daylen Kountz and Elijah Parquet. Boyle and his staff know exactly what kind of players they need and they have the recruiting ability and player development to make it happen.
With Tad Ball, it’s always fair to criticize the offense. But while this season’s offense has been maddening, it doesn’t have to be the case in the future. Yes, this team won’t be Lonzo-era UCLA on offense, but they can be a great defensive team with an average or even good offense. Just as their defense will improve in the next few years as these freshmen gain more experience, so too will their offense.
In 2018-19, the Buffs will miss George King and Dom Collier’s shooting ability (plus King’s rebounding and defense), but McKinley Wright, Dallas Walton and Tyler Bey have the talent and form to develop that skill and unleash their star potential. Additionally, the Buffs’ offense could improve next year because they will have drastically better playmaking with McKinley and Namon Wright creating off the drive and Evan Battey and Lazar Nikolic making things happen from the high post. This young team has shown its defensive potential and they have the ability to also have a good offense despite Boyle’s offensive limitations. And don’t worry about the turnovers, those will get better as the players gain experience.
Will Colorado still need McKinley Wright to be a superhero to bail them out? Often, yes, but he’s capable of that. Will CU rely too heavily on outside shooting and struggle to adjust when shots aren’t falling? Of course, but they’ll have plenty of options with players who can score on every level. Will CU fans who don’t know who Josh Scott is clamor for Tad Boyle to be fired? You better believe it, but don’t dare listen to them unless you need a hearty laugh.
Tad Ball will always have its flaws, but this system with the young talent the staff has brought to Boulder have given Colorado its best chance to have a great team sooner than later. Some games will be uglier than Dillon Brooks, but defense and rebounding is a great foundation for this team to build upon as they develop the offense. Just have some patience and learn to enjoy the beauty of a chippy mud fight.