Let’s get this settled right away: the Colorado Buffaloes aren’t going to Dance this season, not unless something amazing happens. 2017-18 is a transition year for Buffaloes basketball to reset and build for a bright future.
This season should be one of the most fun and exciting we’ve had in the Tad Boyle era, but don’t expect that to convert to many wins. If the Buffs finish with around 18 wins, this season will be a success. If they get those wins while playing team-first, high-octane basketball and they appear to improve as the season progresses, this season will be a massive success.
This squad is the youngest Tad Boyle has ever had at CU. He just brought in the best recruiting class in Colorado history — seriously, folks, Tad Boyle is the best recruiter to ever coach here — and the freshman are going to play a lot. McKinley Wright IV is probably going to start at point guard. He’s mature beyond his years as a facilitator and defender, but he’s still a freshman point guard starting in the Pac-12 (and he’s not named Markelle or Lonzo). D’Shawn Schwartz and Tyler Bey, both four-star prospects, are going to get some serious playing time on the wing. Dallas Walton may be the first big man off the bench and he’s two years removed from playing competitive basketball. Lazar Nikolic may not play much as he adjusts to American basketball, but he could get some run as well.
Unless you’re Kentucky or Duke, playing a freshman-heavy squad doesn’t convert to many wins, but that doesn’t mean you’re in a bad spot. These freshmen will learn on the fly and adapt to Pac-12 basketball before our eyes. If these young Buffs — Tadpoles, as we’ll call them — have the character Boyle and CU veterans have been raving about, they should go from sink-or-swim to Michael Phelps, hopefully without the weed.
It’s not just the freshmen who are new to Colorado. The Buffs are going to rely on Missouri transfer Namon Wright in his first of two seasons in Boulder. If Wright, a 6’6 guard, is fully healthy after having foot surgery a year ago, his game is perfect to compliment George King as the Buffs’ primary scorers. Where King will bully in the paint and create shots in the mid-range game, Wright is a better shooter from the outside and he’s adept at facilitating on the drive. When surrounded by teammates who can shoot and pass, the driving lanes should open up for Wright and there should be more room for King to work. A bounce back year from Dominique Collier would help, since he can be a great shooter and secondary playmaker as a starting shooting guard. Hopefully Collier will have his minutes shifted so he’s also the nominal point guard on bench units.
It will also help the offense that the Buffs are going to go small this year and they’re likely to pick up the pace. CU was already thin in the frontcourt with Evan Battey playing, but now that he has to redshirt due to an unfair NCAA ruling, the Buffs will either rely on yet unproven big men Lucas Siewert and Walton, or they will go small-ball with King or Bey at the 4 for the majority of every game. I’m betting on the latter, since Siewert hasn’t shown the ability to defend and Walton is still something of a project. Either way, Tory Miller is going to be asked to step up his game without trying to do too much.
Hopefully, Boyle’s small-ball will resemble the spread pick-and-roll offense built for Derrick White. McKinley Wright is superb at the running the PNR and he should have the pieces around him to support that offense. King and Namon Wright are both excellent shooters, as is Collier. Miller will be the lone big man in the lineup and though he can’t (or shouldn’t) pop, he can roll with force. Miller is going to pick up a few too many charge calls, but his strength and dunking ability should draw the defense in enough to open up the perimeter. Collier and Namon’s playmaking ability could be great here as they can attack close outs or run secondary pick-and-rolls. Namon and King could also go isolation if they have a favorable matchup. Assuming their offense is PNR-heavy, they will be fun as hell to watch ... until the defense goes zone and the Buffs don’t know what to do besides chuck threes.
The defense of this small-ball lineup will be, uh, interesting. King is probably the best defender, unless it’s McKinley Wright, unless it’s Bey. It’s encouraging that CU has two freshmen capable of playing good defense, but anytime two of your top defenders are freshmen, you’re not exactly going to be an elite defensive squad.
Collier and Namon Wright have the ability to be quality defenders, but they’re inconsistent. Miller is strong enough to fight in the paint and quick enough to contain the pick-and-roll, but he doesn’t have the size or leaping ability to protect the rim, though that doesn’t stop him from trying to block every shot and getting into foul trouble. Walton’s defensive potential is through the roof, but he’s still learning. Siewert, Schwartz and Nikolic all show promise, but they’re unproven at the moment. Maybe this is the year Boyle experiments with a zone defense as he tries to hide the smallest team he’s ever coached.
Considering the youth and lack of defense, expect the Buffs to surrender more points than Boyle feels comfortable allowing. (Boyle is only comfortable with scores below 60, so maybe this isn’t the most accurate sentence.) Colorado will probably be outscored, but it will be encouraging to see them play a fun offense and light up the scoreboard themselves. This year isn’t about winning as many games as possible, it’s about letting the young guys grow together and form the foundation of the next great Buffaloes team.
It may not necessarily translate into wins this season, but Boyle is building something special in Boulder. Let’s sit back and enjoy the transition into what could be a new era of Colorado basketball. And mayyyyybe, just maybe, everything could come together and the Buffs could contend in a down year for the Pac-12.