Contact CU Independent Editorial Manger Tommy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org, and contact Assistant Sports Editor Alissa Noe at email@example.com.
In Head Coach Tad Boyle’s first four years at Colorado, he saw unprecedented success as his teams headed to the National Invitation Tournament followed by three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Last year, the Buffs faltered from success when they finished the season with an abysmal 16-18 record. Was last year’s misstep just a hiccup in Boyle’s tenure at CU, or is it going to be a trend that carries over into this season? Assistant Sports Editor Alissa Noe and Editorial Manager Tommy Wood duke it out.
Tommy Wood: Let’s pump the brakes for a second
There are three things you need to know about last year’s Buffs: they didn’t move the ball, they couldn’t shoot threes and they let their opponents blitz them from deep. That mixture of stagnant offense and leaky defense plunged them to their first losing season in five years. Colorado media is buzzing about a potential rebound, but I’m not so sure.
Any success the Buffs have this year is contingent on player development, exactly like it was last season. Colorado suffered because many of its key players didn’t improve much between their freshman and sophomore years. I’m not confident that it’ll be different in 2015.
Alissa Noe: These Buffs, much like Wes Gordon, will rebound this year.
Look, I know last year was rough for the Buffs. Without the guidance of a strong leader like Spencer Dinwiddie or Andre Roberson, the team floundered on the court with no one to push them to work harder in practice, and it showed whenever the game clock started. Arguably, that burden should have fallen on senior guard Askia Booker last year, but he never exactly led the team as he should have. He was too selfish on offense, failing to share the ball enough with his teammates.
But yes, I agree, three-point shooting, three-point defense and ball-handling were problems last year. But Tommy, you can’t focus on the past with this team. You forget that Josh Fortune will finally come off the bench this year after transferring from Providence last year, and that shooting is something he’s pretty darn good at. During his final season with the Friars, Fortune shot 41.4 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc, which is a better three-point percentage than the entire team shot all season last year (33.5 percent). I’ve also seen Josh Scott take his fair share of threes and make the majority of them in practice so far this year, which completely blows my mind.
As for the ball-handling and defense, I’ve been to my fair share of practices this season and I’ve seen the changes Boyle and his staff have made. The team as a whole looks like it has a higher defensive IQ, not only in the individual drills they run in practice but in the end-of-practice scrimmages as well. The ball-handling all around seems to have improved too, though I can’t put a quantifiable number on just how much they’ve improved on those fronts.
Fortune is a good shooter, as is redshirt sophomore George King, by all accounts. But simply putting capable shooters on the court doesn’t make you a good shooting team. You have to create open shots for your shooters, and the Buffs struggled badly at that last season.
It was a symptom of their poor ball movement. Colorado was 11th in the Pac-12 in assists and 10th in turnovers; players stopped the ball on offense, they were bad off-ball screeners, and they rarely strung those sequences of quick passes that generate good shots and open driving lanes. The Buffs’ offense seemed to consist of nothing but post-ups and wing isolations. That’s a combination of an unimaginative playbook and players getting tunnel vision.
That hearkens back to player development — Scott draws regular double-teams in the post, so his next step is seeing the help coming and making a quick pass. Ditto for point guard Dom Collier. He needs to recognize where the help comes from when he gets into the paint off of a pick-and-roll, and the Buffs need to station someone in the weakside corner for Collier to find.
That, and some more creative offensive sets — Horns, anyone? — will improve Colorado’s lot from deep. Defensively, the Buffs need to get better at fighting through screens and defending in transition. They were ninth in the Pac-12 in three-point defense last season because they struggled in both of those areas.
You remember the Wyoming game, where Colorado lost Josh Adams again and again as he buried a barrage of threes. The game where the Buffs allowed leakout after leakout on the fast break. I can’t unsee Larry Nance Jr. obliterating Josh Scott.
Boyle said that Colorado will switch more screens this year, which should help them defend the three-point line better, but they still have work to do in transition. The Buffs should play it safe, not chase offensive rebounds, send their guards back on defense as soon as a shot goes up.
Again, theoretically, this could all happen. But we said much of the same thing last offseason — if Colorado cleans up dumb mistakes and its young players develop, it could be very good. That didn’t turn out so well. Call me a cynic, but don’t assume that it’ll happen this year.
That’s where I believe the Europeans can help bail the Americans out of a battle with themselves. You read that right. It’s true. Last year the Buffs couldn’t string together good passes to produce much on offense. But I believe the addition of freshman guard Thomas Akyazili and sophomore forward Kenan Guzonjic could help tremendously with that aspect of Colorado’s game.
In Belgium with the Under-18 team last summer, Akyazili averaged 15.6 points, 4.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds. The summer before that, he earned an invitation to Steph Curry’s Under Armour SC30 guard camp, which features the best 20 high school-level guards in the world. Not only did he excel on his team in Eastern Europe, but he also got to learn from the best in the game prior to his arrival in Colorado. From what I’ve seen of him so far in the past few weeks, he has the highest basketball IQ of any Colorado freshman I’ve ever seen, not to mention the immense amount of work he’s putting into his game. He told me in an interview last week that he tries to go back to Coors every night to work on his shooting or to lift.
Guzonjic, on the other hand, may have to work a little harder to earn his chops on this team, but he still offers valuable skills to a team that desperately needs a 180 after last year. The big man, who stands at 6’8”, comes to Colorado with the versatility to be able to score at different positions on the floor. At Midland College a couple years back, the Bosnian shot an impressive 45.9 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from behind the arc.
As for Collier, I know for a fact that his main issue last season fell back on his confidence level. As a freshman last year, it must have been daunting for this kid who was used to playing for smaller crowds to be expected to perform in front of 11,000-plus people every night. I’ve seen him in practice and know how well he played in high school. He’s good. At Denver East, Collier averaged 23.4 points a night and wasn’t afraid to score. That changed whenever he hit the court donning Ralphie’s likeness, and it showed.
This was something he addressed at media day last week and, from the sound of it, his former teammate Booker helped him overcome that obstacle so he can finally play as fearlessly as he did in high school.
“He wasn’t scared to fail,” Collier said. “I mean, he would go out there with so much confidence and that’s really what I learned the most from him, not being scared to fail and having the most confidence out there. Feel like no one is able to guard you.”
Look at the facts. Josh Scott is healthier than ever and expanding his game to downtown. As you pointed out, Fortune and King have what it takes to fill that three-point hole in the hearts of the Buffaloes. The coaches have implemented new defensive drills and ball-handling tactics to compensate for those problems as well. This team has what it takes to bounce back from the hole they dug themselves into last season, and I wholeheartedly believe they will.
Either way, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens come non-conference play in a few weeks. The Buffs are set to take on the Iowa State Cyclones on a neutral court in South Dakota on Nov. 13 at 3 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.