For the first time in a decade, Colorado fans won’t be clamoring for the sound of rubber meeting hardwood once November rolls around. Ask anyone around campus or through social media, and they’ll look at you funny if you mention the thought of it. The arrival of basketball has taken a bit of a back seat to the rise of the football program, but you won’t see Tad Boyle complaining. Few understand better just how symbiotic the relationship between both programs can be.
The date is September 10th, 2016, and the Colorado Buffaloes football team is preparing for their first true home game of the season. They’ve just demolished in-state rival Colorado State, and are looking to make yet another statement as Idaho State comes to town. In the stands, you’ll find three players who may hold the keys to the future of the Colorado Buffaloes program. A Colorado Buffaloes program, yes, but not the one you might expect. Sure, Evan Battey stands 6’7” and 280lbs, a prototypical left tackle prospect, but he isn’t here to decide to put on shoulder pads for Coach Mike MacIntyre. Neither are Tyler Bey or D’Shawn Schwartz. Together, they stand on a set of bleachers in Folsom Field, cheering on the Buffaloes. It wouldn’t be the trio’s last moment together.
Today, you can find them on the commit list for the Colorado Buffaloes. Tad Boyle couldn’t be happier. He’s signed the 18th best class in the country to date, without question his best haul since convincing Josh Scott, Wesley Gordon, and Xavier Johnson to don the black and gold in 2012. That day in Folsom represents a chapter in the book that brought these young men to Boulder, Tad Boyle won’t be complaining.
Make no mistake, though, Tad Boyle expects his group to make some noise around town as well. There’s room for more than one successful program in Boulder, and it is up to the fans to make that fact a reality. Hoops may have snuck up on you, but it’s here just the same. There’s potential here to make this arguably the best cumulative year in Colorado sports of all time, you’d be wise to take full advantage.
In previous years, my basketball preview has been broken down into specific categories, and this year’s version will feature the same bones as you’ve been used to. Hopefully, you’ll find a few new twists to keep you interested. First up, is a comprehensive breakdown of the schedule, easily the most oversimplified aspect of a basketball season. People tend to gloss over the details in favor of the opponents a team will face, but there’s so much more nuance and art that people fail to see. Hopefully, that will be a little less true once your down with this piece. Enjoy.
Colorado Basketball: The Schedule
The first thing you’ll notice about my approach in breaking down a basketball schedule is that, like most things in life, I feel that a season ebbs and flows. If you look close enough, there are tangible breaks and important stretches that can be broken down and dissected as separate entities entirely. Then, when pieced back together, they tend to tell a more full story. Think of it like watching a movie, and then going back and reading the novel that movie was based on. No matter how encapsulating the motion picture may be, it just can’t portray the entire story in the same detail as the book.
Grouping 1: “The Thaw”
Nov 11: Sacramento State
Nov 14: Seattle
Nov 17: Louisiana-Monroe
The Buffs are starting the season off with a much more standard approach than last year when they travelled to South Dakota to face national power Iowa State and then directly to Alabama to face Auburn in the Tip-Off Classic shortly after.
While the Buffs survived that slate (giving ISU everything they could handle and subsequently besting Auburn) the early-season grind clearly weight heavily on the team upon returning to Boulder. In their next three, they turned in largely uninspiring performances in Coors Event Center against Portland, Omaha and Air Force.
This early slate will not strike much fear into the Buffaloes, as none of the three are currently projected to finish among the top 200 teams in the country according to KenPom projections.
Sacramento State was picked to finish 8th in the Big Sky Conference in preseason polls but it would be a major victory if they were able to give the Buffs any semblance of trouble in their opener.
Seattle provides a bit of an interesting storyline as they eliminated the Buffs from the CBI in 2015 to cement a fitting end to a dismal year. Projected to finish 4th in the WAC this upcoming season, the Redhawks have two notable returning players in G Brendan Westendorf and F William Powell.
Louisiana-Monroe, led by G Nick Coppola will be hard-pressed to challenge the Buffaloes for an entire 40 minutes. Picked to finish 8th in the Sun Belt, the Warhawks return just two of their six key contributors from last season and only one player who averaged above a rebound and a half.
This first grouping represents an opportunity for the Buffs to ease into the college basketball season and work out any rust from the long break. There is no result that would be acceptable other than walking into the Barclay Center to battle Notre Dame at 3-0.
Grouping 2: “The Measuring Stick”
Nov 21: Notre Dame
Nov 22: Texas/Northwestern
Tad Boyle has never been afraid to test his group in early season tournaments against formidable national powers, and this year is no different. Notre Dame plays in the premier conference in the college basketball landscape, and thus will not be intimidated walking into Barclays. Like the Buffs, Notre Dame is receiving attention in the national polls, but not quite enough to garner a preseason ranking. The Irish will have a new look this season, as Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste are no longer available. Returning double-digit scorers F VJ Beachem, G Steve Vasturia, and F Bonzie Colson are all more than capable of leading this group back to the NCAA Tournament and represent an experienced returning core.
On the other side of the bracket, Texas represents the preferred opponent. This makes beating Notre Dame all the more important. Not only would it add a quality neutral court victory over a probable NCAA Tournament team, it would also allow us gain valuable SOS points by potentially matching up with a Texas team ranked 23rd in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Longhorns are an extremely young team this year but they are packed with elite talent. Their incoming freshman class ranked 5th nationally on Scout and includes four players ranked among the top 100 prospects in the country. Among them are 5* prospects C Jarrett Allen and PG Andrew Jones. Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis look to build on promising freshmen years and will be asked to take on more of a leadership role this year in the absence of Isaiah Taylor, Connor Lammert, Javan Felix, and Cameron Ridley.
Northwestern is no slouch, despite being one of the few high major conference members to never earn their way to an NCAA Tournament berth. The Wildcats gave that ominous streak a scare last year, winning 20 games, but ultimately fell short of a selection into the Dance. G Bryant McIntosh is one of the premier guards in the Big Ten Conference and will undoubtedly provide our backcourt with a major test should we match up with them.
Grouping Three: “Stay Focused”
Nov 27: Wofford
Nov 30: Colorado State
Dec 3: @ Portland
This is probably the most underappreciated grouping in the entire schedule for me. These are the type of stretches that make the art of schedule making so intriguing. Decisions like these are what separate teams when it comes to having tournament-quality non-conference schedules versus those that end up with schedules detrimental to their tournament aspirations. None of these three programs jump off the page, but as a collective unit, they represent three solid, yet unspectacular opponents that provide the Buffs with reasonable opportunities to post wins. All three are likely to finish somewhere between 150th-200th in the RPI, a range that is extremely important in the non-conference. If you were to replace this stretch with another home stand against programs you’d find in the bottom tier of Division one basketball, the non-conference SOS figures would look far more suspect come March.
Wofford is a program we’ve seen in the NCAA Tournament in four of the past seven seasons, so they won’t be overwhelmed by the atmosphere in Coors. They were selected to finish third in the Southern Conference in preseason polls, but won’t be returning much experience in the front court this season. G Erik Garcia will get an opportunity to return home in this matchup, he’s a former Colorado prep player from Grandview HS in Aurora.
Colorado State is obviously a familiar foe for Buffs faithful, but they actually represent a bit of mystery for me this season. G Gian Clavell is a fantastic college player (but not a first round pick, sorry Eustachy), but beyond that, we haven’t seen much of the CSU roster on the court. They are riddled with JUCO prospects, which often times spells disaster, but if the mix comes out just right, it occasionally leads to special seasons. If I was forced to make a prediction, I’d say the Rams were coming into this season a bit underrated.
Going on the road to Portland is a squeamish game for any power conference program. This is one of those “lose-lose” situations that will make everyone sweat approaching the matchup. On the positive side, it allows Boyle to try and rack up a true road win against a decent opponent, but by no means is this matchup a guarantee. Similar to that San Francisco road game in 2010-11, these have a tendency to bite you in the ass in the eyes of the tournament committee if they don’t fall your way. Former NBA player Terry Porter is the Pilots’ new head coach and star G Alex Wintering, who has a chance to win WCC Player of the Year this season, will be gunning to bounce back after struggling against the Buffs in Boulder last season.
The Buffs would be wise to come out of this stretch with three wins, as a loss at Portland would not be a great bullet point in the eyes of the committee.
Grouping 4: “The Proving Grounds”
Dec 7: Xavier
Dec 10: @ BYU
Playtime is over when Xavier comes to town. Tabbed by many publications as a potential top five team in 2016-17, the Musketeers represent the crown jewel of our home schedule. Last year’s squad earned a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but fell to 7th seeded Wisconsin in the 2nd round. F Trevon Bluiett, G Edmond Sumner, and G Myles Davis, Xavier’s top three players, all return. Bluiett and Sumner will both garner All-American consideration this season.
BYU enters the season as a bit more of a question mark than in years past, but the talent level is high in Provo. Chase Fischer and Kyle Collingsworth are departed, but elite scorer G Nick Emery returns, as do quality big men C Corbin Kaufusi and F Kyle Davis. Additionally, there has a ton of buzz surrounding C Eric Mika, who is returning from a Mormon mission. Prior to his departure, he was one of the most prolific freshmen in the history of BYU’s program.
Finding a way to get a split out of this grouping would be a satisfying result for the Buffs. Neither of these losses would do much damage to the Buffs resume or RPI calculations, but losing both would be a missed opportunity to pocket an NCAA Tournament-quality non-conference win.
Grouping 5: “The Mixed Bag”
Dec 17: Fort Hayes State
Dec 19: @ Air Force
Dec 22: Eastern Washington
This is easily the most diverse grouping throughout the schedule; in fact, it probably isn’t truly a “grouping” at all. This eclectic mash up is a flawless way to close out the non-conference slate, let’s explain.
Fort Hayes is a Division 2 program, which you’d never like to see on the schedule, but in a tricky way, it’s preferable to scheduling a bottom-tier Division one team for one simple reason: the game doesn’t count for RPI calculations. What does this mean? Playing a horrible low-major program (especially at home) actually lowers your RPI, playing a lower division opponent does not count in the calculations, and therefore doesn’t hurt you. This game could be the last opportunity for some guys farther down the bench to get quality playing time.
Playing a true road game at Air Force is another well thought out way to try and steal free RPI points. The game would be considered a true road victory, but for anyone who has travelled to this game, you know a majority of the crowd will be rooting for the Buffs. Air Force was selected to finish amongst the back of the pack in the Mountain West this year; the Buffs can’t slip up here.
Eastern Washington is a program that many won’t recognize, but the Eagles have been making quite a bit of noise in the Big Sky in the past few years. They’ve won at least 16 games in each of the last three years, including a 26-win season in 2015. They are expected to fall off quite a bit this season with leading men Austin McBroom and Venky Jois no longer in town. F Felix Van Hofe and F Bogdan Bliznyuk return and will look to carry the Eagles back into postseason play.
Grouping 6: “The Alarm Clock”
Jan 1: @ Utah
Jan 5: @ Arizona State
Jan 7: @ Arizona
Jan 12: UCLA
Time to wake up, Pac-12 play is here, and the schedule makers didn’t do us any early favors. Before we get too far, I’m just going to make quick comments on the Pac-12 portion of the schedule because I will be breaking down the conference in full in a later portion of this preseason preview series.
Starting the season with three straight conference road contests is never an easy task. Utah and Arizona State are expected to take steps back this year, but the Buffs haven’t won at either place since 2011-2012. The Buffs won’t get Arizona in Coors Event Center this year so the matchup in McKale could loom large come Pac-12 Tournament time. UCLA has given the Buffs as much trouble as anyone in the conference, the Buffaloes are just 1-6 against them since joining the Pac-12.
Grouping 7: “The Steadying Hand”
Jan 15: USC
Jan 18: @ Washington
Jan 21: @ Washington State
Jan 26: Oregon State
This is a welcome reprieve from a conference slate without many days off. They Buffs won’t find any here, either, but they also won’t find a conference contender in this run. They need to take advantage of this wherever possible. At Washington represents the toughest challenge, Markelle Fultz could be the #1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, and the Buffs have really struggled there, winning just once since joining the league.
Grouping 8: “The War”
Jan 28: Oregon
Feb 2: @ Stanford
Feb 5: @ California
Feb 9: Washington
This grouping is a behemoth. Oregon is the clear-cut frontrunner in this league and a potential Final Four candidate. The Bay Area trip always represents a challenge, but Stanford is the only team mentioned here that isn’t expected to finish in the top half of the conference, that is a road game the Buffs need to circle.
Grouping 9: “The Stockpile”
Feb 12: Washington State
Feb 16: @ Oregon State
Feb 18: @ Oregon
Feb 23: Utah
Mar 2: Stanford
Mar 4: California
The closing stretch of the Pac-12 schedule represents a huge opportunity for Colorado to make a late run up the conference standings. Outside of the Oregon outlier, each of these games is entirely winnable. The Oregon State road game could have huge implications in Pac-12 Tournament seeding and may be the final piece to a puzzle that could show the Buffs earning a first round bye for the first time.