It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Colorado.
Last fall, Tad Boyle settled into his seat at the dais of Pac-12 media day and predicted success for a Colorado Buffaloes squad that finished 16-18 the previous season.
“Now everybody’s forgotten about us so I just want to go out and play and see what we can do and see what kind of damage we can do in this league this year,” Boyle said at the event in San Francisco. “Because this is going to be a much-improved league, I think a more balanced league, a deeper league. But I expect Colorado to be right in the mix of it.”
Part of his opening statement made sense.
Most of the Pac-12 coaches who’d gathered that day had assembled sturdy rosters. Arizona added Allonzo Trier and a strong recruiting class. Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown seemed capable of carrying California deep into the NCAA tournament. Oregon returned an athletic, talented group. USC's Andy Enfield finally had the roster to compete in the conference, it seemed. Steve Alford’s UCLA, always an enigma, had potential, too. But Colorado? A team that lost Xavier Johnson to an Achilles injury prior to the season? A squad that failed to register in the top 100 of KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency ratings?
Boyle wasn’t far off, though. Colorado finished fifth in a conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament. The Buffs lost to Connecticut in the opening round but made grand strides on the defensive end (33rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com).
Still, Colorado will enter 2016-17 as a mysterious bunch -- too intriguing to dismiss and too incomplete to elevate into the Pac-12 contention conversation.
So Boyle might repeat the same opening statement at this season’s Pac-12 media day, where most questions will involve his team’s 6-foot-10, 245-pound hole in the paint. Josh Scott led the program with 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game last season. With Scott in the middle, Colorado led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding rate and opponents’ offensive rebounding rate during conference play.
That’s the most significant element of Colorado’s next phase. What will the Buffs do without Scott? Plus, Tre'Shaun Fletcher, a key reserve, (7.1 ppg), transferred to Toledo.
But this is still a promising unit.
In all, four of the top five scorers from last season return. That doesn’t include Johnson (10.3 ppg, 37 percent from the 3-point line in 2014-15), who will return for a fifth year after missing last season due to injury. Bryce Peters, a four-star shooting guard, should also help early in his career.
George King (13.6 ppg, 46 percent from the 3-point line), who scored 22 points against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, could emerge as the new star for the Buffs. Josh Fortune connected on 37 percent of his 3-pointers last season. If his ballhandling improves (23 percent turnover rate per KenPom.com), he’ll turn the corner, too. And Dominique Collier (44 percent from the 3-point line) is back.
But Wesley Gordon will soon begin the most important summer of any player on the roster. Colorado needs the 6-9, 240-pound big man to stay active and aggressive in the post. He averaged 7.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG and 2.0 BPG last season. Boyle will ask him for even more in 2016-17.
We know Colorado will rely on its depth. It has bodies.
Yet it’s still not clear how they’ll thrive without Scott, their most reliable performer. The Buffaloes dominated the offensive glass in league play with him on the roster. They always had someone who could get buckets in a tough scenario. With Scott, however, Colorado still lost seven of nine Pac-12 road games and finished 125th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
The league will stay tough in 2016-17. Rabb is back for Cal, but Jordan Mathews transferred. Arizona returns Trier and adds another tough recruiting class. Oregon looks like a national title contender. Alford signed another excellent freshman crew.
It will not be easy to find a slot in the top tier, but Colorado is in that pool of Pac-12 teams that seems capable of finishing anywhere from third to ninth. Where exactly remains a mystery -- a mystery that Colorado cannot address until it just goes out and plays.