Generally, finishing in eight place in your conference, four games under .500, is not considered a good year at all. But when it comes following a 1-15 conference record and three straight last place finishes, you’re definitely making progress. Enough progress, apparently, for the head coach to parlay that improvement into a new head coaching job in the ACC, which is exactly what Jeff Bzdelik did, heading out to Wake Forest following the season. After leading scorers Cory Higgins and Alec Burks expressed some initial anger over Bzdelik’s departure, they worked on campaigning for associate head coach Steve McClain to get the job, even hinting that Burks, after a very successful freshman season might decide to transfer if McClain were not named the head man. Well, in the end, Mike Bohn, the CU athletic director, plucked Tad Boyle from Northern Colorado to take over the program, with McClain landing in Indiana as an assistant. Boyle built up the Northern Colorado program from one of the worst in the nation to a 25-8 record last season in just four years, and got off to a pretty strong start in Boulder, convincing Burks and others to stick around, with only little-used freshman Keegan Hornbuckle deciding to transfer out of the program.

What remains is the most talented Buffalo team in some time, headlined by Higgins and Burks, who averaged 19 and 17 points per game, respectively, last season. With Boyle generally regarded as running a more up-tempo offense than Bzdelik (although Bzdelik’s reputation as a slow-it-down coach is more than a little exaggerated), and with an additional year under their belt, expect their offensive success to continue. The problem for the Buffaloes in 2009-10, however, was their inability to guard anybody, ranking in the bottom half of Division I in defensive efficiency. They didn’t rebound well, they didn’t defend the post well, and even though the forced a good amount of turnovers and got some steals, those often came with defenders overreaching for the ball, a tendency that led to Colorado trading a handful of easy hoops scored as a result of the turnovers for even more easy hoops given up by the out-of-position defender. And then there’s the fact that outside of Higgins, Burks and senior Marcus Relphorde, there just isn’t a ton of athleticism here.

To start with the good, the group of Higgins, Burks and Relphorde is a pretty strong trio of wings. The bad part here is that they’re all basically the same position with similar skillsets. Higgins and Burks both convert their offensive opportunities at a high rate, even as the focus of opposing defense, both shooting over 50% from the field last season. Relphorde isn’t quite the shooter that the other two are, but is an effective slasher and can knock down a three, and is generally a pretty strong third-option. The problem is, there is a big drop-off in talent after those three.

Nate Tomlinson got 21 starts at the point for Colorado last season, and while he is a nice little player who can distribute and take care of the ball and shoot the lights out from deep, he is more suited towards being a role player rather than a starter at a BCS school. Likewise, Austin Dufault, who got 26 starts up front for the Buffs, is a nice player, but doesn’t rebound particularly well for a four-man (let alone the center position that he was forced into often) isn’t strong enough to body up to power frontcourt players and isn’t quick enough to handle more athletic forwards. Unfortunately, they’ll probably both have to start again, putting what amounts to a four-guard lineup (with Tomlinson, Burks, Higgins and Relphorde) with the overmatched Dufault manning the middle.

There are some other options up front for Boyle. Incoming freshman Andre Roberson is a bit undersized to play the power forward on most teams, but with this team being thin and underathletic up front, the bouncy Roberson could get some early minutes. Roberson needs to add strength, but he is long, athletic and skilled, with some ballhandling skills and a perimeter game that could mesh well with the rest of the squad. Also in the two-man recruiting class is seven-footer Ben Mills, a solidly skilled big guy who, while not a great athlete, can at least bring some good size to the Colorado frontline. There are also a couple of returning bigs in 6’9 junior Trey Eckloff and 6’10 sophomore Shane Harris-Tunks. Harris-Tunks, a big Aussie, is the brightest prospect of the two. He is big and physical and rebounds the ball well, but was just a mess offensively as a freshman, turning the ball over at an alarming rate, although he did show some flashes of some coherent post moves. Eckloff, on the other hand, is more of a perimeter big guy, possessing a nice looking jumper but missing the strength and tenacity to compete inside. Any contributions Boyle gets from him will be bonus.

Depth on the perimeter will generally fall to 6’4 senior shooter Levi Knutson or 6’0 redshirt freshman Shannon Sharpe. Knutson is another guy who is probably below-average athletically, but makes up for it a bit with his accurate shooting. He’ll never be more than a role player here, but he could make some big shots for the Buffs. Sharpe redshirted last season following microfracture surgery, but before the injury he was regarded as the most explosive athlete the Buffaloes had signed in many years. If he is able to get back to full strength, Sharpe could add a bit of energy of the type this team has lacked, and he may just force his way onto the court, even in a crowded backcourt.

The Buffaloes are certainly headed in the right direction, with their days as basement dwellers in the Big 12 done (and not just because they aren’t going to be in the Big 12 after this season). They’ll need to adjust to their new head coach, and it may take a few games, but they should have the kinks worked out by the time conference play rolls around. Unfortunately, while they may be a better team than they were in 09-10, it is hard to see where they are going to make up much ground on their conference in 10-11, with the top half of the Big 12 (think Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, even Oklahoma State) looking pretty impenetrable. But with a little luck and some quick adaptations, they could at least remain in the NCAA at-large picture late into the season. At the very least, this will be a fun team to watch.

 


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