Key Returners: Everyone
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Maddox Daniels
Outlook: Excuse my laziness in the ‘Key Returners’ and ‘Key Losses’ sections above, but that’s Colorado’s season prognosis in a nutshell. The entire band is back and ready to rock after fine tuning some harmonious chemistry during an impressive stretch run to conclude the 2018-19 campaign. Per the chart below, courtesy of barttorvik.com, Colorado is one of only 8 teams in America returning 90% or more of last season’s minutes:
Head coach Tad Boyle typically used a 9-man rotation last season and everyone from that top-9 not named Shane Gatling or Lucas Siewert was either a freshman or a sophomore, so there’s sizable headroom for improvement in 2020.
Gatling and Siewart are reliable veteran supporting pieces at their respective positions – Gatling is a complementary ball handler and catch-and-shoot floor spacer at the 2-guard spot, while Siewart is a tricky matchup as a versatile 6’9 forward capable of playing inside and out.
D'Shawn Schwartz is a smooth lefty wing with unlimited upside who found his outside shooting stroke late in the year.
Dallas Walton is a forgotten member of the returning roster after being sidelined for all of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. The 7-footer from nearby Arvada started all but 5 games as a freshman and his 7% block rate graded out as the 4th highest clip in the Pac-12.
Tyler Bey and Evan Battey are a ferocious frontline duo who create a forcefield around the rim, shielding any opponent from getting their hands on a missed shot. I’m still workshopping an appropriate nickname for this tandem, but for now, I’ll sticking with my trademarked label of “Bunnies and Brawn” in reference to Bey’s kangaroo hops (‘Bunnies’) and Battey’s burly build (‘Brawn’).
In summation, this Buffs’ roster has plenty of bullets in the chamber, but only one man has the keys to unlock the potency of those weapons, McKinley Wright, the undisputed pulse of this Colorado squad.
After turning heads all across the Pac-12 as an under-the-radar freshman two years ago, Wright never quite made the leap many expected last season. Part of the issue was an untimely shoulder injury he suffered on January 12th against Washington. That said, there were still countless episodes of careless turnovers and head-scratching late game decision-making before that happened, so I refuse to give Wright a full pass. The fact that he chose to defer surgery until after the season and play through pain for almost the entire Pac-12 season - not to mention the the six games during the Pac-12 tournament and NIT run - sums up what a tough-minded warrior he really is. After the season concluded, Wright underwent successful shoulder surgery and all reports indicate he should be at full strength when the 2019-20 campaign rolls around.
I’d like to see Wright take strides in improving his shot-making off the dribble, which would prevent opposing defenders from sagging back in the lane and going under on ball screens. On nights where he lacks confidence in his jumper, he has a tendency to retreat into a passive gun shy shell and will actively look to pass off dribble penetration, instead of hunting the rim. For the Buffs to maintain sufficient offensive spacing, Wright must be a threat to score at all times, whether it be via step-in threes against soft ball screen coverage or floaters in the lane when he’s able to get by the first line of defense.
The expansion of Wright’s offensive arsenal is paramount for restoring balance to the Buffs’ offense, but Gatling and Schwartz could be primed for a big step forward as well. Both are good, not great shooters, but Gatling is the one I’m betting on to be the difference maker. Collectively, the Buffs’ backcourt needs to chip in offensively on a consistent basis to keep opposing defenses from collapsing on Battey in the post and sending multiple bodies at Bey on the boards.
As straightforward as it sounds, there’s something to be said for being able to consistently hold serve at home, particularly in a Power-6 caliber league where you’re guaranteed to have one or more top-25 teams come to your building - though, that has not been the case in recent years. This season, Oregon and Washington are both slated to take the Rocky Mountain trip and could qualify as Quadrant 1 wins if everything breaks right.
Just refer back to the 2015-16 CU squad (8-seed at-large selection) who lost 10 games overall, but just once at home, notching home run wins against Oregon, Cal and Arizona at the Coors Events Center. The Buffs regained this same mojo at home last season, and were a wrecking ball in front of their home fans, losing just twice in Boulder all year. But don’t take my anecdotal word for it - just ask the oddsmakers, who valued Colorado’s home court advantage at approximately 5 points, one of the largest in college basketball last season (see third row in graphic below):
Bottom Line: It’s been three years since the Buffs went dancing, but this year’s roster has all the ingredients to snap that draught in 2020. With the Pac-12 set to finally trend upwards, there should be a lot more opportunities in-conference to notch marquee, resume boosting wins throughout Pac-12 play. This sets up nicely for the Buffs, who are blessed with one of the few unparalleled advantages in all of college basketball - that is, a home court venue that sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. With a robust roster back in tact and an enviable home court edge to lean on, I’d expect Colorado to be in the bubble conversation as Selection Sunday approaches next March.