Tad Boyle is reticent to acknowledge Colorado is quickly becoming a basketball school. But it is.
“We’re shooting to have a top-25 program and the whole key for us is not only to build that, but to sustain that,” Boyle recently noted. “We’re not there yet, but if you look at the young players we have in our program and the young players who are coming into our program, there’s a lot of reason for excitement.”
The fervor is staring to build after last season’s shocking run through the Pac-12 Tournament, a four-game stretch that earned CU an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The title not only forced the country take notice, but it built a foundation of things to come.
“Colorado is seen as an up-and-comer on the national scene, especially with the way they ended last season,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said about the Buffs. “That was an important first step to national relevance. Then, going into the NCAA Tournament and performing well was really important. This provided (CU) with really needed momentum in building a program at a quicker pace.”
Boyle is quickly, but not quietly, building an impressive basketball program. He engineered a top-25 recruiting class in just his second full season on the job by staying patient and outhustling some of the top programs in the country.
Six-foot-10 power forward Josh Scott from Monument (Colo.) is considered the gem of the incoming freshman class. He was already getting recruiting letters during his sophomore season, but foot surgery gave other schools pause and they wanted to monitor his situation.
“I know there are a bunch of schools that wished they would have jumped on me after my foot surgery, but CU was right there through the whole thing,” Scott told the Denver Post in 2011. “They offered me sophomore year and stayed with me. When I made my decision, I knew I wasn’t going to switch it. I’m a loyal person, just like they were loyal to me.”
Once healthy, Scott dominated his final two years at Lewis-Palmer High School and burst onto the national scene in AAU ball, where he was named the most valuable player in Kansas City. Suddenly, Scott was a hot prospect with unwavering loyalty to Boyle.
Scott has been followed to Boulder by another top-100 recruit, Xavier Johnson, along with four other terrific freshmen to give Colorado the country’s 21st-ranked incoming class. Boyle has been uncharacteristically effusive about Scott and Johnson, calling them better than advertised.
“High school recruits are buying in,” Bilas added. “He’s in with a lot more players than most people would think that Colorado would be in on two or three years ago. And that’s where it should give you a reason to believe in this program.”
The 2013 class is promising, as well, prompting ESPN’s Reggie Rankin to write, “The Buffs are adding quality pieces to help them be a major player in the Pac-12 in the near future.”
But the future is now, even though the season is barely underway. After losing four seniors, Boyle was concerned how quickly his six freshmen would gel with Andre Roberson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and the rest of the team. So Boyle took his team to Europe this summer and it’s paid immediate dividends.
“It looked like they were having a little bit of difficulty gelling in their practices before they left for Europe, but over the course of that trip, they came together and it did wonders for them in terms of them growing together against higher level competition,” Adam Munsterteiger from Rivals.com said. “I think this trip could be the difference between them being an NIT team to an NCAA team. I think an NCAA Tournament berth is a realistic expectation for this team.”
Boyle is cautiously optimistic. And he’s tempering his enthusiasm with boosters and his players. He feels the excitement, but refuses buy into the hype. You’ll never hear him talk about making the NCAA Tournament or cracking the top 25. He chooses his words carefully to avoid setting expectations, but is keenly focused on where he wants to take this program.
“I want Colorado to be viewed as a perennial top-25 basketball program year in a year out,” said Boyle. “And that’s going to take time to do that. We haven’t cracked the top 25 since we’ve been here and we’ve had two pretty good doggone teams, so that’s the goal. A lot of people never believed Colorado could be great in basketball and I beg to differ.”
Colorado is on the upswing and it starts with Boyle.
“I’m a big believer in Tad Boyle,” Bilas continued. “He’s uncompromising in his beliefs on how to do this and how to do it right. But at the same time, he’s easy to play for because there’s no ambiguity. He is not only a terrific teacher of the game with great basketball knowledge, he keeps it simple and gives his players an understanding of what you need to do to win, but a firm understanding of how teams lose, too. Former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun had that same quality. Boyle is a really good fit at the right time for Colorado and I believe he’s the type of guy who will be there for a while.”
Staying for a while has many concerned. Boyle was a hot commodity following the Pac-12 Tournament title and an opening round win in the NCAA tourney. Nebraska and Kansas State wanted Boyle. But he’s still in Boulder. Yet some wonder what will happen when some of the traditional powerhouses show interest.
“I want to do something special here at Colorado. I don’t have any interest in other jobs. I would love it if CU were my last job,” Boyle told me last spring. “If I’m looking for the next best gig while recruiting, then I’m a hypocrite. I’m not a used car salesman.”
That he’s not, especially when it comes to cashing in on the next big payday. Boyle is well compensated with his re-worked contract last year. Colorado is committed to him personally and financially. And that loyalty has paid dividends with a pair of consecutive 20-win seasons.
Getting to know Boyle is to understand he’s not looking over your shoulder for the bigger and better deal. The Greeley native is grounded, hardworking, honest and considered by many as one of the most promising up-and-coming coaches in the country.
“Tad Boyle is obviously a great coach because you look at his first two teams at Colorado and his teams have gotten gradually better throughout the season,” Munsterteiger added. “I think that’s a pretty good indicator that you have a pretty good coach.”
Boyle is building a program without the luxury of tradition. He’s starting something like Calhoun did at the University of Connecticut. And his peers are taking notice.
“I want to say the job that Tad Boyle has done at Colorado, and what Colorado represents to the future of the Pac-12, I can make the argument that there’s been no greater gift to college basketball in the Pac-12 than adding Colorado,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller following the conference tournament title game a year ago.
Miller better be careful what he asks for.
Arizona and UCLA are considered the frontrunners this season in the Pac-12, but Colorado is lurking. Many believe the Buffs will struggle because they lost four seniors, but don’t underestimate the undersized Roberson, who many believe is a first-round pick in next year’s draft, and how much the veterans bonded and meshed with this talented freshman class on their European vacation.
“There’s no question Colorado has talent; this is a more talented basketball team from top to bottom than the one they had last year,” said Munsterteiger.
And Scott, who Bilas believes is one of the top seven freshmen in the country, is a big reason for that.
“Josh Scott has been everything we thought he’d be and probably more,” said Boyle. “We knew he was talented, but until you’ve seen him go up against guys who are bigger, stronger and older than him, you don’t know how he’s going to react. Over that five game stretch in Europe, when a kid averages 17 points and seven rebounds per game, that doesn’t happen by accident.”
The upgrade in talent coupled with a coach who has done a brilliant job of getting the most out of his talent is an encouraging blueprint moving forward.
Colorado basketball fans are starting to experience something rarely seen in Boulder – a sold out arena. You can make the case that traffic was worse for last year’s home game against Oregon than for any football game in recent memory.
Apathy has permeated Colorado basketball so deeply during the years that there were normally no more than a handful of policemen needed to direct traffic. If Boyle’s Buffs continue to show improvement, it’ll be all hands on deck.
“You see the enthusiasm in the game-day atmosphere and excitement around the program on how much it’s changed within the last three years,” Munsterteiger continued. “I don’t know if it’s reached throughout the state, but definitely around Boulder, it’s changed quite a bit.”
And it’s going to continue to change. Boyle isn’t building a team. He’s constructing a program that’s built to last.
Each of his teams has gotten better as the season has progressed. His first year ended with a trip to the NIT semifinals. And then, his team peaked in the Pac-12 Tournament to earn a trip to the big dance.
All fans can asked is yearly improvement from a new coach. And with Boyle, they’ve got it in spades.
“They did a really good job last year and I believe they’ll do better this year,” said Bilas. “They have some really good pieces and they’ll continue to build. But it doesn’t matter what we believe; it matters what they prove.”
Proving it begins on Nov. 9 against Wofford College. The Charleston Classic looks to be a challenge, as well as a trip to Lawrence, Kansas. Once again, the Pac-12 is in for another down year, so this could translate for another up season for the Buffs. There’s no reason to believe the Buffs shouldn’t consistently be a top-four team in the conference moving forward.
Roundballdaily.com took it a step further. “Anything less than a return to the dance and a shot at the Sweet 16 would be a disappointment for this group.”
Boyle won’t publically agree, but you know he’s thinking it. Expectations are good when they’re realistic. It’s realistic to believe this program is heading in the right direction under Boyle. Not bad for a football school that’ll soon be seen as a basketball school.