Bad season a good sign for the Buffs

A No. 10 seed in tomorrow’s Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament isn’t exactly what Tad Boyle had in mind when the 2014-15 NCAA basketball season began. Neither was a 14-16 overall record or 7-11 within the conference.

It wasn’t supposed to be this kind of year. The Buffs, an NCAA Tournament team and a semifinalist in the Pac-12 tourney just a year ago, were only losing one key player, Spencer Dinwiddie, to the NBA. And to be fair, Dinwiddie went out in early January anyway. Without him, Boyle’s Buffs still managed to finish out the year respectably at 9-9 and get into the Big Dance. For all intents and purposes, the Buffs were (mostly) all back – older, smarter, better.

But that’s not how it went down.

After an embarrassing, 82-54 loss to Arizona in Boulder, Boyle let it be known how disappointed he was with the season and with his team.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Boyle told the media after the game. “It’s February 26th and we’re not executing offensively. We’re not doing the things we’re supposed to do, we’re not making plays and we haven’t gotten any better.

“If you look at the teams that I’ve had here as a head coach, I feel that each team, outside of my first year, had progress and got better throughout the year. I don’t feel like that with this team. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten any better. We’re still making the same mistakes that we did in November and we’re not any better, offensively or defensively.”

And then he questioned his team’s heart.

“There has to be some fight in the locker room and right now there isn’t,” he lamented. “It’s like a submissive, beat-us-now-while-you-can kind of mentality. That’s embarrassing. These guys are young men and they haven’t been through what they’re going through before. They’re finding out a cruel life lesson – life isn’t going to give you anything. Division one athletics teaches you that it’s a very humbling and unforgiving arena. If you want to step into that arena you had better be willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win, and we aren’t willing to do that.”

Boyle’s assessment of the Buffs situation in an article that appeared on the next day: “Rock bottom.”

With all due respect to Boyle, and at the risk of being argumentative, they’re not even close. College hoops fans in Colorado know what rock bottom looks like, and this isn’t it.

Rock bottom is when no team in the area even sniffs the NIT, a situation that was the norm for the better part of the 1990s and early 2000s. Rock Bottom is failing to win a conference road for years at a time, something that was once reality any time the Buffs left Boulder.

While finishing with a sub-.500 record and out of the conversation for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament was never the plan in Boulder, “this” is where most programs wants to be – where the coach goes off Bobby Knight style when he detects underachievement or lack of toughness; where 11-5 is the worst home record the program has “suffered” in six seasons; where bumps in the road occur primarily because top talent leaves for the NBA; where postseason play is expected instead of greeted as a pleasant surprise.

For three out of the last four seasons, Boyle has sent four players to the NBA (Alec Burks and Cory Higgins in 2011, Andre Roberson in 2013 and Spencer Dinwiddie in 2014). To begin the 2012-13 NBA season, for the first time ever, four former CU basketball players were on opening day NBA rosters (Chauncey Billups, Burks, Higgins and Chris Copeland). To begin the 2013-14 season, the same claim could be made; out went Higgins, in went Roberson. This fall, the same thing could said, as Billups retired, but Dinwiddie was drafted by the Pistons. Many speculated that junior Josh Scott would be departing for the Association after this season, though it appears unlikely now considering Scott’s injury-plagued year.

That’s a lot of attrition for any program to endure. Boyle has been busy winning, but also recruiting and developing top-flight talent – it’s the double-edged sword that is college basketball. Colorado’s basketball program is in the midst of building tradition, and with tradition comes the kind of depth that’s enjoyed by programs like Kentucky and North Carolina. That’s not there in Boulder yet – it doesn’t happen overnight – but seeing three CU players (all underclassmen) in four years stolen by the NBA Draft was previously unthinkable. Boyle’s team hasn’t had great success this season, but reality suggests that his “program” has prospered beyond college hoops.

Tomorrow, Boyle’s team will square off against Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. They’re only shot at an NCAA berth is winning the conference tournament. Anything is possible, but it’s certainly an unlikely scenario considering the season that’s been. Missing the Big Dance won’t be fun in Boulder, but the fact that legitimate disappoint exists is nothing but a good sign.

Five years ago, the question would have been: Can you believe the Buffs made the Big Dance? Today, the question is different: Can you believe they didn’t?

That’s exactly where a program wants to be.