BOULDER — This is the time of year when college basketball teams have yet to play a game — but are already looking ahead to March.

Every program has an eye on an NCAA Tournament appearance. For some it’s a dream, for some an expectation and for some a virtual guarantee.

 As Colorado head coach Tad Boyle said at CU Media Day on Tuesday,  “Some teams are playing for NCAA Tournament berths and some teams are playing for seeds. And we’d like to be a team that’s playing for a seed right now.”

Boyle, entering his 14th season in Boulder, has made this era of CU men’s basketball the most successful in program history. The Buffs have made five NCAA Tournament appearances under his direction (with a sixth knocked out by the Covid pandemic), posted nine 20-plus win seasons and he is now the program’s all-time winningest coach, with a 272-172 record.

But truth be told, the Buffs aren’t quite at that point where they open a season playing for an NCAA Tournament seed.

“We’re a team that’s playing for a berth, as most teams are because it’s not given,” Boyle said. “But I think as the season goes, each game becomes a little bit more important. One of the things our veterans learned from last year is we had some opportunities that we let slip away. Then we were fighting and scratching and clawing for an NCAA tournament berth that didn’t come. We can’t let that happen this year.”

Indeed, the process of securing a March Madness berth begins in November. Those non-conference games in November and December that don’t seem to hold much significance are actually critical when it comes to the selection process in March.

And last year, the Buffs let too many of those games slip away early. Losses to Grambling State, UMass and Boise State in November negated Colorado wins over nationally ranked Tennessee and Texas A&M. The Buffs put themselves in a hole early — then didn’t help themselves with early conference losses at home to Arizona State and on the road at Cal.

Throw in back-to-back home losses to USC and UCLA late in the season and the numbers added up to only an NIT bid.

But now, with a roster that might be as deep and talented as any Boyle has had in his 14 years in Boulder, the expectation isn’t just to get to the NCAA Tournament.

“Obviously, for this program to take the next step we have to advance past the first weekend,” he said. “Is that an expectation? Absolutely it is … (But) to be thinking about how far we’re going to go, let’s just get there first and then and see where we’re at. But certainly my expectation is I want to see this program get to the second or even the third weekend of March. Then we can have a lot of fun.”

The Buffs appear to have a roster that could make some postseason noise. CU has two preseason All-Pac-12 players in Tristan da Silva and KJ Simpson, an incoming five-star recruit in Cody Williams, and a host of other quality returnees and new faces.

Among the other returnees are guards Luke O’Brien, J’Vonne Hadley and Julian Hammond III, all of whom had significant impacts last season. CU also expects redshirt freshman Joe Hurlburt (6-11, 232 pounds) to provide a presence inside and redshirt freshman guard RJ Smith could also see some time.

As for the new faces, CU is counting on a major contribution from TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin Jr., a 6-11, 263-pound big man who will give the Buffs an immediate presence in the post.

Meanwhile, incoming freshmen Assane Diop (6-10, 200), Bangot Dak (6-9, 180) and Courtney Anderson, Jr. (6-5, 180) should give the Buffs some instant depth and additional length.

“My expectations are that we’re better in December than we were in November,” Boyle said. ” We’re better in January … I think if you’re playing your best basketball in March, you have a chance to play in the postseason. And again, if we take care of the opportunities in November, December on our schedule that we should take care of we’ll put ourselves in a position to be a NCAA tournament team. And our expectations are not going to change. The standards that we have for ourselves internally are not going to change.”

Colorado’s offensive firepower shouldn’t be lacking. Da Silva led CU in scoring last season with 16.0 points per game and Simpson was right behind at 15.9. Williams should provide some immediate scoring, O’Brien showed his potential in that area down the stretch last season and some of the other newcomers should also be ready to contribute right away.

But if the Buffs are going to meet those internal expectations, there are two areas they must improve from a year ago: turnovers and shooting percentage.

Colorado finished ninth in the Pac-12 last year in turnovers, averaging 13.2 per game. CU also shot just 43.4 percent from the floor, including 32.2 percent from 3-point range — both among the lowest percentages of any Boyle team in his tenure.

“I think we’ve addressed both those things in terms of our offseason improvement,” Boyle said. “Now we just have to commit to taking care of the ball and making sure we’re getting great shots and I think we got some guys who can make shots.”

But the one area that will continue to be a top priority is defense. Boyle’s teams have always hung their hat on the ability to stop opponents and this year’s bunch won’t be any different.

“We’re very capable and they are willing,” Boyle said. “I think our leadership, they understand … Then I look at our young guys. I say this about Cody all the time when people ask about his game — he’s not just a capable defender, he’s a willing defender, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys like that. I like the defensive potential for this team.”

OUT WITH  BANG? Boyle noted that in CU’s first year in the Pac-12, the Buffs ran the table in the conference tournament with four straight wins to take the tourney title and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Now, the Buffs will be playing in their final season in the Pac-12 before heading to the Big 12 next season.

“We want to compete for a Pac-12 championship,” Boyle said. “We won one our first year in the league. This is our last year in the league. I mean, it’s only fitting we go out with one but we gotta go make that happen. It’s not gonna be given to us. But that’s my expectation, to compete for a championship and get to the NCAA Tournament and then advance and have some fun.”

BUILDING THROUGH RECRUITING: While the lure of the transfer portal and immediate gratification has hit plenty of collegiate programs, Boyle said his preference is still to recruit outstanding prep players and build from there.

“I said this 14 years ago when I got the job, we want to build this program the right way and for sustained success,” Boyle said. “I know it’s a different world out there today with all the things going on, but I still believe in recruiting really good high school players, developing them, watching them grow and and trying to stay out the transfer portal as much as we can. … Obviously we had to go get Eddie because of what happened at the end of last year. If you have to do it, you have to do it. But I’d like to stay with high school kids if we can.”


Story by Neill Woelk, Contributing Editor for Content courtesy of the University of Colorado at Boulder.